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"A good criminal is a dead criminal": Rio's civil war

"A good criminal is a dead criminal." That’s the meaning of the Portuguese words “um bandido bom é um bandido morto” on the lips of people from one end of Brazil to the other. But it’s not often it’s caught on camera, City of God style, where police officers shoot criminals dead, expediting the court process and laying down a death penalty not allowed in the country’s constitution.

Machine gun fire between police officers and drug traffickers outside a high school in Morro da Pedreira, an area of favelas in Rio de Janeiro’s poor north zone far from the beaches nicknamed Baghdad, had left a pair of 'bandidos' on the ground seriously wounded the Thursday before last.

That’s where the phone video taken in Fazendo Botafogo starts, showing the two cops walking into view, one of the stricken men with his AK47 on the ground nearby raises his head slightly before an officer pulls his rifle up and fires into his chest before unloading another round. His partner ahead of him then shoots the second unconscious body.

What the video doesn’t capture is 13-year-old school girl Maria Eduarda Alves in the playground for physical education who minutes earlier was hit by three stray bullets, two in the neck, killing her, with at least one recently confirmed to have come from a police rifle.

In retaliation police were attacked in two other favelas that night including a confrontation which left a criminal dead in the south zone’s Santa Marta favela, the first pacified by police in Rio state in 2008 considered one of its greatest success stories and where Michael Jackson filmed his “They Don’t Really Care About Us” videoclip in 1996.

With the executions a ferocious moral dilemma bubbled to the surface of Rio as the city’s police force and drug trafficking gangs have descended to as close to a civil war as you can get without it being official. Citizens in Rio call it as such, that’s why the over 100,000 who signed an online petition in support of the two police officers believe that these encounters are kill or be killed just like in war.

However, others say police shouldn't descend to the level of the criminals and law and order must prevail.

February was one of Rio’s deadliest months in its history amidst a national economic crisis sending unemployment to 13.2% and the nearly bankrupt state government struggling to pay its police force. Rio's Public Security Institute recorded a 28% increase in violent deaths and a 40% jump in car theft compared to February a year ago. There were also 84 deaths from police action in the month, a 71% rise, but despite all these increases the number of arrests made dropped by 33%.

So far this year 50 on duty and off duty military police officers have been killed in Rio state, one every two days. Footage of this off-duty officer being shot dead by suspects aged in their early 20s during a robbery last week would be shocking in just about any other country.

Three alone were killed in the Baixada Fluminense neighbourhood on Tuesday, including a policeman who was killed when he pulled over three men as part of a drink driving operation before he and his colleague were shot, one of trio was also killed.

Before citizens eyes the good work driving down crime over the previous decade leading up to the 2014 Football World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics which coincided with Brazil's economic boom is being undone.

“Above everything, at the moment it is very bad in the general context,” Major Ivan Blaz from the Military Police told Globo during the violence about the the UPP pacification program, the installation of police forces in favelas and taking over control from heavily armed drug gangs.

“We have a complex economic situation, we have in the UPP especially, many criminals are returning two, three days after they were arrested that are freed and this really hampers police action.”

Things were already feeling tense following the afternoon the day before the ill-fated gun battle when Luis Fernando Martins Malaquías, 26, was zipping through his community’s streets as a motorbike taxi driver in his time off from his normal local shopping centre job. Earning extra cash for his upcoming wedding he picked up a man in Morro da Formiga favela in Tijuca in Rio’s north zone not knowing he was a local criminal.

Motoring down through the tight roads they came across a group of gathered military police who demanded they stop and raise their arms. As he complied for reasons not exactly clear they shot him in the chest, while his passenger wasn’t hurt. He’d gone from working to dead in a matter of seconds.

“He was assassinated, six shots, six shots, six shots is not an accident,” an indignant friend interviewed by the media said outside his funeral.

“He was coming down when the guard stopped and shot him without question. He put up his hands, he put up his hands surrendering and the guard shot him.”

It was amidst this rising tension that the police officers were fired upon by gang members leading to the shoot out which killed Maria Eduarda while she played with sports equipment in the playground of Jornalista Daniel Piza municipal school. The pair were part of a 7-man operation arriving in an armoured vehicle to combat drug trafficking and car and cargo truck robberies in the area.

Maria, who had dreams to become a basketball star, was reported as the 33rd child to be shot and killed from 2007 to now in the state's schools from stray bullets during police operations with 20 occurring since 2015 alone. The bullet holes in the school's wall circled in graffiti are pictured above.

The video of the police killings was circulated on WhatsApp before ending up in the hands of media and authorities. The two mystery officers were identified as Fábio de Barros Dias and David Gomes Centeno and were arrested.

They later said in their statements they were acting in legitimate defence because the men had pistols on them and at the time they knew that a school girl had just been shot and killed, apparently unaware at least one of the bullets came from their guns.

It emerged that between the two they had been responsible for the deaths of 37 gun-carrying suspects during police operations, 16 of which had been investigated. Dias in January had been reported for the deaths of two males on a motorbike who were shot when they didn’t stop in another north zone favela in 2014. The prosecuting lawyer claimed one was killed on the bike while the other was executed but the case was rejected.

Facebook and news story comments have been veracious in their support for the pair of officers who they say put their lives on the line against criminals armed with weapons of war. Part of the same milieu which terrorises Rio’s residents daily with violent armed robberies which they are fed up with, at times ending up with needless deaths just for a mobile phone.

They’re also tired with what they perceive as a soft justice system which they believe favours the rights of the criminals, especially child offenders, over victims and police officers.

It's not the first time police have taken things into their own hands in Rio. In June 2014 two police officers picked up three teenage thieves in the city and took them to Tijuca Forest and shot two, killing a 14-year-old while the other unexpectedly survived and escaped, with the third freed unharmed. It was all recorded on their car's security camera and they were eventually charged and jailed.

Rio's most infamous incident was the Chacina da Candelária (Candelaria Church Massacre) in July 1993 where police shot and killed eight street youths aged 13 to 19 and wounded more. Three officers combined received sentences worth hundreds of years but have all since been released.

As the economy tanks and police resources are stripped it’s brewed conditions of desperation and lawlessness which had been kept in check as the Brazilian economy soared. Like a pressure valve being released it seems now the full force of the eruption has the potential to bring Rio back to its bad old days according to people who’ve been in the city a long time. However with tentative signs of economic recovery, there’s hope that can be avoided.

On Thursday police officers Fábio de Barros Dias and David Gomes Centeno were charged with murder and are in prison awaiting trial.

UPDATE 25/4: A judge has since allowed the pair out on bail and as of today 58 police have been killed in Rio state.

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