The Jacarezinho Massacre and Lethal Drug Policy Enforcement in Brazil
It’s a Rio de Janeiro classic. Officers of the civil, military or army police make an incursion into a favela. They arrive in armoured vehicles, carrying assault rifles. Soon they issue a statement justifying their actions as necessary to stamp out illegal drug suppliers who “dominate” the area. They say that in order to tackle organised crime, you sometimes need to produce corpses and orphans in the process. It’s a drug war, and there are always casualties in war.
One day before the May 6 Jacarezinho Massacre, President Jair Bolsonaro met with Rio de Janeiro’s governor, Cláudio Castro, at the Palácio das Laranjeiras. I wonder if they talked about the operation that would become the deadliest in the long history of police violence in the Wonderful City.
In June 2020, the Brazilian Supreme Court had prohibited police raids in Rio’s favelas—due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the next month, under the reduction in police incursions, the number of people fatally shot in favelas dropped 70 percent. Then police forces started ignoring the ruling.
The Jacarezinho Massacre exposed the current government’s necropolitics. Heavily-armed police officers entered a poor community and murdered at least 28 men in 10 different areas of the neighborhood. The vice president of the republic then dismissed the dead as “all thugs.” Bolsonaro called the victims “drug traffickers who steal, kill and destroy families,” and congratulated the police officers for a successful operation. Conservative media rushed to disclose the victims’ aliases and criminal records so that the public could shrug off the incident. The police surely had both the license and the duty to put these criminals down.
This disregard for life, human rights and the rule of law is legitimised through Bolsonaro’s antagonistic relationship with the Supreme Federal Court.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office of Rio de Janeiro, which usually fails to act in cases of police brutality, created a task force to investigate the massacre—but only after substantial pressure from human rights groups and the public opinion.
The government’s disregard for life, human rights and the rule of law is legitimised through Bolsonaro’s antagonistic relationship with the Supreme Federal Court. Bolsonaro has threatened to mobilise the armed forces to shut down the Supreme Court, miles away in the capital city of Brasília, on more than one occasion.
Members of the Supreme Federal Court took differing views. Justice Edson Fachin, who previously ordered the Rio de Janeiro government to explain why it ignored the court ruling on police raids, requested that the prosecutor general of the republic, Augusto Aras, investigate arbitrary executions that occurred during the massacre.
Justice Marco Aurélio Mello, however, wants to review the June 2020 ruling—and not to create a mechanism to hold police officers accountable. He and three other justices believe that “trafficking really needs to be fought.” Not a word about the lethal enforcement of drug legislation and the harm that it causes.
Justice Mello emphasised that there is no death penalty in Brazil and that “criminals” should be arrested. But in a democracy, executing warrants should never be conflated with executing people.
The United Nations showed some concern over the breach of human rights in Jacarezinho. The spokesperson for the Office of Human Rights, Rupert Colville, “urged for a broad and inclusive discussion in Brazil about the current model of policing in favelas.” Again, nothing was mentioned about the role that punitive drug policies play in enabling and justifying police brutality.
What happened in Jacarezinho in on May 6 is routine in Brazil.
The UN, which claims to have learned so much about drug-related matters in this last decade, has learned no lessons at all. Issuing press notes and calling for debates on police reform will not bring back the dead, nor prevent future state-sponsored carnage. While UN agencies like the Development Programme and the Office on Drugs and Crime continue to support the suppression of state-banned drug supply in Brazil rather than advocate for legalization, they are complicit in such massacres.
Supporting Bolsonaro and his cabinet means supporting paramilitaries that promote violence for a living in Rio. It means playing on the same team as Ronnie Lessa and Élcio Vieira de Queiroz, the paramilitaries responsible for the assassination of Marielle Franco. Such actors support prohibition and punitivism because managing violence and supplying illegal drugs are fundamental parts of their business.
What happened in Jacarezinho in on May 6 is no real departure from routine in Brazil. It happened on in Vigário Geral in 1993, in the Baixada Fluminense in 2005, in the Complexo do Alemão in 2007 and 2020. Police officers acting as juries, judges and executioners.
These bloodbaths, and many other daily episodes of police brutality in Brazil, are rooted in the fantasy of a drug-free society. They constitute a war on people and on human rights. The Brazilian state frames Black and impoverished citizens as its enemies, and mobilises the police to carry out prohibitionist drug policies that justify summary execution. One just cannot support prohibition on the one hand and be outraged about the Jacarezinho Massacre on the other.
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.
* Felipe Neis Araujo is a Brazilian anthropologist concerned with drug policy, state violence, structural racism and repair for historical inequalities. He’s also a monthly contributor toTalkingDrugs. He lives in London.