The decades-long civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo shows signs of winding down, but is apparently leaving in its wake a good old "anti-crime" police state that sees impoverished youth as a threat and seeks to exterminate them. Human Rights Watch reported last month that police in the DRC summarily killed at least 51 youth and "forcibly disappeared" 33 others during an anti-crime campaign that began a year ago. "Operation Likofi," which lasted from November 2013 to February 2014, was officially a crackdown on criminal gangs in Congo's capital, Kinshasa. HRW's report, "Operation Likofi: Police Killings and Enforced Disappearances in Kinshasa," details how uniformed police, often wearing masks, dragged suspected gang members—known as kuluna—from their homes at night and executed them. Police shot and killed the unarmed young men and boys outside their homes, in open markets where they slept or worked, or in nearby fields or empty lots. Many others were taken without warrants to unknown locations, never to be seen again.
HRW conducted interviews in Kinshasa with 107 witnesses, family members of victims, police officers who participated in Operation Likofi, government officials, and others. The group also released new video footage and photographs, including of suspected kuluna who were killed during the operation.
The Congolese government launched Operation Likofi following a public commitment by President Joseph Kabila to end gang crime in Kinshasa. Kuluna have been responsible for a surge of armed robberies and other crimes across Kinshasa since 2006. But police raids targeted many who had nothing to do with the kuluna, HRW found. Some were street children, while others were youth falsely accused by their neighbors in unrelated disputes. Some were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In all the cases investigated by HRW, those who were killed posed no imminent threat that could have justified use of lethal force.
Initially the police appeared to use their brutal tactics as a warning to others, HRW said. Many victims were beaten and humiliated by the police in front of a crowd before being killed, and the police sometimes called people to come look at the body. In many cases, they left the body in the street, perhaps to frighten others, and only later collected it for transfer to the city's morgues.
"Operation Likofi was a brutal police campaign that left a trail of cold-blooded murders in the Congolese capital," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Fighting crime by committing crime does not build the rule of law but only reinforces a climate of fear. The Congolese authorities should investigate the killings, starting with the commander in charge of the operation, and bring to justice those responsible."