RIO DE JANEIRO — A police operation targeting drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday morning left at least 25 people dead, including a police officer, in an operation that officials and human rights activists called the deadliest in the city’s history.
The gun battle in Jacarezinho, a poor and working-class district controlled by the drug gang known as Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, also wounded at least two subway passengers who were struck as their train was caught in the crossfire.
Residents and human rights activists accused the police of using excessive force and questioned why the operation was launched at all, given a Supreme Court ban on law enforcement raids in the city during the pandemic.
Nadine Borges, vice president of the human rights commission at Brazil’s bar association, said a team of lawyers gathering facts had heard chilling preliminary accounts.
“There were executions of people who had already surrendered,” she said. “It was absolute barbarism.”
Jurema Werneck, the executive director of Amnesty International Brazil, described the police operation as the deadliest to have occurred in Rio de Janeiro. “This is unprecedented,” she said.
Police commanders said the shootout began at 6 a.m. when officers who had arrived to serve arrest warrants were fired upon. One officer, André Leonardo de Mello Frias, was fatally shot in the head, they said.
“There were no executions, but rather a reaction to an assault,” said Roberto Cardoso, a police commander.
Another commander, Felipe Curi, said the warrants were the result of a 10-month investigation into drug gangs’ recruitment of minors. He called the police department a “guarantor of rights” working to free people from “the dictatorship of trafficking.”
Police operations in Rio de Janeiro are among the most lethal in the world: In 2019, at least 1,810 people were killed by the police in Rio de Janeiro state, a record high. Officers are seldom subject to criminal investigation or prosecution.
Gun battles between the police and gang members in Rio de Janeiro are routine. Heavily armed traffickers act as the de facto authority in vast areas of the city, including Jacarezinho, where drugs are sold in plain sight.
Elected officials who have been critical of the police denounced Thursday’s raid.
“The slaughter in Jacarezinho is a typical example of the barbarities that happen in favelas in Rio,” Talíria Petrone, a federal lawmaker from Rio de Janeiro, said in a statement. “It’s the state doing the minimum to guarantee rights and doing the maximum to repress and kill.”
A Supreme Court justice last June banned routine police operations in Rio de Janeiro during the pandemic. The justice, Edson Fachin, said the police could carry out only those operations considered “absolutely exceptional.”
Joel Luiz Costa, a lawyer from Jacarezinho, said he visited several homes in which people were killed on Thursday and saw evidence that residents had been executed.
“This is cruel. This is barbaric,” he said in a video posted on Twitter. “Did it end drug trafficking because 25 people were killed? Will this end drug trafficking?”
The operation in Jacarezinho was undertaken less than a week after the new governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Cláudio Castro, took office. Governor Castro, whose predecessor, Wilson Witzel, was impeached on corruption charges, said fighting crime was among his highest priorities.
“I am committed to reducing the rates of violence,” he said during his swearing in ceremony on Saturday.
Rodrigo Oliveira, a deputy police chief, said his officers had conducted themselves lawfully.
“The only execution that took place was that of the police officer,” he said. “The other deaths that occurred were those of traffickers who attacked the police and were neutralized.”