Rio Governor's Plan To Exterminate Criminals Clashes With The Law

Wilson Witzel's proposal of police snipers picking off people with heavy guns but without any confrontation faces legal hurdles

Júlia Barbon
Rio de Janeiro
The Special Ops Battalion in Rio de Janeiro during a raid at Complexo da Maré, in Rio de Janiero, on Tuesday (6th) - José Lucena/Futura Press/Folhapress

A man walks in a favela street with a rifle hanging by the shoulder. A hundred yards away, a police officer positioned by a window in a high building nearby aims and kills the man, who was not in a confrontation or targeting anyone.

If it were up to the newly elected governor of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel (PSC), the hypothetical situation described above would never bring the policeman to prosecution.  Witzel, a former federal judge, has promised during his campaign that he will allow police to kill people for no other reason than they are carrying heavy weaponry.

"The right thing to do is kill the thug carrying a rifle. The police will do what's right: they will aim at their little heads and FIRE!" he said in an interview with newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo. Witzel plans to fund sniper training - so they can shoot from helicopters -- and buying gun-firing drones.

However, the proposal bumps into the limits of the governor's power and the law. It's not clear if the conduct would be legal at all, and Witzel's cheering on the idea might cause problems for police officers. Only district attorneys can decide if someone, police officer or not, should be prosecuted for such an act.

Folha talked to 15 sources about Witzel's proposal, among then five officers from Rio de Janeiro's Military Police, three defense attorneys, two researchers, two precinct chiefs, one public defender, Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio Mello, and Minister of Public Security Raul Jungmann.

Both the State and Federal Attorney General's offices didn't want to go on the record on the matter and didn't nominate any spokespeople.

From the 15 consulted experts, 11 say that the act of killing someone only for carrying a rifle, without showing any concrete threat or resisting arrest, is illegal. Two military police officers and two precinct chiefs disagree. The discussion revolves around the articles 23 and 25 of the Brazilian Penal Code.

The articles say that there is no crime when law enforcement acts according to its duty or in self-defense when there is an imminent threat to himself or herself or someone else.

Witzel's supporters say that carrying a rifle could be qualified as an imminent threat.

But his critics say that officers can only shoot when there is a genuine act from the criminal's part. Otherwise, if the police kill the suspect, it would be considered a homicide, because it goes against United Nations resolutions that recommend gun use only when it is "strictly necessary to protect human life."

Witzel went as far as to promise a special operations unit with snipers for each one of the 40 Military Police battalions in Rio. When asked to comment, his press office backtracked, saying that the measures will be better detailed during the transition and "confrontation is the last alternative."

Translated by NATASHA MADOV

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