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(São Paulo) – Brazilian authorities should ensure a prompt, thorough, and independent investigation into the killing of a military police officer in the northern state of Pará on January 20, 2017 and a subsequent wave of possibly retaliatory killings, Human Rights Watch said today.

Rafael da Silva Costa, a 29-year-old member of an elite police unit, was killed on January 20 in the city of Belém during a shootout with suspects. Between that time and midday the following day, 30 people were killed in the Belém metropolitan area. State authorities said 25 of those homicides appear to have been executions, and may have been a response to Costa´s killing.

A night view of the city of Belem in northern Brazil, January 11, 2012. © 2012 Reuters

“Any killing of a police officer deserves a swift and serious response, but retaliatory killings spread terror to whole communities and are totally unacceptable,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “All of these killings need to be thoroughly investigated and punished within the bounds of the law.”

The victims appear to have been targeted at random, based on accounts by witnesses to local media. In several cases, men were killed by shots fired from inside cars. In one case, hooded men opened fire inside a bar, injuring five people. They executed one of them, a 21-year-old man, as he lay wounded on the ground, his mother told the media.

In 2015, 26 police officers were killed in Pará, while police officers on and off duty killed 180 people, according to the latest official data compiled by the Brazilian Public Security Forum, a non-governmental organization.

In recent years, police officers in several states have been implicated in death-squad-style killings. In Pará state, 10 people were killed in November 2014 after the killing of a police officer who had led a death squad, an investigation by the state legislature found. Prosecutors have accused 14 military police officers of failing to help the victims or pursue the killers.

In the northern state of Amazonas, prosecutors allege that a group of 12 police officers who killed traffickers to steal drugs and weapons used the killing of a military police officer as a pretext to kill an additional 8 people in July 2015.

In São Paulo, prosecutors accused three military police officers and a municipal guard of being members of a death-squad that murdered 18 people in retaliation for the killing of a military police officer and a municipal guard in August 2015. In the northeastern state of Ceará, prosecutors charged 44 police officers with involvement in the November 2015 killing of 11 people –including 7 children– after the killing of a police officer.

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