Brazil: Rio governor brands rise in police killings as 'normal'

Surge in police killings in Rio de Janeiro state a consequence of 'confronting terrorists', Wilson Witzel says.

    Brazil: Rio governor brands rise in police killings as 'normal'
    Wilson Witzel's tough-on-crime stance has found favour with many voters concerned by insecurity [File: Adriano Machado/Reuters]

    Amid a soaring number of police killings in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro state, its tough-talking governor has said it is "normal" for the rate to increase and will likely keep rising during his tenure.

    Governor Wilson Witzel said on Tuesday that the surge in police killings was a consequence of his policy of "confronting terrorists", a term he uses for drug trafficking groups.

    "We live in a situation of confrontation and the criminals are testing the limits of the police and the government," Witzel told reporters during a meeting with foreign correspondents.

    Police in Rio killed 731 people in the first five months of this year - nearly five a day - marking an almost 20 percent increase compared with the same period in 2018, according to Rio's Public Security Institute figures. 

    Witzel shrugged off the increase as "normal", saying it was due to police "hitting hard" at criminals.

    "Nobody wants to kill bandits. We want to arrest them," Witzel said. "But they need to know we are going to act with rigour. When we arrive, they either surrender, or die."

    'Dig graves'

    Witzel, who assumed Rio's governorship at the beginning of January, has previously pledged to "slaughter" criminals by using helicopter-borne snipers to target and kill anyone carrying a rifle, even if they were not shooting their weapons, and warned that Rio would "dig graves" for criminals under his watch.

    His rhetoric has prompted alarm among rights groups and NGOs, with Amnesty International slamming police violence in Rio - where a federally-sanctioned military intervention was rolled out for most of last year - as a continuation of bloodshed "stimulated by the state's own policies" for decades.

    "The repercussions of this inhumane approach are felt to this day. Instead of guiding the police to protect and preserve life, the state has reinforced the notion that the police's role is to kill," Jurema Werneck, Amnesty's executive director for Brazil, said in a statement last month.

    Brazil police
    According to official figures, police lethality in Rio has reached its highest level since 2003 [File: Carson Gardiner/AP Photo] 

    According to official figures, police lethality in Rio has reached its highest level since 2003, when records began. Homicides by criminals have fallen by 24 percent so far this year.

    'Local version' of Bolsonaro's appeal

    A former judge with a military past, Witzel was a relative unknown in Brazilian politics prior to his election win in October last year.

    But his tough-on-crime stance found favour with many voters concerned by insecurity and helped align him with the message trailed by Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

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    Bolsonaro, a former Rio congressman, campaigned on a largely law-and-order platform that included easing restrictions on guns and giving police greater licence to kill suspected criminals. But critics of the president's approach have warned that more guns are not the answer to reducing violent crime in a country where a record high 63,880 homicides took place in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. Nearly 45,000 of those cases involved firearms.

    Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro State University, said Witzel was able to offer the Rio electorate a "local version" of Bolsonaro's appeal.

    "He presented himself as an outsider, a hardline judge who was going to bring order to Rio," Santoro told Al Jazeera.

    "Public security is the core of Witzel's message, but his biggest challenge is how to improve economic conditions in Rio, with a state administration almost without financial resources," he added, citing the heavy toll Brazil's economic downturn has taken on the state.

    With additional reporting by David Child (@DavidChild90)

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies