Quilombo City – Cemetery City: Death and Black Resistance in Jacarezinho


May 6th, 2021, Jacarezinho, Rio de Janeiro – Foto: Fabiano Rocha

On the morning of May 6th, the civil and military police of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, carried out a military operation of about nine hours in Jacarezinho, a neighborhood in the north part of the city, leaving 29 dead, several injured, destruction and the whole favela traumatized by brutality and bloodshed.


May 6th, 2021, Jacarezinho, Rio de Janeiro – Foto: Mauro Pimentel

It is not possible to talk about the city of Rio de Janeiro and its police without starting to rummage through its colonial past. In this city, where about 1 million enslaved Africans arrived (out of a total of nearly 4 million who landed in the country), it resists the ruins to this day the Valongo Wharf – one of the largest landing ports of enslaved people in the history of mankind.


The Valongo wharf – 2014 (place where enslaved Africans were landed and traded)

The Port Area of Rio was known in the 19th century as “Little Africa”, such was the concentration of Africans in the region. Several research studies claim that Rio de Janeiro had more Africans than any other city in Africa during this period. It is from here that all started.


Foto: Marc Ferrez, supposedly the only photo taken aboard a French slave ship – 1882

It is not by chance that in this same region there is the “Cemetery of the New BlacksCPN“, an archeological site and museum where the bones and belongings of about 300 Africans who have already arrived dead in the port of Rio are found. other places in the port area served as spawning pits for African bodies that could not withstand the torture and violence in the holds of slave ships during the long crossing of the Atlantic.


Promotional picture: Cemetery of the New Blacks – 2015

It is worth warning the reader so that you are not mistaken: The CPN did not emerge from an official program of reparations and historical rescue of our cruel past. It appears “accidentally” when a family decides to renovate their property in the region, and suddenly finds this story under their feet. It is literally opening a hole in the ground and coming face to face with all the heritage of massacre and brutality that precisely make up the city of Rio de Janeiro.

The initiative of Merced Guimarães, owner of the property and current coordinator of the museum, rekindled the debate on the massive presence of the remains of Africans who passed through this region and unfortunately never awakened politicians to the public interest in digging and uncovering the shames of our foundational memory.

Several historians and activists of the Black movement say that, like this one, there are other informal cemeteries, where Africans were buried along with their few clothes and whatever belongings and objects they had. In some caves are found pottery and other items from the time.


Divulgação: Cemitério dos Pretos Novos – Foto de 2015

Royal Police Guard – Emergence of the Police – Capitão do Mato

The Wikipedia definition for “Capitão do Mato” is: In Brazil, the Captain of the Forest (Capitão do Mato) was the servant of a farm or factory in charge of capturing runaway slaved people. In Brazilian society they enjoyed very little social prestige and were suspected of kidnapping slaves who had been caught at random, hoping to see them declared on the run, to return them to their owners upon payment of a reward.


Capitão do mato. 1823. Ilustration by  Johann Moritz Rugendas

Still using Wikipedia to understand the emergence of the police as an institution in the city, we need to start with the name of the Royal Police Guard.

At the beginning of the 19th century, as a result of the Napoleonic campaign to conquer the European continent, the Portuguese Royal Family, together with its court, decided to move to Brazil. Arriving here, the Court was installed in the city of Rio de Janeiro, starting the reorganization of the State on March 11, 1808, with the appointment of ministers.

Public security, at the time, was carried out by the so-called quadrilheiros (gang members) a group formed by the Portuguese kingdom to patrol the cities and towns of that country, and which was extended to colonial Brazil. They were responsible for policing the 75 streets and alleys of the city of Rio. With the arrival of this “new population”, the gangs were no longer sufficient to protect the Court, then with around 60 thousand people, with more than half being slaved people.

Police Coat of Arms – Its slavery origin is a sign of pride within the military police until today

Over the years, the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro has undergone administrative and operational changes, but without losing its slaveholding origins and pride. The maximum proof of this is the maintenance of its official coat of arms, which in itself represents the capture, torture, and commercialization of Africans enslaved for forced labor in the colonial sugarcane and coffee plantations in Rio de Janeiro.

See the table below to understand each element present in its coat of arms and why it is, in fact, an indelible representation of a historical massacre.


Infographics: Vito Ribeiro

It is not by chance that by every 23 minutes a young Black man is murdered in Brazil. See Amnesty International’s recent survey of the alarming numbers of the country’s ongoing genocide.

May 13th, 1888 

On May 13th, 1888, Princess Isabel signed the so-called “Golden Law” and “abolished” slavery. This phrase needs many quotes, because in practice what happened was a strategic adhesion, which had nothing to do with the recognition and reparation of the brutality of centuries of slavery of African peoples, but rather an adaptation to new world trade models, mainly pressured by England.

