22 June 2020
The minute Rafaela Matos heard gunshots and saw helicopters over her Rio de Janeiro neighborhood, she immediately dropped to her knees to pray. She asked God to protect her fourteen-year-old son, Joao Pedro.
Then she called the boy's phone.
"Be calm," Joao Pedro texted her, saying he was safe in his aunt's house.
Just minutes later, Brazilian police burst through the door and fired their weapons. They shot the teenager in the stomach.
He did not survive the attack. But his parents would not learn that for many hours. Police did not even tell them where there son had been taken.
Joao Pedro Matos Pinto was among 600 people killed by police this year in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro. That is almost double the number killed by U.S. police during the same period in America, which has twenty times more people.
‘Teenager after teenager...'
Like Joao Pedro, most of the 600 dead were black or mixed-race and lived in the city's poorest neighborhoods, called "favelas."
The Rio de Janeiro State Public Prosecutor's Office recently described the local police as the "deadliest" in Brazil even though the state, it noted, "is not among the ten most violent states in the country."
As the Black Lives Matter movement brings hundreds of thousands to the streets worldwide, protestors angry about Joao Pedro's death are organizing the largest gatherings against police violence in years on the streets of Rio.
Protester Joao Gabriel Moreira said, "They kill teenager after teenager in their homes every day. We're here because we need to be."
Moreira made the comment at a June 10 protest. The 19-year-old civil engineering student added that he had never demonstrated about anything before this year.
"Kill a young black man in a favela, it's seen as normal — he must be a drug dealer," Moreira said. Racism has always been hidden in Brazil, he said. "That's why so few of us are here. If Brazil had racial consciousness, this street would be filled."
Rio police said they said they were involved in a joint search operation with military and federal police when they killed Joao Pedro on May eighteenth. A federal investigator on the case, Eduardo Benones, said no evidence of illegal activity was found at the site of the raid.
Police put Joao Pedro on a helicopter after the shooting. But, they never took him to a hospital. And officials gave no information to his parents about where he was or how badly he was hurt. A social media campaign quickly spread the message that Joao Pedro was missing. His body was found the next day — inside a police forensic center.
Neilton Pinto is the boy's father. "Good people live in the favela, people with families," he said.
Holding the state accountable
"I'm sure if this were in wealthy areas, police wouldn't act this way, breaking down the house of someone good."
Benones seeks to hold the Brazilian state responsible for the teenager's death. He said witness reports show that Joao Pedro was not a threat. Benones argues the boy died as a result of systemic racism in law enforcement.
"You can't say it's racism of that police officer, but a practice of police forces not taking care when dealing with the black population."
Both President Jair Bolsonaro and Rio state Governor Wilson were elected on a campaign of strong law and order. Both have said police should be widely protected from legal action when they use deadly force in the line of duty.
The Rio civil police department said that Joao Pedro's death is under investigation and that three officers have been suspended in connection with the case. Rio's military police did not answer several requests for comments.
On June 5, Brazil's Supreme Court ruled in favor of a ban on police operations in favelas until the coronavirus crisis has ended.
Joao Pedro parents attended a demonstration for the first time June 7. His mother said hearing the protesters call out his name helped ease their pain a little.
I'm Alice Bryant.
The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
knee - n. the joint that bends at the middle of your leg
aunt - n. the sister of your father or mother or the wife of your uncle
forensic - adj. relating to the use of scientific knowledge or methods in solving crimes
practice - n. something that is done often or regularly
teenager - n. someone who is between 13 and 19 years old
consciousness - n. knowledge that is shared by a group of people
prosecutor - n. a lawyer who represents the side in a court case that accuses a person of a crime and who tries to prove that the person is guilty