Chopper crash in Rio flashpoint with police in ‘City of God’
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Viviane Goncalves cries softly as she explains why she believes her husband was killed.
The 32-year-old widow says she thinks military police shot him in revenge after one of their helicopters crashed Nov. 19 while helping an anti-drug operation near the City of God slum where the couple lived, killing all four officers on board.
Goncalves said her bricklayer husband Rogerio Alberto de Carvalho had nothing to do with it. He left for work that Saturday and turned up the following day with a bullet in the back of his head, one of at least seven people found killed in the slum the morning after the chopper crashed for unknown reasons. Residents blame police for the subsequent deaths, but authorities deny responsibility in the killings that occurred during a crackdown that started that night and continued for several days.
“Police want to blame us for something that doesn’t have anything to do with us,” said Goncalves, who has an 8-year-old son. “They have destroyed my family.”
Officers say the operation had nothing to do with the helicopter crash and they were merely going after criminals in the notorious Rio de Janeiro slum portrayed in the Academy Award-nominated 2002 film, “Cidade de Deus.” Police have released statements listing the arms and drugs seized, including automatic rifles, pistols, ammunition and large quantities of cocaine and marijuana.
Police on Friday announced the arrest of the slum’s top drug trafficking boss, Edvanderson Goncalves Leite, and have expanded the crackdown into neighboring slums.
Residents say police conduct sweeps in the middle of the night, adding to already high tensions as they break down doors and sometimes steal belongings.
Evangelical pastor Leonardo Martins, whose 22-year-old son was among those killed, said police would not behave the same way in the popular Copacabana beach area or other rich neighborhoods.
“When police are here, they are aggressive. The feel like superman,” said Martins, adding he believed his son was killed by “coward” police.
Hundreds of police armed with automatic rifles patrolled the slum one recent morning in their bulletproof vests. Many wore black ski masks to hide their identities because police are often hunted by drug traffickers in retaliatory slayings.
A light armored vehicle was parked on a narrow street as military police walked through a warren of shacks made of concrete or simply mud. Residents, many too scared to give their names, bristled as they talked about what they were suffering.
Maria, a 65-year-old resident who declined to give her last name, said police barged into her adult son’s home at 3 a.m. and stole his cellular phone.
“What is all this?” said Maria. “Police are here simply because a helicopter crashed. They can’t treat us like we are all bums.”
It’s a grim scene compared with the street celebrations just a few months ago after Judo champion Rafaela Silva, who grew up in the neighborhood, won Brazil’s first gold medal of the 2016 Rio Games.
The killings following the crash have compounded chronic distrust between residents and police and the growing belief that a much-lauded pacification program to extract drug dealers and reduce violence in this and other Rio slums is failing.
“City of God managed to have a quick improvement in 2009 after the pacification unit (was implemented),” said Newton de Oliveira, a crime expert and law professor at Mackenzie University in Rio. “But that model has failed. Now it is worse than that city in the movie.”
Heavily armed drug traffickers frequently fire at police aircraft and drones, but they rarely succeed in shooting one down. It last happened in 2009, when traffickers shot down a helicopter, killing two officers aboard.
Even if the helicopter that recently crashed was shot down, crime experts say police would be loath to give credit to criminals. Acknowledging it was shot down could also fuel suspicion among residents that the subsequent crackdown was designed to exact revenge.
Rio de Janeiro’s secretary of security held a press conference within 12 hours of the November crash to say no bullets were found in the chopper, which broke up into many pieces on impact, nor in the bodies of the officers aboard. Local news media reported the helicopter had not undergone maintenance in a year amid the country’s worst recession in decades.
The slum of about 50,000 residents was among the first where the government dispatched its so-called police pacification units in 2008. Police stations were installed and officers took over territory once controlled by traffickers as the Rio de Janeiro state invested in community centers for children and other services for residents.
The program was so successful that President Barack Obama, along with the first lady and their two daughters, toured City of God in 2011. Such a visit would be unthinkable today.
“We don’t know whether to trust the police or not,” said 45-year-old resident Robson Luiz de Mendonca, a rapper who focuses on violence in the city. “Who should we look to for protection?”
Associated Press video journalist Yesica Fisch and AP photographer Leo Correa contributed to this report.
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