Talking Dugs Article: The Jacarezinho Massacre and Lethal Drug Policy Enforcement in Brazil

It’s a Rio de Janeiro classic. Officers of the civil, military or army police make an incursion into a favela. They arrive in armoured vehicles, carrying assault rifles. Soon they issue a statement justifying their actions as necessary to stamp out illegal drug suppliers who “dominate” the area. They say that in order to tackle organised crime, you sometimes need to produce corpses and orphans in the process. It’s a drug war, and there are always casualties in war.

One day before the May 6 Jacarezinho Massacre, President Jair Bolsonaro met with Rio de Janeiro’s governor, Cláudio Castro, at the Palácio das Laranjeiras. I wonder if they talked about the operation that would become the deadliest in the long history of police violence in the Wonderful City.

In June 2020, the Brazilian Supreme Court had prohibited police raids in Rio’s favelas—due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the next month, under the reduction in police incursions, the number of people fatally shot in favelas dropped 70 percent. Then police forces started ignoring the ruling.

The Jacarezinho Massacre exposed the current government’s necropolitics. Heavily-armed police officers entered a poor community and murdered at least 28 men in 10 different areas of the neighborhood. The vice president of the republic then dismissed the dead as “all thugs.” Bolsonaro called the victims “drug traffickers who steal, kill and destroy families,” and congratulated the police officers for a successful operation. Conservative media rushed to disclose the victims’ aliases and criminal records so that the public could shrug off the incident. The police surely had both the license and the duty to put these criminals down.

This disregard for life, human rights and the rule of law is legitimised through Bolsonaro’s antagonistic relationship with the Supreme Federal Court.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office of Rio de Janeiro, which usually fails to act in cases of police brutality, created a task force to investigate the massacre—but only after substantial pressure from human rights groups and the public opinion.

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