Love, Death, and Human Rights: A View from Rio de Janeiro

Love, Death, and Human Rights: A View from Rio de Janeiro

My partner Clayton was murdered while riding his motorcycle home from work on April 28, 2015. He was followed by three men on two motorcycles who opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon and shot him nearly 20 times in the back. Clayton was a police officer in the favela of Manguinhos, an urban slum in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the months before his death, drug trafficking activity in the region had become more prevalent. Clayton was known in his unit — and among the favela’s drug traffickers — as an honest, hardworking cop who treated everyone with respect. The police investigation into his murder has clearly demonstrated that he was targeted and executed because of these qualities.1

Clayton was a member of Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police (Polícia Militar do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, PMERJ or PM).2 Specifically, he was an officer in what is called a Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Unit of Pacifying Police), or UPP, a community-based policing model aimed at developing lasting relationships with the city’s poorest residents — those in the favelas. These urban slums have existed in Rio de Janeiro since the late-nineteenth century, and twentieth-century state policy towards favelas has swung between neglect and complete destruction.3 When Brazil emerged from its 20-year military dictatorship in 1985, drug trafficking proliferated in the city’s favelas. Scholars have pinpointed various causes behind the rise of drug trafficking in the post-dictatorship years: the state’s complete absence from favelas (where no services such as sanitation and water existed), the patron-client relationships that have long dominated Brazilian politics, and new uncompromising attempts to combat the sale of drugs.4

Even before the arrival of drug trafficking, the history of police intervention in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas has been one of reaction and violence in which heavily militarized operations entered communities to violently combat crime but then left soon after. This impermanent solution allowed the police to disrespect the human rights of residents and the drug traffickers to remain in control. But in 2007, the state of Rio’s newly elected governor, Sérgio Cabral, appointed a member of the Federal Police, the Brazilian equivalent of the FBI, José Mariano Beltrame as the State Secretary of Public Safety (SESEG). This new administration took a hard line approach, refusing to negotiate with criminal factions. At the same time, they implemented a form of community policing in which favelas would be taken over from drug traffickers (as had happened in the past), but now a permanent police force would remain to engage with the community — the UPP.5

Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP). (Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil | CC BY BR)
Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP). (Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil | CC BY BR)

Initial studies of the UPPs have been positive.6 However, as the former General Coordinator of the city’s UPP initiative Coronel Robson Rodrigues has argued, the program has focused more heavily on the initial militarized occupation and stabilization stages and not the monitoring and evaluation stage that was supposed to be accompanied by increased social services and state support. Moreover, the SESEG’s stated goals of the “pacification” model are not clearly articulated or disseminated and no real changes to the training of officers has occurred.7 In other words, the state is trying to implement a new model of policing within an old and broken system. In the words of Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

The military police in Rio de Janeiro have a long reputation of violence and corruption. And while the force has improved drastically over the last decade, abuses of power by the police continue to happen. The notorious 2013 case of Amarildo, in which UPP police — including the highest commanding officer — tortured and disappeared a resident of the South Zone favela Rocinha, was prominent in the news. In April of 2015, 10-year-old Eduardo Ferreira was shot and killed by police in Complexo de Alemão, another large favela in the city’s North Zone. In September, police officers working at the UPP in the central favela Morro da Providência killed 17-year-old Eduardo Felipe Santos Victor and then tried to cover up the crime. At the end of November, four police officers shot and killed five teenage boys and then adulterated the scene of the crime in Rio’s northern suburbs. All are being prosecuted. And abuses continue.

The police in Rio de Janeiro are violent. There is no doubt about that. But quantitatively it also seems that violence against the police has been on the rise. Over the last year, attacks on UPPs in the city’s poorer North Zone have become bolder. In March 2014, for example, drug traffickers firebombed the UPP base in the favela of Arará/Mandela, just next to where Clayton worked. Neighboring favela Complexo de Alemão is considered by many as a war zone.

