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A military vehicle is pictured during an operation after violent clashes between drug gangs in Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, September 23, 2017. © 2017 Bruno Kelly/Reuters
New accounts by witnesses suggest that the killers of a group of people in a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro on November 11, 2017, were members of the army special forces, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two witnesses and reviewed witness accounts from case files indicating that the clothing and gear of the killers were the same as those of the army personnel who arrived on the scene minutes later.

“Today marks six months of suffering for the survivors and for the families of those killed in Complexo do Salgueiro,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “New witness testimony points to the possible involvement of the army special forces in the killings.”

Witnesses also said that police and army personnel who arrived at the scene provided no medical assistance to those injured, delayed attempts by relatives to take victims to the hospital, and did not secure the crime scene. Seven people died at the scene and an eighth person died later of his wounds.

Two witnesses said that the killers opened fire around 1 a.m. from a forested area on people passing through a thoroughfare in the Complexo do Salgueiro neighborhood.

As the killers shot their victims, members of the army’s special forces battalion and of CORE – the elite unit of Rio de Janeiro´s civil police – were approaching aboard a civil police vehicle and two army Guarani armored vehicles. They were conducting a joint operation whose objective commanders still have not clearly explained.

Human Rights Watch interviewed one of the men who was injured, who said that after opening fire, the shooters emerged from the forested area. He said that they wore black, hid their faces behind balaclavas, used gloves, had flashlights mounted on their helmets, and carried rifles equipped with both flashlights and laser-vision. Luiz Otávio Rosa dos Santos, a motorcycle taxi driver who later died, told a Rio state prosecutor that he saw “red light” beaming from the rifles used by the men shooting at him.

The injured man said that the killers, and a third man who had been injured, were clearly visible by the side of the road, near a lamppost, when the civil police and one Guarani armored vehicle passed without stopping.

Two women who arrived after the shooting described the uniforms and weapons of the special forces personnel in the same way the two injured men described those of the killers.

One woman, a relative of a victim, was trying to reach the crime scene in a car with three neighbors at about 2 a.m. She said that men in black clothing and balaclavas wearing helmets mounted with flashlights, shouted at them to stop, pointed laser beams at them, and ordered them to put their hands out the car windows.  

The men let them go. They drove behind one of the army’s armored vehicles, which moved slowly toward the crime scene and swerved on the road to prevent them from passing it. She said the men on the road and others on the armored vehicle had the same uniforms and gear.

Another woman who was a passenger in a motorcycle taxi that passed by shortly after 1 a.m. gave civil prosecutors a similar description. She said that five men, armed with rifles equipped with laser-vision and flashlights, stopped them, but let them go after checking to see if they had weapons.

New witness testimony points to the possible involvement of the army special forces in the killings.
Maria Laura Canineu

Brazil Director, Americas Division
Four days before the killings, security forces carried out a similar operation in the same area. The Eastern Military Command acknowledged in an email to Extra reporter Rafael Soares that it employed helicopters on November 7, 2017, to transport personnel to forested areas within the Complexo do Salgueiro. On November 10, at 11 p.m., residents reported to Defezap – an independent phone service through which people report police abuse – that they saw men rappelling into the forested area from helicopters without lights.

The killings occurred only weeks after a law entered into force that shields the armed forces from prosecution in civilian courts when they kill civilians during policing operations. Under the new law, only federal military prosecutors can investigate members of the armed forces and file charges against them, and a court panel of four military officers and one civilian will hear the cases. Human Rights Watch condemned the law’s passage as a move likely to increase the risk of impunity for serious human rights violations.

Under international human rights law, serious human rights violations should be met with an impartial and independent judicial investigation. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has consistently maintained that this guarantee is incompatible with the investigation and trial, in military courts, of alleged rights violations by military personnel against civilians. On that basis, the IACHR and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights both condemned the passage of Brazil’s 2017 law on military jurisdiction. The Inter-American Court on human rights has held that military courts should have a “restrictive and exceptional” scope that takes account of the rights affected in any particular case, and has on several occasions ruled the exercise of military jurisdiction over alleged abuses against civilians to be inappropriate. Rio de Janeiro´s public defender´s office has petitioned the IACHR to accept the Salgueiro case.

A federal military prosecutor told Human Rights Watch on May 3 that she had interviewed members of the special forces about the November raids but had not interviewed any civilian witnesses yet, six months later, but she intended to. Civil police investigators and state prosecutors have interviewed CORE personnel and civilian witnesses, but have not interviewed army personnel.

 Federal military and state prosecutors should also investigate allegations that army and civil police personnel failed to secure medical care for those injured, Human Rights Watch said. The survivors and witnesses said that the forces who arrived at the scene did not help those injured or call emergency services.

One of the men injured on November 11, 2017, upon arrival at the hospital. Courtesy of the family.
The wounded man told Human Rights Watch that he lay in agony with his body partly inside a ditch by the side of the road for about an hour and 40 minutes. “I felt a pool of blood under me,” he said. He felt dizzy and very thirsty, and finally lost consciousness.

He said he heard the cries of an injured man about 10 meters away, but the cries stopped. He believes that the man died.

The family member who arrived with her neighbors rescued him and another injured man at about 2:40 a.m., she said. But it took another 80 minutes to reach the hospital because the police and army personnel forced them to follow the armored vehicle, which moved very slowly and again did not let them pass. 

Dos Santos, the motorcycle taxi driver, told prosecutors that relatives found him only at around 6 a.m. He died of his injuries weeks later.

In their statements to investigators, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, CORE personnel did not even mention survivors or witnesses.  

Under Brazilian law, failure to provide help to an injured person or call emergency services is a crime punishable with up to 18 months in prison, if the victim later dies.

A forensic expert said in a report that when he arrived about three hours after the shooting, some of the bodies had been moved and the crime scene was not secured. CORE personnel told investigators they, and at least one military officer, collected guns and drugs from the bodies of the dead and moved on.

Brazilian law establishes that as soon as civil police learn of a crime, they “shall go to the crime scene and make sure that it is not altered, until forensic experts arrive.” The head of CORE, Rodrigo Oliveira, who participated in the raid, did not explain to investigators why they did not secure the crime scene.

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