Even so, Brazil was the last country in the Americas continent to “abolish” the enslaved work of Africans, and after that, Africans continued under slavery for decades. It was evident that there would be no policy of reparation or compensation or even the transfer of land ownership for this “newly freed” population. Once again they were on their own.

It is important to update that the movement for the rights of the Black people, since its emergence in the country, has never swallowed May 13th as a day of liberation granted by a white and benevolent princess. On the contrary, the date was always occupied by a feeling of struggle and contestation. And it was finally renamed by the same movement as the “National Day for the Fight Against Racism”. It is a day of struggle, of marches, of remembrance of a past of massacre not so long ago.

Attributing the liberation of enslaved peoples to Princess Isabel only serves, in the end, to make invisible and erase the various revolts of enslaved Black people that took place throughout Brazilian history. African slavery time was never peaceful. The Malês Revolt in 1935 is just one example of the many revolts during that time.

The Malês Revolt  (Wikipedia)

The Malês Revolt was an uprising of enslaved people, mostly Muslim, in the city of Salvador, capital of Bahia, which took place in the night of January 24th to 25th, 1835. It was the most important uprising in the then province of Bahia.

The malês were Black people of Islamic origin, which organized the uprising. The term malê originates from the word imalê, which means “Muslim” in the Yoruba language.

The Male Revolt (also known as The Great Revolt) was a Muslim uprising in Brazil. On a Sunday, in January 25th,  during Ramadan, in the city of Salvador da Bahia, the group of enslaved African Muslims and freedmen, inspired by Muslim teachers, rose up against the government. Muslims were called malê in Bahia at this time, from Yoruba imale that designated to Yoruba Muslim.

The uprising took place on the feast day of Our Lady of Guidance, a celebration in the Bonfim’s church’s cycle of religious holidays. As a result, many worshipers traveled to Bonfim for the weekend to pray or celebrate. Authorities were in Bonfim in order to keep the celebrations in line. Consequently, there would be fewer people and authorities in Salvador, making it easier for the revolutionists to occupy the city.

The malês knew about the Haitian Revolution (1791−1804) and wore necklaces bearing the image of President Dessalines, who had declared the Haitian independence.


The Malês Uprising – Salvador – Rischgitz / Getty Images

Reprodução: Ilustration – G1

May 6th, 2021 in Jacarazinho – the massacre that never ends

On the morning of May 6th, the civil police deployed a military operation with more than 200 police officers, 4 ground tanks, and 2 helicopters. The goal of the Police for the Protection of Children and Adolescents  (DPCA) was to arrest men who recruit children and adolescents into organized crime in the region.

In fact, what we saw for 9 hours was carnage. 29 deaths, including a police officer, were confirmed over the press release. A scene of barbarism with bodies torn apart and scattered through the alleys. Summary executions inside residents’ homes, traumatized children, and a lot of blood.


May 6th, 2021 – Jacarezinho – Photo: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters


May 6th, 2021 Jacarezinho, Photo by Renato Moura

Several testimonies from residents shared a similar story: the police entered homes, ordered residents to leave, and executed men inside their houses. In one of the cases, a girl’s bedroom featured an image that will hardly be erased from the memory of her family and all of us, due to the amount of blood. Reports even give an account of the detail that the police officers used the blanket of the room’s little owner to wrap and carry the body of a dead man.

Acting as a rescuer is a recurrent practice of police officers (with the purpose of altering  and manipulating the crime scene in order to make it difficult to collect summary executions evidence), they act as if they were trying to provide assistance to the shooting victims, but in reality, they are destroying evidence of their illegal acts. 


May 6th,  2021 – Jacarezinho – Photo: Wikipedia

The government calls it the “War on Drugs”, trying to demonize the enemy. But it’s not war. There is no correlation of forces, the police corporation itself is corrupt and benefits from drug trafficking, and politicians too. In the favelas, people do not grow coca or marijuana. How do weapons reach these territories?

There are many questions that definitely lead us to conclude: the real arms and drug traffickers are not in the favelas, it is the extermination of poor and Black people, a situation of social inequality that pushes young people into the retail drug trade. Those young people are at the lower end of the process and on the line of death, as were the African slaved people since the beginning of their arrival in the port area.

The Friday of May 6th, 2021, was flooded with images from cell phones, showing the barbarism that was happening in that place. Short videos went viral on social media and WhatsApp groups, with content produced by the residents themselves, who were able to show Brazil and the world the lethality and brutality level of that military operation.

