Small Wars Journal

Rio’s bloody police campaign

Fri, 05/07/2021 - 12:19am

Rio’s bloody police campaign

Robert Muggah

Rio de Janeiro's bloody war on crime continues amidst a deepening COVID-19 crisis. The latest killing of at least 24 citizens[1] by police in the city’s northern Jacarezinho neighborhood is a reminder of the persistence of police violence in the battle-scarred city of six million.[2] It is also the predictable outcome of years of belligerent tough-on-crime rhetoric from Brazil's president Jair Bolosonaro and Rio state's recently impeached governor, Wilson Witzel.[3]

The morning raid was supposedly launched to apprehend members of the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), a notorious drug trafficking faction that dominates large swathes of the city. The operation was supposedly triggered by reports that the heavily armed faction was recruiting youth into their ranks. This is an odd justification given the pervasiveness of this practice over the past three decades. The outcomes were disastrous.[4]

Over 250 state police officers stormed into the favela, shooting indiscriminately into homes, buses, and the street. While heavy-handed police operations are routine in Rio de Janeiro, this one generated, according to police officials, the largest death toll of any intervention in the city’s history.[5] The previous record involved the killing of 19 people in 2007 in neighboring Alemao. This one was larger, and at least one officer was also killed.[6] Local residents reported scenes of chaos and terror, with videos showing many cowering to avoid shootouts.[7]

Rio de Janeiro Polícia Civil Coordenadoria de Recursos Especiais   (Civil Police Special Resources Coordination – CORE) in Action Source: PCERJ (Polícia Civil do Estado do Rio de Janeiro)

The Jacarezinho massacre is a predictable result of chronic failure of state leadership. Every one of the last six governors of Rio de Janeiro have gone to jail.[8] The latest to be impeached on corruption charges, Witzel, was also among the most hard fisted. His inflammatory rhetoric coupled with the systematic erosion of police oversight emboldened officers to use excessive force. Witzel is widely authorizing the use of snipers in helicopters and celebrating the killing of "bandidos." The latest mass killing was a tragedy foretold.

Rio de Janeiro is a violent city by any standard. There were over 2,400 reported homicides in 2020. At least 1, 245 people were murdered by the police the same year according to ISP, the state's public security institute.[9] While this represents a decline compared to 2019, a record-breaking year of police violence, it is still one of the highest levels of police killings anywhere on the planet.[10] By way of comparison, the US registered 989 killings in 2020, in a population of 331 million.[11] 

The recent police operation was also likely a violation of Brazil’s federal law. The Supreme Court prohibited police operations in Rio de Janeiro during the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020.[12] Police killings and other types of violence fell dramatically in the wake of the ruling. But police violence started escalating in the latter half of 2020 and into 2021, including after state authorities terminated police oversight bodies.[13]

The outrageous violence plaguing Rio de Janeiro will continue so long as repressive policing continues. The wave of killings is a reminder that hyper militarized interventions are not just ineffective, they are counterproductive.[14] They generate massive collateral damage, both physical and psychological, and also undermine trust of citizens in law enforcement. A commission of inquiry and disciplinary action are mandatory, and a radical change of police culture is essential.


[1] At least 24 citizens and 1 police officer were killed in the action. “Operação policial no Jacarezinho deixa pelo menos 25 mortos [Police operation in Jacarezinho leaves at least 25 dead].” Agência Brasil. 6 May 2021, and Flávia Milhorance; and Ernesto Londoño, “Police Operation in Rio de Janeiro Leaves at Least 25 Dead,” New York Times. 6 May 2021,

[2] Robert Muggah, “How did Rio's police become known as the most violent in the world?” The Guardian. 3 August 2021,  

[3] “Rio de Janeiro governor impeachment confirmed over alleged COVID-19-related graft.” Reuters. 30 April 2021,

[4] Terrence McCoy, “Brazil shocked by warlike police raid that leaves 25 dead in Rio de Janeiro favela.” Washington Post. 6 May 2021,  For background, see for example, Flávia Milhorance, “Police killing hundreds in Rio de Janeiro despite court ban on favela raids.” The Guardian. 18 April 2021,

[5] “Twenty-five killed in deadliest Rio police raid since 2005.” Reuters. 6 May 2012,

[6] “Um polícia morto e vários feridos em tiroteio durante operação no Rio de Janeiro [One policeman killed and several wounded in a shootout during an operation in Rio de Janeiro]. RTP Notícias. 6 May 2021,

[7] “Alta letalidade de operação no Jacarezinho divide opiniões de especialistas em Segurança Pública [High lethality of operation in Jacarezinho divides opinions of specialists in Public Security].” O Dia. 6 May 2021,

[8] Gabriel Barreira, “Witzel é o 1º governador a sofrer impeachment no RJ desde a ditadura; outros 5 foram presos em 3 anos [Witzel is the first governor to be impeached in RJ since the dictatorship; another 5 were arrested in 3 years].” G1 (Globo). 1 May 2021,

[9] Louise Rolim, “Segurança Pública em Números 2020 [Public Safety in Numbers 2021].” Rio de Janeiro: Instituto de Segurança Pública. 2021,

[10] Robert Muggah, “Brazil’s Murder Rate Finally Fell—and by a Lot.” Foreign Policy. 22 April 2019,

[11] Fatal Force: 985 people have been shot and killed by police in the past year.” Washington Post. 5 May 2021, Dataset available at

[12] Gabriel Barreira, “Ministro do STF proíbe operações em favelas do Rio durante a pandemia [STF Minister prohibits operations in Rio's favelas during the pandemic]. G1 (Globo). 6 May 2021, STF is Supremo Tribunal Federal (Federal Supreme Court).

[13] Cecília Olliveira, “Rio extingue órgão que apura má conduta de PMs e fragiliza ainda mais controle de violência policial [Rio extinguishes organ that investigates PM misconduct and further weakens police violence control].” El País. 16 April 2021, PM is Polícia Militar (Military Police).

[14] Robert Muggah, “Reviewing the Costs and Benefits of Mano Dura Versus Crime Prevention in the Americas,” in: Timothy M. Shaw, Laura C. Mahrenbach, Renu Modi, and Xu Yi-chong, Eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary International Political Economy. (Palgrave Handbooks in IPE.)  London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.465-483:

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Robert Muggah is a Principal at SecDev, a digital risk group that works with governments, companies and international organizations. He also co-founded the Igarapé Institute, a think and do tank working at the interface of public, digital and climate security. He is a non-resident fellow or faculty at Princeton University, Singularity University, the Graduate Institute in Geneva, the University of British Columbia and the University of San Diego. In the past, he directed research at the Small Arms Survey (2000-2011). Robert has consulted with McKinsey´s, Google and Uber as well as the United Nations, Inter-American Development Bank, and World Bank, among others, in over 30 countries. He is a regular contributor to the Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and other media outlets. Robert is the author of eight books, including most recently (with Ian Goldin), Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years (Penguin/Random House, 2020). He delivered talks at TED in 2021, 2017, and 2015, the Web Summit, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Dubai, Medellín, and Geneva. He is the founder and executive editor of Stability Journal and serves on the editorial board of several academic journals. Robert is also affiliated with the WEF Global Risk Report, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Bosch Academy, and other international networks. He earned his Dphil from the University of Oxford. He can be contacted at




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