Brazil: police unit suspected in Belém massacre

At least 10 people were shot dead by a group of masked men on motorbikes accompanied by two cars the early morning of Nov. 5 in several impoverished suburbs of Belém, the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Pará. Residents reported on the massacre by social media while it was in progress, warning people to stay indoors. Some of the killings may have been targeted, but in other cases the attackers apparently shot randomly at people on the streets. The incident came just hours after the Nov. 4 shooting death of Antônio Marco da Silva Figueiredo, a corporal in an elite military police unit, the Metropolitan Tactical Patrol (ROTAM). "There is a big probability that if there was not active police involvement" in the subsequent massacre, "then there were people who already passed through the police," Anna Lins, a lawyer from Pará Society for the Defense of Human Rights (SDDH), told a reporter. "It was summary execution."

Da Silva Figueiredo, the ROTAM agent whose murder seemed to provoke the massacre, reportedly headed a "militia"—a paramilitary group of former and off-duty police agents—in the suburb of Guamá. He and his gang were suspected of carrying out executions of local youths, and some sources indicated that the group was trying to take over the drug trade in the suburbs. Area residents celebrated as news spread of Da Silva Figueiredo's death the evening of Nov. 4, but members of his police unit reacted by posting internet messages such as: "The chase has started" and "ROTAM has blood in its eyes." Sgt. Rossicley Silva used his Twitter account to call for "the maximum number of friends to give a response." Several federal agencies joined state authorities on Nov. 6 in an investigation into the killings. (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 6, from correspondent; Adital, Brazil, Nov. 7; Portal Brasil, Nov. 7; Time, Nov. 10, from correspondent)

On Nov. 11, one week after the Belém massacre, the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety (FBSP), a São Paulo-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), released its annual report on violence in Brazil. The researchers found that in the five years from 2009 to 2013 Brazilian police agents killed 11,197 people. It took police in the US 30 years, from 1983-2012, to kill a similar number, 11,090; the US population is half again as large as Brazil's. Brazilian police agents are also killed; according to the report, 1,770 died violently in the five-year period, but 75.3% of them were killed while off duty, while 81.8% of the killings of civilians were by agents on duty.

There was also a clear racial disparity in the killings by police. A report released in April by the São Carlos Federal University (UFSCar) found that based on their share in the population, African-descended people were killed by police in São Paulo state at three times the rate that whites were killed; 79% of the police involved were white. Of the 944 state police agents investigated in São Paulo from 2009 to 2011, 94% were let off without charges. (Washington Post Nov. 11/14 from AP;BBC Mundo Nov. 12/14 from correspondent)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, November 16.

See our last post on Brazil's favela wars.