In the last few months, attacks on the police outside of work have also become more bold and terrifying. At the end of September, PM Bruno Rodrigues Pereira was dragged behind a horse until he died. In mid-October, PM Neandro Santos Oliveira disappeared. Days later his body was found burned. Forensic specialists declared he had been burned alive. At the beginning of December, the body of PM Bruno Cristian da Silva Pereira also was found burned. It took several days for the police to be able to identify him. Just a few days later, PM Reginaldo Cândido de Souza was found dead in his car. He had been shot to death on his way to work. This doesn’t include the police officers who have been shot while at work, deaths which Beltrame has called “executions.”

UPP in Rocinha. (Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil | CC BY BR)
UPP in Rocinha. (Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil | CC BY BR)

During one of my trips back to Brazil in September, the police tried to enter the favela where Clayton worked to arrest four drug traffickers accused of his murder. The police were met with gunfire, and 13-year-old Cristian Soares Andrade was killed in the crossfire. The human rights community was justifiably outraged. In reading their interpretations, however, I became enraged in return. Amnesty International, for example, distorted their reporting on the issue, writing as if the event had occurred in a vacuum, and the police had arrived guns blazing “just because.” It hurts when the justice trying to be done was for your loved one and those who seem to support human rights erase the possibility that Clayton had them. Eight children in 2015 died from “balas perdidas” or stray bullets during confrontations between the police and drug traffickers in Rio’s favelas. We all need to be incensed about this, but let’s look at the whole picture. Cristian’s and Clayton’s murders exist on the same spectrum. The violence that killed Cristian also killed Clayton.

Soon after the operation, the Rio de Janeiro State Assembly (ALERJ) Committee on Human Rights — headed by the leftist assemblyman Marcelo Freixo — entered in contact with the family of Cristian, pledging much needed support. Again, I was both supportive and outraged. Why hadn’t the Commission contacted me or the members of Clayton’s family? Was Clayton’s death not a violation of his human rights? Recently, the Commission has begun contacting the family members of police officers (one police officer who was part of Freixo’s security team was also murdered a short while ago), and so I set up a meeting in early October. My question to the members was simple: who has human rights? More specifically, do they choose who they contact and assist or do they wait for cases to come to them? The answer was also simple: Everyone has human rights. We try to contact everyone who is affected by violence. My follow-up — why did no one contact Clayton’s family? — was met with “it depends on the case.”8

On the level of structural inequality, I understand. In overall numbers, many more poor persons, often of color, die in favelas than the police, and the police hold a great deal of unilateral power over the lives of residents. It makes sense that the Commission would focus on helping the most vulnerable. But on the level of human emotion and pain, I do not understand. How could you not think Clayton’s life was just as important as Cristian’s? Can we differentiate the value of life so openly? Does everyone really have human rights in Brazil?

Rio da Paz memorial. (Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil | CC BY BR)
Rio da Paz memorial. (Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil | CC BY BR)

The NGO (or ONG in Portuguese) Rio de Paz (Rio of Peace) has called attention to the question of human rights — or the lack thereof — in the city. It has focused on both favela residents and police officers, demonstrating that to combat the problem of urban violence, everyone’s safety and security must be assured and protected. The organization has stated that a negligent Brazilian state is responsible for all human rights violations. Its visual representations and commemorations of the victims of violence put a face to what often appears as statistics. One December 2015 event on Copacabana Beach included a picture of Clayton. I cried when I saw it. I can only imagine how the family members of all the fallen police officers pictured on the beach felt. And news outlets and prominent figures have questioned how we think about the deaths of police officers. Even English-language news media are presenting a fuller picture of what it means to be a police officer in Rio de Janeiro — and a favela resident. But major U.S. newspapers continue to report in terms that cater to American understandings of police violence — an understanding that cannot simply be transported into a Brazilian context.


