Latin America & Caribbean

Rio violence: Protests as girl, eight, 'killed by police'

Ágatha Vitória Sales Félix Image copyright Family picture/Voz das Comunidades
Image caption The eight-year-old girl was with her mother in a van when she was killed

Protests have erupted in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro after an eight-year-old girl was allegedly killed by police, as the number of victims in operations by security forces continues to rise.

Ágatha Vitória Sales Félix was with her mother in a van when she was shot in the back in a poor area on Friday.

Residents said officers had targeted a motorcyclist when she was hit. Police said they had responded to an attack.

A record 1,249 people have died in such raids in Rio from January to August.

Ágatha is the fifth child to die as a result of violence blamed on the police this year.

Critics say the hard-line approach of Governor Wilson Witzel, who came to office in January, is behind the growing number of victims in the city's poorest areas - favelas - many of them controlled by powerful drug gangs.

Ágatha was going back home with her mother on Friday night in a van when she was shot in the back in Alemão, one of Rio's largest favelas. She was sent to a hospital but died.

In a statement, police said officers had responded to attacks from criminals, which led to a confrontation. An investigation has been launched.

But Ágatha's family disputed this, saying officers had targeted a motorcyclist that was passing nearby when she was hit, and there was no gunfight happening at the time.

"A guy came on a motorbike and the police asked him to stop. He didn't stop and left, he was unarmed, and the police shot. There was no confrontation, the only shot was [from the police]," the girl's uncle, Elias, told local media.

Her grandfather, Ailton, said: "They [authorities] will say that a child died in a confrontation. What confrontation? Was my granddaughter armed?"

Another death for the statistics

By Hugo Bachega, BBC News

Another poor, black family in mourning in Rio; another young, innocent life lost to a tragedy that spares almost no-one in the city's favelas. And, sadly, no sign that it will make any difference.

Governor Witzel has promised to fight violence with violence, a policy that has been tried in the past and has largely failed in achieving any lasting results. As more and more people die he has insisted he is on the right track and, outside the poorest districts, many see it as the price to be paid in an effort to reduce crime.

In the favelas, obviously, it is a different story. When I visited Alemão to cover yet another death blamed on the police, residents were almost unanimous in telling me how they see trigger-happy agents as the source of most of the violence.

Ágatha's smiley face was on the front page of many newspapers in Rio. But as her grandfather said, she is likely to become just another statistic. Perhaps even worse, the chance that the family will ever see any justice is close to zero.

Read Hugo's full report

On Saturday, hundreds of residents protested, some carrying placards saying "Lives in the favelas matter" and "Stop killing us". Other protests were held on Sunday hours before Ágatha's funeral.

Campaigners, politicians and social media users condemned the governor's policies. Mr Witzel has not commented on Ágatha's case but his office said it "profoundly regretted" her death.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ágatha's parents Adegilson (left) and Vanessa during the girl's funeral

Mr Witzel, a conservative former judge and marine, has adopted what many describe as a policy of confrontation, employing heavily armed officers and even helicopters with snipers to fight gangsters in densely populated favelas.

Last year, he said the authorities would "dig graves" to bury criminals if necessary, and vowed to "slaughter" any armed suspect.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Relatives and friends attended Ágatha's funeral in northern Rio
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Residents marched on Sunday to pay tribute to the girl

Opposition parliamentarian Renata Souza, who heads the Human Rights Commission at Rio State Assembly, told the BBC: "The governor [has given] the security forces a licence to kill... The state can't act as a terrorist."

Earlier this year, she called on the United Nations to investigate the police operations and, this month, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet raised concerns about the rise in killings by the police.

Number of people killed in police operations in Rio

*2019: From January to August
Source: State Government of Rio de Janeiro

Mr Witzel - who has expressed his plans to run for the presidency - has often cited a drop in homicides and other crimes as proof that his policies are working. But experts say it is not clear if this is a direct result of his approach.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who also defends the use of force against suspects, has repeatedly said that "a good criminal is a dead criminal". He and Mr Witzel have supported changes in the legislation that would protect officers from prosecution if they kill suspects.

Last month, Mr Bolsonaro said criminals would "die in the streets like cockroaches" if the changes were approved.

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