She wasn’t wearing her Wonder Woman costume that day. Powerless and oblivious to any threat, 8-year-old Agatha Felix was shot in the back – apparently by a police officer – as she rode home in a van next to her mum. The girl died in hospital. She was only eight years old.
In her community, kids learn how to survive at a very early age: when the first sound of gunshots is heard, they rush to hide under beds and tables at home or at school. Death and loss are also horribly familiar to children who often see bodies lying in the street.
This is not Syria or Yemen. It is not a war zone. It is the brutal reality of millions of residents who live under siege in the complex of favelas in northern Rio known as Alemão – and favelas all over Brazil – caught in the crossfire between the police and drugs gangs. In August, traumatised children from the favela wrote 1,500 letters to the authorities asking for the end of violence, all in vain.
Àgatha Félix was the 17th child shot in Rio this year, the 5th to die.
These stats are from Fogo Cruzado (Cross Fire) an app that monitors shootings in real time in Rio (Brazilians check the app daily before stepping out of their homes on their way to school, to work or to the beach).
Between January and August, a staggering 1,249 people were killed by the police compared to 1,534 in the whole of last year, according to Rio’s Public Security Institute. On average, in 2019, Rio’s police have killed more than six people a day – almost 45 per week.
“This is called State Terrorism”, writes Thiago Amparo, a law professor of diversity policy who holds accountable the authorities responsible for financing social terror based on race. The vast majority of the victims shot by the police are young, black and poor.
The increased police violence in Rio, security specialists and human rights defenders agree, is a direct result of the shoot-to-kill policy encouraged by the new right-wing governor of Rio – Wilson Witzel. Witzel was elected in January on the same “tough on crime” platform that helped president Jair Bolsonaro to power. Neither of them has offered condolences to Agatha’s family, nor to any family who lost their innocent loved ones.
Rather, Witzel has repeatedly glorified police violence, celebrating killings in the “war” on “narco-terrorists” that is having such devastating consequences for the communities where it is being waged.
Soon after a police sniper killed a Rio bus hijacker, Witzel arrived at the scene by helicopter and stepped out dancing with his fists in the air in celebration. He has also promoted videos of himself riding shotgun in a police helicopter as officers fire on the favela below with automatic weapons. The popular phrase that guides his administration is “bandido bom é bandido morto” – the only good criminal is a dead one.
Four days after Agatha’s death, Witzel broke his silence and made a statement with no remorse. He blamed the users of marijuana and cocaine for her death and defended his policies saying that police will carry on with operations that include snipers shooting suspects from helicopters in highly populated areas. He also suspended a bonus available to police officers for reducing deaths on duty – a move seen as a green light for more atrocities.
Back in the Complexo do Alemao where Ágatha lived and died, residents took to the streets to stand up against what they call a genocide of black communities. The hashtag #AculpaEDoWitzel (It’s Wiltzel’s fault) is still trending. Cartoonists drew pictures of the governor with blood on his hands. A video of Ágatha’s distraught grandfather went viral showing him challenging the police version that they were under attack. “They shot at the van and killed my granddaughter. That was it,” he says. “This is a confrontation? Was my granddaughter armed, by any chance, to get shot?”
The case made it all the way to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Brazilian organisations called on the international community “to stand up against this racist bloodbath triggered by governor Witzel.” The Organisation of American States demanded justice. UNICEF stated that Ágatha’s death exposes the pain felt by 32 more families every day, who must bury their children, the victims of violence.
But despite international pressure, it is unlikely the investigation will be conclusive. The police said that the bullet that killed Ágatha came from an automatic rifle used by both the police officers and the drug gangs and cannot be traced. Similar excuses were made for the other four children who died this year in Rio. It does not come as a surprise, 73% of the cases of homicides recorded in Rio in the last two years are still open, according to the Violence Monitor, overseen by the news website G1. These unsolved crimes include the murder of Marielle Franco, a high-profile black politician, feminist and human rights activist; making Brazil look like a country of impunity.
Agatha’s brutal death caused an outcry in Brazil. Artists, writers, politicians and ordinary people shared their reactions on social media. Her emotional funeral, attended by hundreds, was widely covered by the media. The next day her parents gave a moving and hard-to-watch interview on national TV. At the very end, the father, wearing a t-shirt spattered with blood, begged:
“Please, please stop killing us.”
But “us” is not everyone in Brazil, one of the most unequal countries in the world. A privileged part of the society, who can afford to live in safer neighbourhoods, also suffer from increasing violence. But this is nothing compared to the collateral damage of the so-called war on drugs, a ‘war’ that disproportionately targets black people from poor communities. Their kids are dying and the silence of a large part of Brazil’s population, relatively insulated from the violence, can also be blamed.
“Every time there is blood and you don’t speak up is also your fault” said Raull Santiago, a human rights activist from Agatha’s favela. Speaking live on social media, right after the girl was shot, he said it’s time for all Brazilians – rich and poor, white and black – to join an organised movement and to take to the streets. Santiago demands a public security policy that is not made for the elite to feel comfortable, but a model that is more inclusive and respects the human right to life.
There will be another Ágatha next week, no doubt. Meanwhile, the 8-year-old girl’s image dressed up as a superhero offers a silent reproach to every one of us who did not do enough to prevent her death. In the words of Portuguese author Valter Hugo Mae: “Nothing of what I am, what I did, and what I said was enough to keep them from forbidding you to live. Your colour is still forbidden, your gender is still forbidden, now your age is forbidden too. I’m so sorry. We all failed. We are citizens of a miserable time.”