Recently, the body of one of Clayton’s murderers was found on the outskirts of the city. 23-year-old Luanzinho had dubbed himself the “cop-killer.” After his death I learned that when Luanzinho had murdered Clayton, he had actually been in prison. Luanzinho had been imprisoned in what is called a “semi-open” regime, where he was allowed to leave the prison during the day. In late January 2014, a judge found that Luanzinho had violated his terms but allowed him to continue in a semi-open sentence. It was under these legal conditions that Luanzinho left and shot Clayton. After that, he went into hiding. And he killed more cops. Days before he was shot to death, Luanzinho executed two more police officers. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for a man who, after killing Clayton, posted on Facebook, “one more going to hell, hahahaha” (mais um pro inferno kkkkk).9 It hurts me to ponder that this extrajudicial killing (the media has not reported on the perpetrator) was perhaps the only way to stop Luanzinho from continuing to murder. And perhaps the hardest thing for me to grapple with is to know that Luanzinho, too, deserves human rights. Even though I don’t want to give him them.

Clayton Fagner Alves Dias and Cassia Roth.
Clayton Fagner Alves Dias and Cassia Roth.

In a country full of “rights,” many enshrined in the 1988 Constitution, it seems only those with privilege can access those rights. My privilege as a middle-class, white American has been made obvious to me in the months since Clayton’s murder. People listen to me more than they listen to the other members of Clayton’s family. Important people call me on my phone when I make a fuss. I can leave Brazil — I don’t have to continue to live in a cycle of poverty and violence that seems only regenerated with each passing death. Yet these privileges mean nothing in the face of the tragic loss of Clayton’s life. I lost a friend, a lover, the partnership we had formed, the life we had chosen to live together. So as I slowly lose faith in humanity, the question remains: Who has human rights? With every passing day, I think: no one.

If you are interested in supporting Clayton’s family, you can make a donation here.

Further Reading

Carlos Amorim. Comando Vermelho: a história do crime organizado. Rio de Janeiro: Edições BestBolso, 2011.

Erika Robb Larkins. The Spectacular Favela: Violence in Modern Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.

R. Ben Penglase. Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela: Urban Violence and Daily Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014.


  1. Secretaria de Estado de Segurança (SESEG), Chefia da Polícia Civil, Divisão de Homicídios (DH). N. 037-02622/2015. Vítima, Clayton Fagner Alves Dias. Return to text.
  2. The PM are not actually associated with the military. The police in Rio are divided into two forces — the PM and the Civil Police (PC) — the former responsible for patrolling and preventing crimes and the latter for investigating. Robson Rodrigues, “The Dilemmas of Pacification: News of War and Peace in the ‘Marvelous City,’” Stability: International Journal of Security & Development 3, no. 1 (2014): 14n16. Return to text.
  3. Brodwyn M. Fischer, A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); Bryan McCann, Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). Return to text.
  4. Enrique Desmond Arias, Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Donna M. Goldstein, Laughter out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Ben Penglase, “The Bastard Child of the Dictatorship: The Comando Vermelho and the Birth of ‘Narco-Culture’ in Rio de Janeiro,” Luso-Brazilian Review 45, no. 1 (2008): 118–45. Return to text.
  5. Vicente Riccio et al., “Community Policing in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro,” Police Practice and Research: An International Journal 14, no. 4 (2013): 312. There were several precursors to the UPPs, but none with the permanent vision of the current program. See Riccio et al., “Community Policing”; Rodrigues, “The Dilemmas of Pacification.” Return to text.
  6. Ignacio Cano, Doriam Borges, and Eduardo Ribeiro, eds., Os donos do morro: uma avaliação exploratória do impacto das Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPPs) no Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro: LAV/UERJ, 2012); Riccio et al., “Community Policing.” Return to text.
  7. Rodrigues, “The Dilemmas of Pacification.” Return to text.
  8. Personal meeting with the Comissão de Direitos Humanos da Alerj. October 9, 2015. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Return to text.
  9. Secretaria de Estado de Segurança (SESEG), Chefia da Polícia Civil, Divisão de Homicídios (DH). N. 037-02622/2015. Vítima, Clayton Fagner Alves Dias, 42. Return to text.

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.