Murders, killings by cops rise in Rio de Janeiro, six months into intervention

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Six months after Brazil sent in federal forces to take control of security in Rio de Janeiro state, both murders and the number of people killed in police confrontations have risen, official data shows, raising questions about the strategy.

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President Michel Temer on Feb. 16 announced emergency measures authorizing the army to take command of police forces in Rio de Janeiro state, where warring drug gangs and militias have driven a sharp rise in violence.

In the first six months of the federal intervention, however, there were 3,479 murders in the state, up nearly 5 percent compared with the same period last year, according to official state data.

Between February and the end of July, 738 people were killed in confrontations with police, the data examined by Reuters shows, up more than 35 percent from the previous year. Between February and last month, 16 police officers were killed, one fewer than in the 2017 period.

“It’s very worrying, this scenario, in which the most sensitive indicators are getting worse, and we have a security policy that is focused on deepening the very issues that cause violence, such as confrontations and gun battles,” said Silvia Ramos, a coordinator of the Center for Security and Citizenship Studies in Rio de Janeiro.

Growing violence has become a key issue ahead of October elections, with candidates from across the political spectrum seeking to play up their crime-fighting credentials and appeal to an electorate fed up with a weak economy and endemic graft.

Although polls show most people in Rio de Janeiro state support the federal intervention, few discern much improvement since it began, and it has been widely criticized for a lack of transparency and unclear goals.

In a statement, the federal intervention office highlighted crime statistics that had fallen, such as cargo and car thefts, adding that “the tendency is for the reduction of the indices to proceed in the coming months.”

In an interview before the six-month anniversary, the federal intervention’s spokesman, Roberto Itamar, said much of the government’s work had focused on administrative and logistical fixes that would take longer to be perceived.

He added that the hardest part of the government’s work in the state was to repair relations between the people and their police.

“Over the course of various years (that relationship) has been weakened,” he said. “Mutual trust needs to be built.”

Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Dan Grebler