As we come to the end of the first week of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, not everyone's eyes are on the medal tally or the groundbreaking moments unfolding at venues around the city.
The Brazil branch of human rights group Amnesty International has been monitoring both gun violence and police brutality in the lead-up to the games. While those are ongoing issues in Rio, they say Brazil has a history of increased police brutality in the lead-up to and during major sporting events. For residents of Rio's favelas (shanty towns which some 24% of Rio's population call home), that could compound the threat of gun violence and police brutality they live with daily.
In 2014, when Brazil hosted the month-long Soccer World Cup, police killings rose 40% from the previous year, according to the group. They say most of those killings were never investigated.
"What you see is that authorities have not learned from previous experiences," Renata Neder, Human Rights Advisor at Amnesty International, told me. "Cases of killings by the police are not investigated and that impunity of those cases, obviously, fuels a cycle of violence."
In July, Amnesty launched an app for smartphones, CrossFire (Fogo Cruzado in Portuguese), to help people in Rio monitor gun violence and police shootings in their neighborhoods. In the week since the Olympic games began, 48 shootings were reported through the app. Four of those reportedly occurred during what Amnesty calls "police operations," or police-involved killings. Ten people have been reported killed in shootings. In July, users reported 756 shootings, including 51 deaths. The reports are collected from the app and published in an interactive map:
Amnesty Brazil say the app has been downloaded 35,000 times by Aug. 2. Submissions are drawn from Rio residents, news and police reports, and Amnesty partners on the ground, who try to follow up and verify reports submitted by locals. The group says a concentration of reports are coming in from favelas like Complexo do Alemão and an area called Baixada Fluminense, just north of Rio de Janeiro.
"It is time for the Brazilian authorities to take real action by moving away from focusing on heavily armed police operations and instead promote public security policies aimed at protecting everybody," said Neder.
In the first week of August, users reported 87 shootings. Of those, 14 resulted in a reported fatality. And 15 of those shootings occurred during police operations, users said:
That picture of violence is not evenly distributed across the city, or across races. Young black men living in favelas and on the outskirts of Rio are far more likely to be the victims of homicides, according to Amnesty: of around 56,000 victims of homicides each year in Brazil, 30,000 are aged 15–29 and 77% are black people.
That pattern of black men bearing the brunt of killings holds true for police-involved killings, too. Another human rights group, Human Rights Watch, released its own police violence report in July, which found that "One fifth of all homicides in the city of Rio last year were police killings. Three quarters of those killed by police were black men."
The Human Rights Watch report found that police in the state of Rio killed 645 people last year–in the past 10 years, that figure rises to 8,000 people killed by police. Between January and May this year, the Guardian reports that 322 people have been killed by police in Rio. The HRW report says that most killings are reported by police as self-defense, which might hold true in some cases but is often used as a cover for police brutality:
The Rio police report nearly all such killings as legitimate acts of self-defense in response to attacks by suspected criminals. Given that police in Rio often face real threats of violence from heavily-armed gangs, many of these killings are likely the result of the legitimate use of force.
Many others, however, are in reality extrajudicial killings. Police shoot at unarmed people. They shoot people in the back as they are fleeing. They execute people who have been detained with a bullet to the head.
The CrossFire app, Amnesty says, was developed to address discrepancies and shortcomings in reporting neighborhood violence to authorities, borne out of growing mistrust of law enforcement among communities. The app also, Amnesty said, tracks all shootings, and not just shootings with victims, providing a bigger picture of the volatile environment favela residents live with day to day. Living in neighborhoods with the constant threat of violence has been found to cause PTSD.
The app is also intended to help monitor increased police presence, including the military police deployed to favelas during the games. In the months leading up to the Olympics, the Brazilian government passed two laws providing legal protections for law enforcement to use force against anyone they classify as a threat. Those laws were condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, and Brazilian human rights groups including Conectas, Article 19, and Justiça Global, as reducing police accountability and creating a platform for police to abuse their power.
"The more pressure the better for making sure that violations don’t happen, and for the ones that are already happening, that the cases are thoroughly investigated," said Neder.