License-to-Kill Policing to Get a Trial Run in Rio de Janeiro

As many as 120 sharpshooters will accompany police incursions into the slums of Brazil’s postcard city to exterminate criminals.

License-to-Kill Policing to Get a Trial Run in Rio de Janeiro
Armed officers from the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) patrol in the Providencia favela of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg)  

(Bloomberg) -- Teams of marksmen next year will patrol swaths of Rio de Janeiro with high-powered weapons and a license to kill, said a security adviser to Governor-elect Wilson Witzel.

As many as 120 sharpshooters will accompany police incursions into the slums of Brazil’s postcard city to exterminate gun-toting criminals, according to Flavio Pacca, a longtime associate of Witzel who the governor-elect’s press office said will join the administration. The shooters will work in pairs -- one to pull the trigger, one to monitor conditions and videotape deaths.

License-to-Kill Policing to Get a Trial Run in Rio de Janeiro

“The protocol will be to immediately neutralize, slaughter anyone who has a rifle,” Witzel, a federal judge and former Brazilian marine, told reporters in Brasilia on Dec. 12. “Whoever has a rifle isn’t worried about other people’s lives, they’re ready to eliminate anyone who crosses their path. This is a grave problem, not just in Rio de Janeiro, but also in other states.”

Rio has long exemplified Brazil’s charm and its chaos, and what happens there echoes at home and abroad. Like President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, Witzel cruised to victory in October promising a brutal crackdown on criminals who make daily life a harrowing ordeal. Rio will be a proving ground for Bolsonaro’s philosophy of maximum force -- and whether law enforcement devolves into a storm of extrajudicial killings.

Witzel’s Eyes

Witzel declined Bloomberg’s interview requests and declined to comment on the sharpshooter plan Pacca described.

Rio’s homicides last year surged to an eight-year high of 5,346 and robberies and muggings have more than doubled since 2011. In February, President Michel Temer put the army in control of security through year-end and Witzel, as he takes over, intends to seek out the fight.

License-to-Kill Policing to Get a Trial Run in Rio de Janeiro

Witzel will create a security council that answers to him directly and envisions a web of surveillance and control. He plans public-private partnerships to purchase as many as 30,000 security cameras, according to his press office. This month, he traveled to Israel to visit Elbit Systems Ltd. and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., both of which work on drones. Pacca said the unmanned aircraft will gather facial images of drug traffickers holding weapons so police will have evidence to arrest a suspect when he emerges from his neighborhood.

Distant Death

Pacca, a police officer himself and a regular attendee at Witzel’s transition meetings, said groups of 20 policemen will begin undergoing month-long marksman training as soon as March. After they can kill at 600 meters, they will typically clear the way into favelas, where many residents live under the deadly sway of drug traffickers. Gangs often position roadblocks and lookouts to impede police and rival gangs.

Marksmen will alternate, with one shooting and one spotting targets and filming so as to prove a person deserved killing, Pacca said in Bloomberg’s Rio office. Society and jurists are shifting their views of what constitutes “imminent danger’’ that justifies lethal force, he said, and targets don’t need to be actively shooting.

License-to-Kill Policing to Get a Trial Run in Rio de Janeiro

“That concept is changing; it’s not for nothing that Bolsonaro was elected, not for nothing that Witzel was elected,’’ Pacca said. He pointed to a jewelry-store thief who this month used an octogenarian as a human shield during his escape. As he stumbled, officers shot him dead at point-blank range. “The people gave the police an ovation. That’s what you’re going to see.’’

Bolsonaro has said cops who kill should be given medals and has promised they will be legally protected. Days after the election, video showed Rio police loading the limp, bleeding bodies of two young men accused of drug trafficking into the bed of a pick-up. Bystanders cheered, with one yelling Bolsonaro’s name.

“The NGOs, human rights activists and United Nations will have a fit,” Alexandre Frota, a congressman-elect, said on Twitter while sharing the video. “But the cleansing must be done.’’

Crime pervades Rio: Stray bullets strike schoolchildren. Residents of means are averse to conspicuous consumption. Commuters alter routes to avoid danger and the price of car insurance spiked with the surge in carjacking.

License-to-Kill Policing to Get a Trial Run in Rio de Janeiro

Suelen Souza, 41, sells stuffed potatoes at the foot of the Dona Marta favela. This month, a police officer was shot in the neck in Dona Marta and frequent gun battles have caused the value of Souza’s apartment just below to fall by 40 percent. She said Witzel’s offensive may make it safe for her daughters to play in the plaza again.

“I prefer the criminals get slaughtered instead of the criminals slaughtering us,” she said.

Her husband, engineer Jose Olympio Souza, said, “a shock of morality showing the government has strength -- not indefinitely, but initially -- would be good.”

Death in the Rain

Even before Witzel, Rio police increasingly resorted to force. More people died at their hands during the first 11 months of 2018 than any year since state records begin in 2003. The 1,444 dead represent a 39 percent increase from 2017.

Not all are justified. On a rainy September day, a 26-year-old man awaited his wife and two children in their hillside favela that looks out over Copacabana beach. Police mistook his umbrella for a rifle and shot him, according to local press reports. He died en route to hospital, and photos in local media showed pages of his employment booklet ringed with blood.

“The Bolsonaro-Witzel duo is a concern for those who value democracy, value human rights, value the lives of people in the favelas.” said Julita Lemgruber, coordinator of the Center for Security and Citizenship Studies at the city’s Candido Mendes University.

Spokespeople for Bolsonaro didn’t return calls and messages Friday seeking comment.

Official Impunity

General Richard Nunes, Rio’s acting security secretary, said violence alone can’t solve the issues and that the military has strengthened institutions and recovered operational capacity with training plus new equipment. Since April, when the military intervention gained traction, muggings, homicides and armed robbery of stores declined as soldiers became a constant presence, Nunes said.

“If we don’t address public security with a broader vision, instead of thinking things get resolved by tactical, direct confrontation, the tendency is for indicators to worsen,” Nunes said. He called the jump in police killings this year “totally undesirable and unexpected.”

‘So Violent Now’

As long as police face few consequences for killing people, the cycle of violence will remain, according to Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director at Human Rights Watch.

License-to-Kill Policing to Get a Trial Run in Rio de Janeiro

“We’re very concerned 2019 will only deteriorate further,” Wilkinson said. “This isn’t naivete about the problem; this comes from understanding what a serious problem this is for members of communities where you have gangs, and for police officers who have a very difficult job.”

Celia da Silva, a single mother of four who sells bottled water at traffic lights, said traffickers walk around her favela brazenly shouldering rifles. Her daughter was mugged three weeks ago by four men in the neighborhood below.

“I hope for a new change, with it so violent now in this city and this country,” she said. “It’s not just the little corner where I live.”

To contact the reporter on this story: David Biller in Rio de Janeiro at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Vivianne Rodrigues at, Stephen Merelman, Robert Jameson

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