Military Police in Rio kill man after mistaking an umbrella for a rifle, according to witnesses
Rodrigo Alexandre da Silva Serrano was struck three times as he waited for his wife and children to return home
By Marques Travae
It’s been some time since I’ve covered a murder connected to the Military Police (PM) but this doesn’t mean it doesn’t still happen. As I’ve written in a number of previous post, one could host a blog and have material to post everyday just covering the murder of innocent civilians living in Brazil’s poor favela communities. Although this murder happened three weeks ago, I felt the need to cover the story as people in one of my social networks passed along information that there was a fund-raising campaign going on to raise money for the family. So let’s re-count the details of what happened on September 18th.
It was a rainy day in Rio on Monday, September 17th, as the darkness began to descend on the city. Rodrigo Alexandre da Silva Serrano, 26, lived with his wife and children in the south zone favela of Chapéu Mangueira. On this particular night, Rodrigo awaited the arrival of his wife of seven years and his children. Upon realizing his family had arrived, at about 7:30pm he went down the hillside to meet them. As it was raining, he carried a black umbrella along with a “kangaroo” baby carrier and his keys.
It was at that very moment that three shots rang out. Three shots that struck Rodrigo. People of the community say that the UPP (Pacifying Police Unit) of the region, that is notorious for its actions in the favela, took shots at Rodrigo having mistaken his umbrella for a rifle and his kangaroo baby carrier as a bulletproof vest. The details here take us back to a “how to survive in Rio de Janeiro” video by three activists back in February. One of their tips that may have sounded like a joke at the time, was to try and avoid using an umbrella in a public place.
Rodrigo Alexandre, married to wife Thayssa for seven years, died. He left behind two children, a 4-year old and a baby of 10 months.
“It was raining and his wife and two children weren’t home, so he went down the hill to wait for them,” said one resident of the community. The person, like so many other favela inhabitants witnessing police actions, didn’t want be identified out of fear of police retaliation. “The police rushed down, thought he had a vest and a rifle, and fired. The PM not only shot, as they killed the man,” said the same resident. “There was no (police) operation at the time. There was no exchange of fire,” the resident pointed out. In the ongoing war between police forces and the tiny percentage of residents involved in drug trafficking, shoot outs in which innocent victims die are a routine occurrence.
And as also usually happens, Rio’s Military Police portrayed a different portrait of the circumstances leading to Rodrigo’s death. According to police “agents were alerted by people that there were criminals in the area. Arriving on the scene, there was an exchange of shots and a brief confrontation.”
“I asked for an explanation from the police and they treated me super bad. They came to say that whoever shot my husband was a criminal, but it was not. Those who shot were the police,” said Rodrigo’s wife, Thayssa. “How does this happen? Now I want an explanation, because the reason is always on the police’s side. I want justice,” said Thayssa. “My four-year-old son already knows what a shootout is. What kind of reality is this? His daycare center has been targeted several times. He knows what it is to squat, to hide himself. A four-year-old boy already has this notion of what happens inside the community,” added Thayssa, who born and and grew up in the Chapéu Mangueira favela.
After the murder of Rodrigo, community residents organized a protest in which many wielded umbrellas of the same kind of which Rodrigo was holding when he was shot. Angry resident also expressed their outrage in social networks in which they captioned the photo of the protest with the line: “It’s only in the favela that an umbrella is mistaken with a rifle”. Another caption that expressed residents’ understanding of an unofficial war on black Brazilians read: “Toda favela é um campo de extermínio do povo preto” (Every favela is a field of extermination of black people).
The protest reminded all that Rodrigo’s murder was reminiscent of the circumstances surrounding numerous other residents being struck down by PM bullets. This year alone there have already been 159 people struck with stray bullets in Rio, 35 of which died.
“They’ve mistaken a drill with a gun and killed a black worker. They’ve already mistaken 5 young black men with criminals and killed them all. They’ve already killed 21 innocents in Vigário Geral. How many poor blacks need to die more for this to end?” screamed Valdnei Medina Machado da Silva from a loudspeaker during the protest. Da Silva is the former president of the Chapéu Mangueira residents association. He also acknowledged that although Rodrigo had a criminal record for robbery, before being killed, he worked as a lookout at a local restaurant and earned extra income as a beach vendor to support his family.
Raull Santiago, a social activist active in the media platform Papo Reto, encouraged others in the community to make similar images to express their indignation with yet another brutal murder in one of Rio’s poor communities. Santiago also took to social networks to express a common sentiment that residents feel when the subject is how the PM approach favela communities: “primeiro atira, depois pergunta” (shoot first, ask questions later).
On the social network page, a collage of images pointed out how ridiculous it was declare a military police agent could possibly confuse something as detailed as a rifle with an umbrella. Under the post read the caption: “How can a policeman who, most of the times, has a rifle, confuse an umbrella with a war weapon?”
In defense of the action, the Military Police pointed out that Rodrigo wasn’t the only man what ended up being shot and taken to the hospital. In fact, the same hospital as Rodrigo. The note went on to say that “one of them (Rodrigo) succumbed to his wounds. And in typical PM fashion, as if to justify the death of another resident, the note also mentioned that he “had a criminal record for robbery and drug trafficking.”
This sort of “justification” is always problematic because it suggests that someone deserves to die if they had any run-ins with the law. Civil Police was also asked to comment on the case but hadn’t released a statement by press time.
For the PM, a drill is also a weapon
One morning in May 2010, a police officer from the Special Operations Battalion (Bope) of Rio de Janeiro assassinated the supermarket employee Hélio Ribeiro, 46, a resident of Morro do Andaraí, in the north of the capital, with a shot. He was on the roof of his house holding a tarp with a drill. At the time, Capt. Ivan Blaz, a spokesman for Bope, said that “the police officer is psychologically upset,” and said “I’m very sorry about the fact, since the police officer has a clear career and an unfortunate event occurred.” Subsequently the corporal Leonardo Albarello, author of the shot, was acquitted by the Courts.
Typically, when these things happen, the perpetrating police agent is often removed from duty for a period of time pending a trial. After two years of the shooting of Ribeiro, Albarello was acquitted of murder by a judge at the 3rd Criminal Court of Rio. In another instance that perfectly exemplifies why so many favela residents don’t have faith in the justice system, in this case, it was the Public Prosecutor of Rio that pushed for the corporal to be acquitted of the charges. As a result, the case didn’t even make it to the jury court.