In violent Rio, U.S. protests stoke backlash against deadly cops

By Gram Slattery and Ricardo Moraes

SÃO GONÇALO, Brazil (Reuters) - The killing of another black teenager by Rio de Janeiro police last month was, based on the numbers, unremarkable – one of hundreds gunned down every year by some of the world's deadliest cops.

But the fallout has surprised many.

Brazil's Supreme Court last week banned raids by Rio police during the COVID-19 pandemic and Sunday saw nationwide marches against right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, as U.S. demonstrations and a global debate over racial violence by police has spurred a reckoning in Brazil.

A studious 14-year-old who talked of becoming a lawyer, João Pedro Matos Pinto spent the afternoon of May 18 playing with friends around his uncle's backyard pool in São Gonçalo, a gritty suburb of the Rio state capital.

When police helicopters began circling close overhead, the frightened boys rushed inside, João Pedro's mother and uncle told Reuters. Heavily armed police stormed the home, throwing a grenade inside and spraying the structure with gunfire.

One of the bullets hit João Pedro in the torso, killing him.

"When you enter a community shooting, it's as if everyone in the community is a criminal. It's as if nobody good lives here," said Rafaela Coutinho Matos, mother of the slain boy, in an interview.

Authorities told her family the death was an accident, she said. They said helicopters spotted a man they thought was the target of a police raid hopping over a fence near the pool.

In a statement, Rio state police said detectives had opened an investigation into the incident and three officers had been suspended. Brazil's federal police, which also participated in the operation, did not respond to a request for comment.

Such tragedies are commonplace in Rio, where a notoriously violent police force killed 1,814 people last year, according to official statistics. They killed 606 more in the first four months of 2020.

Many killings of unarmed black men, or children, come and go with relatively little protest or media attention.

Yet anger at João Pedro's death and other recent complaints of police brutality are boiling over in Brazil against a backdrop of widespread U.S. demonstrations after the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody.


On Friday, hundreds gathered outside the São Gonçalo city hall, chanting "No justice, no peace!" in Portuguese.

Many focused their ire on Bolsonaro and Rio Governor Wilson Witzel, both far-right politicians that have encouraged police to kill more criminals. Witzel, a former judge, said a surge in police killings under his watch "isn't difficult to justify."

Also on Friday, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin issued an order prohibiting police raids in Rio's cinderblock slums, known as favelas, until the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak subsides. The order, which made reference to João Pedro's death, allows raids only under "exceptional circumstances" with prior approval by state prosecutors.

On Sunday, anti-racism marches in major Brazilian cities brought out the largest crowds of anti-Bolsonaro protesters since the pandemic arrived in March. In the capital Brasilia, demonstrators in masks carried "Black Lives Matter" banners emblazoned with João Pedro's name.

Public safety expert Ignacio Cano said that such fallout from a police killing was unprecedented, suggesting that news from the United States had heightened sensitivities in Brazil.

"It's sad in a way that part of Brazilian society has to look at the U.S. to realize that the problem exists at home," said Cano, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University.

"And the media is giving a lot more coverage now after the George Floyd case than they would otherwise give to the recurrent cases of executions in favelas."

At Friday's protest in São Gonçalo, black college student Mykaella Moreira echoed demands for human rights that have taken center stage in the United States as well.

"We can't accept this genocidal state, which thinks we can die for nothing," Moreira said. "We are also people. We also have a right to live."

São Gonçalo is patrolled by Rio's 7th military police battalion, the state's most deadly police force, public records show. In October, Reuters published an investigation into the death of Brayan Mattos dos Santos, a 19-year-old who was also the unintended victim of a raid here.

This year, police in the area are set to break their own grim record, having killed 103 people in the district in the first four months of 2020. In March, police here set a monthly record, killing 33 people, according to public data.

Although whites make up half the population in Rio, they account for only 12% of police killings, according to data obtained by Reuters last year under a freedom of information request.

João Pedro was studious, devout and went nowhere without family, said his mother Rafaela.

On the day he was killed, Rafaela said the boy was visiting his cousin about a kilometer away to play by the pool.

She learned that João Pedro had been injured when her husband entered the family home in a panic, saying their son had been shot and taken to a hospital by helicopter. It was nearly a full day until she learned his fate.

"He was a loving boy," said Rafaela. "A boy who had dreams."

(Reporting by Gram Slattery and Ricardo Moraes; Additional reporting by Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro, Ricardo Brito and Maria Carolina Marcello in Brasilia; Editing by Brad Haynes and Lisa Shumaker)