Twelve-year-old Kauê Ribeiro dos Santos had been flying his kite and playing with friends when he was fatally shot during one of the frequent military police raids in this city’s slums.
“The police just turn up shooting, they don’t care who dies,” Kauê’s mother, Mônica Ribeiro, said soon after her son, the fourth of eight children, was killed last month. “We hide, we throw ourselves on the floor, we’d bury ourselves in a hole in the ground if we could.”
Kauê was black, poor and male, like most of those killed in a crusade against criminal gangs driven by President Jair Bolsonaro and championed by his ally, Rio’s state governor, Wilson Witzel. Both men were elected late last year on law-and-order campaigns targeting the rampant crime that has pushed Brazil’s homicide rate to about five times the global average.
Since taking office on Jan. 1, Mr. Bolsonaro, who was an army captain, and Mr. Witzel, an ex-Marine, have encouraged police to kill armed criminals.
Police in Rio state killed 1,249 people from January through August—nearly one-third of all killings in the period, and an average of more than four a day. That total doesn’t include cases that are still under investigation.
Murders fell 21.5% in Rio state through August, while police killings rose 16%—proof to Mr. Witzel’s supporters that the new tactics are working. Rio’s state government said police don’t set out to engage in shootouts and that the main objective is to arrest suspects and seize weapons.
But over nine months into the new administration, violent police operations have deepened a sense of abandonment and distrust in poor communities.
Residents of the Complexo do Chapadão favela, home to more than 30,000 people, say Mr. Witzel’s statements have given police more confidence to shoot suspects without fear of disciplinary reprisal.
“There were shootouts here before, but police used to be more cautious, more respectful,” said Nadia dos Santos, a friend of Kauê’s mother whose own son and nephew were killed by police several years ago. “They would warn local schools ahead of time of their operations—not anymore.”
Violence intensified in Complexo do Chapadão when gang leaders migrated to the favela after police cracked down on slums closer to Rio’s tourist-packed beaches ahead of the city’s 2014 soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
The foot soldiers for the drug gangs, young men and boys in designer T-shirts, guard entrances to the neighborhood where stacks of tires serve as barriers to police armored vehicles. Inside the slum, men openly sell cocaine in sandwich bags on the sidewalks, as if it were flour.
Many beleaguered residents look for hope in evangelical Christianity or, like Kauê and other boys, in a soccer league.
Jaime Pereira, 52, a coach of the Black Ball Club where Kauê played, said that while some players are so poor they pass out during training for lack of food, he makes sure they each have an official jersey.
“We needed a way to identify the kids to protect them on their way to and from training,” he said. “That way, the police can’t shoot them and just write them off as criminals.”
The recent deaths of children have led some slum residents to challenge such assertions by police and politicians.
In August, a 16-year-old boy was shot on his way to soccer practice. In September, 8-year-old Ágatha Félix was killed by what her family said was a stray police bullet that struck her in the back. Her death brought protests outside government buildings in Rio led by political opponents of Mr. Bolsonaro. Police said they were investigating the deaths.
After Kauê was shot, Ms. Ribeiro was at the hospital looking for him when a plainclothes detective showed her a photograph of her dead son with a bullet wound to the head.
The first thing he said to her, she recalled, was: “You know your son is involved with the drug gangs, right?”
“He wasn’t!” she insisted, still dazed a week later as she recounted the exchange. Kauê’s soccer coach called the police assertion ridiculous.
Rio’s military police said they were investigating the shooting. The raid was prompted by a tip about the theft of truck cargo, they said. Officers said they engaged armed men in a gunfight and that five men were injured, one fatally.
Witnesses told Ms. Ribeiro that police arrived on the scene already shooting and fired the bullet that struck Kauê. The morgue told her the bullet was a 7.62-caliber, used in the rifles commonly issued to officers; police reports showed no rifle among the weaponry recovered from the gang. Police declined to comment further on the case, which they said is under internal investigation.
Mr. Bolsonaro has said that police tactics have been instrumental in bringing down the number of homicides in Brazil, which dropped by 10% to 57,341 in 2018 and another 20% this year through June, compared with the same period a year earlier.
But a study by Rio’s public prosecutors released in September showed no correlation between a rising number of police killings and falling murders. Some crime researchers attributed the fall to a truce in gang turf wars and greater investment in police intelligence work.
While politicians hope aggressive police tactics will deter crime in the short-term, the approach can backfire in the long-term, said Robert Muggah, head of the Igarapé Institute, a policy group in Rio that studies crime.
Heavy-handed policing reduces the trust that people living in crime-ridden communities have in security forces, making residents less likely to cooperate with investigators, he said.
But as in the Philippines and Venezuela, where hard-line leaders have endorsed brutal tactics, police raids and the killing of suspects in Brazil can be popular with residents terrified by endemic crime, he said.
“Citizens are often more tolerant of the excessive use of force and prepared to suspend certain civil liberties if [they believe] such actions will deliver more security,” said Mr. Muggah.
“Criminals deserve to die,” said Maria Lisboa, a 58-year-old resident of Copacabana, the affluent beachfront community. “We don’t even have the freedom to walk on the streets at night while they have the freedom to go around killing people.”
A police officer in Copacabana defended his colleagues. “The police aren’t made up of bandits that go into the slums shooting,” said Aurilio Nascimento, 63. He said drug traffickers put pressure on residents to turn the public against the police—but that officers sometimes do make mistakes in the heat of the moment.