A disturbing and chilling image circulated on social media last Thursday: a young boy in blue shorts lying shirtless in a Rio de Janeiro favela in a pool of blood.
Messages of shock, horror and outrage accompanied the photograph which was shared and retweeted to thousands of people within a few hours. The hashtag, #GuerranoAlemao, was used more than 8,000 times and lead the trending topics in Brazil that evening.
The boy, identified as 10-year-old Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira, had been playing outside his home in the favela when the bullet of a rifle punctured his head. According to his mother, the shot came from the police.
“It all happened in a matter of seconds, he was sitting with me on the sofa,” Terezinha Maria de Jesus said to local media outlets. “He stepped out into the doorframe and suddenly my son was dead.”
Alemão’s residents organized a candlelight vigil that evening. A separate group destroyed one of the permanent police posts stationed inside the favela.
Ferreira’s death came after three other people were killed by gun shots that same week. Among the victims was Elizabeth de Moura, 40, a daycare worker who was hit by a stray bullet inside her home. Her 14-year-old daughter was also shot, but survived with minor injuries.
“We are living in a state of all out war,” Betinho Casas Novas, a photojournalist who lives in Alemão and who has been documenting these incidents said. “To see such a young child just laying on the floor like that is too much to bear.”
According to Alemão’s residents, gunfire has been heard throughout the massive favela conglomerate every day since the beginning of the year. Most of the shootouts have been between armed drug traffickers and officers from the pacifying police units (UPPs) who have been patrolling the favela since 2010.
The next day, I met up with Casas Novas in Alemão. It was Good Friday and many local shops were closed for the holiday. Every corner had at least five police officers on guard, with cocked rifles in hand. Armored cars from the BOPE, Rio’s elite police squad, slowly crawled up the hill displaying the familiar skull and bone logo everyone knows and fears.
We circulated the favela and reached the top of a hill where one of the area’s six teleférico stops is located. As we looked out on the horizon of stacked brick houses, we began to hear chanting.
An impromptu march had formed in the neighborhood’s narrow streets. From our vantage point, we could see Alemão residents waving white sheets and t-shirts from window sills and lajes. The voices were chanting “We want peace, we want the UPP out!”
The UPP is a government-sponsored program intended to bring the state back to impoverished communities, where gangs had ruled for decades. It was inaugurated in 2008 and currently operates in nearly forty favelas throughout the city.
While the program has been credited with reducing Rio’s overall crime rate, its effectiveness in larger favelas, like Alemão which is home to nearly 200,000 people, has been questioned.
“This dream of pacification will never become a reality if it doesn’t come with a discussion on how the system works, how these officers are trained and the effectiveness of this ‘war on drugs,’” Antonio Carlos Costa, an activist from the NGO Rio de Paz (which means “Peaceful Rio” in English), said during an interview with the magazine Carta Capital.
As the march left the hillside and reached the busy Itacaré street, dozens of police officers in riot gear lined up to contain the protest. A shirtless man began yelling “murderer” at an officer, who quickly responded by calling him a vagabundo (which means “bum”) and spraying a canister of pepper spray in his face.
From that point on, pandemonium erupted. The crowd became agitated and several cans of tear gas thrown. As Casas Novas and I ran for protection behind a newsstand, a molotov cocktail grazed his head. Behind the kiosk, a 14-year-old boy wept out of fear and the sting of the fumes. His mother hugged him and yelled at us “take his picture, show the world that boys like him are being harmed by this war.”
“There is no respect for people like us,” she said. “The governor, the police, they treat the favelados like dirt.”
Rio de Janeiro Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão said BOPE officers will continue patrolling the favela for the next few days, but guaranteed the pacification program will continue to operate in Alemão.
“We will not allow the pacification program to fall apart,” Pezao said during a recent press conference. “We have trained more than a thousand new officers this year and are prepared to send in more if necessary... if it wasn't for pacification, there would be many more 'Eduardos' taken from their mothers.”
Eight of the officers who were on patrol when 10-year-old Ferreira was killed have been removed from their post in order to not “interfere with the investigation,” Rio’s military police said.
Commander Alberto Pinheiro Neto also announced the remaining officers patrolling in Alemão have been signed up for a new round of training, which includes orientation on how to improve relationships with favela residents.
“Until the state doesn’t come here with better health services, education and sanitation we will never truly have peace in Alemão,” Rene Silva, a community activist from the favela said. “Peace is about more than policing and it will only come once we are treated like any other citizen of this city.”