According to the Public Safety Institute of Rio de Janeiro, between January and June of this year, 881 people were killed in police operations, 112 more than in the same period of 2018.
Eliana Sousa Silva gave a damning account of how Brazilian police constantly abuse the inhabitants of Mare, a cluster of 16 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, while she has faced multiple threats with her work and constantly fears for her life.
In Brazil, “being a defender of human rights, being an activist in that field is very hard,” the 57-year-old campaigner told EFE.
For many years, the Mare district has been scourged by police abuse, drug trafficking and insecurity.
The recurring police operations there have intensified this year under the new governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Wilson Witzel, a former judge and naval officer who has essentially given the cops a blank check.
Witzel has shown no qualms about ordering police to shoot at anyone they see bearing arms, nor about opening fire from helicopters, attacks that he himself has sometimes led and for which he has given tacit approval to police officers so they may abuse their authority at will.
Through Networks of Mare, which she founded, Silva has publicly denounced such abuses, which so far this year have left five children the victims of stray bullets and has increased mortality in the most poverty-stricken communities.
A judicial appeal was lodged by the activist in 2017 together with the Rio Ombudsman’s Office, and managed to reduce mortality in Mare in 2018, but this year Witzel has ignored that ruling and tried to have it suspended, sparking another surge of police-related killings.
“Since June, when this process began, I have been directly threatened, as well as the Networks of Mare, institutionally,” Silva told EFE.
Children are constantly threatened because those operations are carried out at the time they go to their classrooms or get out of school. Healthcare facilities are usually paralyzed when such police raids are being rolled out in Mare, according to rights groups.
They especially condemned the use of helicopters to shoot indiscriminately at the population, as if they considered everybody a criminal without distinction – according to the activist – instead of simply accompanying cops on foot patrol, which is their legal function.
“If you think that almost 140,000 people live in 4.5 square kilometers, you can imagine that certain points of that area are overpopulated,” Silva said.
During her long career in Mare, Silva has been the target of numerous death threats, but this time she feels that “this is getting worse.”
“Today we face a threat whose dimension is unknown, but we have seen some very concrete evidence like the assassination of Marielle, a murder that went beyond all limits,” she said.
Marielle Franco, the openly lesbian Afro-Brazilian Rio city councilor who was brutally riddled with bullets in the downtown area of the city in March 2018, was also a daughter of Mare who defended the poorest people and also reported cases of police abuse.