The Summer 2016 Olympics are now just two months away, and the fears of pollution, the Zika virus, and Brazil's economic and political instability persist.
But human rights groups warn that there are other serious concerns surrounding the games: police brutality and violations of human rights, particularly targeting low-income residents of Rio de Janeiro who live in favelas (shanty towns which are home to around 24% the population).
On Thursday, Amnesty International called for Brazilian authorities to take steps to stem the violence being unleashed by police and armed forces particularly in Rio, where the Olympics will be held. The group said the targets of police brutality in Brazil are mostly low-income young black men, one of the reasons they launched their campaign #JovemNegroVivo (#YoungBlackAlive) in 2014:
"So far in 2016, more than 100 people have been killed in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The vast majority of the victims were young black men living in favelas or other marginalized areas," the Amnesty report says.
The human rights group says Brazil is on track to repeat its record of human rights violations in the months before a major international sporting event. In 2014, when Brazil hosted the World Cup, "homicides resulting from police operations rose a shocking 40%" in Rio alone, according to Amnesty. That uptick in police killings has continued: there were 580 recorded police-related deaths in 2014, and 645 in 2015.
“Brazil seems to have learned very little from the great mistakes it made over the years when it comes to public security. The policy of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ has placed Rio de Janeiro as the one of the deadliest cities on earth,” Atila Roque, executive director of Amnesty International Brazil, said in a statement. He added that the government should put in place clear directives for how and when law enforcement officers are allowed to use force, and scrutinize cases where it is used.
But so far this year, the Brazilian government has passed two laws that actually decrease accountability for law enforcement–an Antiterrorism Law and a General Law of the Olympics, both of which could be used by police to justify the use of force against protestors or anyone considered a threat. Military troops will also be sent in to head up operations in favelas, Amnesty reports, a strategy which human rights advocates say will lead to more violations because soldiers are not trained to handle public safety tasks. And last time troops were deployed to favelas for the 2014 World Cup, they stayed long after the games were over.
Police targeting of low-income black Brazilians has been an ongoing human rights issue. The Economist reported in 2014 that at least 2,000 Brazilians die each year at the hands of police officers. Those deaths are usually reported as "the result of shoot-outs with criminals," according to Human Rights Watch. "While some police killings result from legitimate use of force, others do not, a fact documented by Human Rights Watch and other groups, and recognized by Brazilian criminal justice officials." Those killings have become so commonplace that they rarely result in any kind of investigation or repercussions for the officers involved, The Economist wrote:
Usually, few apart from the victims’ families take much notice—even when the circumstances are highly suspicious, for example where the fatal wounds suggest the victim was running away when shot, or even kneeling. It is rare that a police officer is suspended for a killing; rarer still for one to be charged or tried
Including murders perpetrated by police, something like 30,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 29 are killed every year in Brazil, according to Amnesty. Of those, 77% are young black Brazilians.
The renewed discussion around police brutality in Brazil comes in the same week that Brazil has seen mass protests over another severe abuse of human rights: the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in one of Rio's favelas, evidence of which was filmed and distributed on Twitter and WhatsApp by the rapists.
The director of ONU Mulheres (the Brazilian branch of the UN's organization for women) Nadine Gasman, told Fusion yesterday that women of color in Brazil are consistently subject to disproportionate levels of violence. She said that in 2014 alone 4,700 Brazilian women were murdered. And while white women have had seen a reduction in homicide rates, Afro-Brazilian women have been murdered at much higher rates.
“In the last few years there’s been a 54% increase of murdered Afro-Brazilian women, while there’s been a 10% drop in homicides of white women,” Gasman said.
The country's interim government—in place after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached over a corruption scandal—this week held an emergency meeting after the protests over the rape. They announced the creation of a new federal police task force focused on tackling violence against women and is planning harsher prison sentences for rapists.
That could mark a turning point for women's rights in Brazil. But the question remains of whether those measures will directly help the thousands of Brazilian women of color facing violence every day, many of whom are underprivileged and often overlooked by law enforcement. And while Amnesty International and other human rights observers' warn that something must change, residents of Rio's favelas continue to live in fear of the police, even more than they fear drug traffickers or local militia.