It is about 3 months into the Pacifying Police Unit’s (UPP) offensive against local residents in Samba Square under the command of Major Leonardo Zuma, the commander of the UPP Nova Brasilia. In an illegal military police initiative, the UPP broke into dozens of homes in Samba Square to use their locations as “temporary” military bases and points of attack against civilians- effectively turning their residences into targets and terrorizing the families within.
There is a mounting collection of photos, videos and audio with corresponding metadata, collected primarily by residents using mobile phones, who are making evident the illegality of recent police invasions and bringing to light the motivation behind these lethal initiatives.
Coletivo Papo Reto, an activist organization leading the investigations into human rights violations in Complexo de Alemão, is preparing an in-depth report investigating the impact and catalogue of video and photo evidence of these invasions. In addition, this report will be integrating the gathered evidence of complaints forwarded to prosecutors by the Human Rights Agency of Public Defenders (NUDEH) which will be presented at a public hearing. The public hearing (more info below) took place April 24th at 2:00 PM at the Public Defender’s Auditorium in Rio de Janeiro. NUDEH are joined by other state agencies from the departments of culture, education, and public security in addition to human rights defenders Coletivo Papo Reto, MEU Rio, Amnesty International, and Raizes Em Movimento.
These complaints also come through the public defender’s office via apps like Defezap, which allows residents to use WhatsApp to submit a complaint and start a confidential case report on violations committed by police officers and other public agents.
Victor Ribeiro, WITNESS’ Brazil Consultant writes (translated from original in Portuguese): Samba Square did not get its name by accident. This lively neighborhood in Complexo de Alemão is known for holding birthday parties, pagodas, neighborhood meetings, and having chairs out on the street simply for socializing. “It was just peaceful, and the police ended our peace” says Luiz* soon after singing a samba denouncing the hardships faced by favela residents. A few weeks ago, local organizations guided human rights organizations, public defenders and members of civil society through the locations of the raids, an event documented by both national and international journalists. They achieved their goal; the accusations of illegal raids against the UPP were published by various media outlets, and Major Zuma, as the commander responsible for the invasions, has been called on by prosecutors to answer for it.
The Major claims that the houses were occupied in order to support the building of a military police checkpoint in the region, and claimed that the houses were abandoned. However several videos shared on social networks, including one recorded by the Public Defender’s Office of Rio de Janeiro (PPRT), show that what the police considered “empty houses” are just slabs of stone, usually an unfinished or top floor of a house, and the other floors of the houses are indeed occupied and used as permanent dwellings by residents. These homes host up to 13 people in a single dwelling, including a large number of children and the elderly.
Reports and interviews with local residents include examples like finding dozens of bottles filled with urine and bags with feces left by police and using a resident’s refrigerator as a barricade from behind which the police can shoot. In one residence, a spiral staircase defies physics by remaining standing, despite being riddled with hundreds of bullet holes of all calibers. Its resident sits in front of his home, and in a rare moment of tranquility in the neighborhood says “What can I do? I need to use the stairs.”
After entering some houses, documenting bullet marks and listening to several horror stories of times when residents spent hours in “protective mode”, laying on the ground, it is quite evident who the main victims are in this “war on drugs”. In one case, an 8 year-old boy was watching television while talking with his family.
He looked at me and said, “When there is a lot of shooting, we just lay there”. Pointing at the space between the bed and the wall of the room he adds: “Sometimes I put the pillow on my head too”.
In the course of the highly publicized complaints against the UPP, Raul Santiago- a member of the Coletivo Papo Reto, an activist organization leading the investigations into human rights violations in Complexo de Alemão, has come under targeted attacks online. Immediately following the publication of the raids, a number of fake profiles of Raul and his partner surfaced on Facebook putting them and their families at risk in the favela – highlighting the concerted efforts to shore up public distrust of a man simply because is fighting for the rights of the residents in the favela.
The Ombudsman investigating the case demanded that the UPP leave the property but affirmed the need for military police presence and has left out any proposal for compensation to cover the damages caused by the invasions.
*names changed to protect the identity of interviewees
To view the recorded broadcast which took place live at April 24th’s public hearing, visit this link. Audio is in Portuguese with partner-sourced translations and context below the video screen.