Immediately there were new denunciations of what became one of the biggest massacres in Rio and the country’s history. For this reason, social movements flow social media to denounce, using the hashtag #NãoÉOperaçãoÉChacina (#ItsnotOperationisMassacre) which was in the trend topics on Twitter in Brazil.

Guilherme Pimentel is a lawyer and ombudsman for the State Public Defender’s Office of Rio de Janeiro and was one of the first human rights defenders to enter Jacarezinho, still while the massacre was in progress.

Pimentel was responsible for creating the DEFEZAP platform, which from 2016 to 2018 received complaints of police violence from different regions in Brazil and forwarded them to competent government bodies to promote reparations and accountability. The experience of this project ended up becoming what is now called the ZAP of Citizenship, which is a permanent channel for receiving complaints about State crimes.


Archive: Guilherme Pimentel

CopwatchMedia: What was the role of the videos recorded by the residents’ cell phones in the Jacarezinho action (both in media repercussion and in the evidentiary set)?

Guilherme: The videos sent by the residents were crucial for the Ombudsman office to realize the seriousness of what was happening there, which led us to go there to see with our own eyes and listen to the population. Without those videos, we would not have made the decision to enter Jacarezinho with the military operation still in progress.

CM: What did you see when you arrived at the houses? How would you describe the environment in the favela at that time?

Guilherme: Upon arriving at the place, we realized that the videos, photos, and audios were just a sampling of the facts. There was a lot of blood in several streets and alleys, veritable red puddles. We went to some houses, where murders occurred, and we saw the destruction of the living environment, with everything bloody and with mortal remains in rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens. We also notice very traumatized people. From there, we mobilized the entire apparatus of the Public Defender’s Office and other social services institutions and started to assist families.


It is important to explain beforehand to an international audience a little bit of the structural dynamics of a favela and the armed confrontation that takes place within it:

  • Favelas are areas that correspond to the extension of a small neighborhood, with about 95/100 hectares, with a population of around 35-40 thousand residents (in all the city of Rio de Janeiro there are  more than 1 thousand favelas);
  • Its architecture is made of houses of about 20m2, in constant construction and improvement process (by its residents and neighbors);
  • Each house has an average of 4,5 people, and commonly as families grow, its members continue to build new houses on top of the houses. It is common, in Rio de Janeiro favelas, for an entire family (grandparents, parents, and children) to live in houses with 2 or 3 different floors;
  • Most favelas do not have basic sanitation or even regular electricity service;
  • Nor are they officially included in government urbanization programs. Therefore, its common areas (streets, squares, and pedestrian walkways) are precarious, without public planning, and generally conceived and organized by the residents themselves;
  • There are also areas with historical and structural deficits in access to education, public health, and transportation;

During a shooting between police officers and local drug dealers, residents are literally caught in the crossfire. We are talking about medium and large-caliber armed confrontations involving 7.62 mm projectiles, use of armored vehicles such as the Caveirão (see photo) and helicopters that also act as a shooting platform.


Caveirão (Big Skull), armored vehicle – Promotion Photo BOPE – 2013

ADPF 635, the Bolsonaro government and paramilitarism

The Jacarezinho massacre takes place in the midst of growing tension between the discourse of promoting guns and social confrontation, led by President Jair Bolsonaro, and the actions to promote and protect human rights, promoted by social organizations and collectives in the favelas. 

Since the beginning of the Covid19 pandemic, several organizations in partnership have filed legal actions against the Brazilian State – ADPF 635, or ADPF of Favelas. This is a preliminary injunction with a decision by the Brazilian Supreme Court to suspend military operations in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, as a measure to reduce damage and protect lives, as the pandemic has already aggravated access to basic human rights in those territories. 

With this temporary measure, the police in Rio de Janeiro were prevented from carrying out military operations without prior notification to the court. In this new context, the police would have to “privileged” urgent and exceptional operations, due to the global health crisis.

Of course, it is a challenge to monitor the implementation of this decision and ensure that the police do not violate it. Movements consider this achievement an important victory but are careful to ensure its fulfillment. 

The measure has been in effect since August 2020 and has already indicated a reduction in lethality in the favelas territories. According to reports from Justiça Global, right after the injunction issued by ADPF 635, there was a reduction of 70% in the number of deaths and 50% in those injured by shooting in the favelas of Rio.


Photo: Francisco Chaves

Militias and Paramilitary Groups

Another important piece of information necessary to understand this broad scenario of state violence in Rio de Janeiro is the map of criminal occupation of the city, released this year by several research organizations on public security and criminology.

Looking at the map below, we have a real dimension of the advance of paramilitary groups in the city. The blue dots on the map show an advance of these groups that have been growing stronger and occupying favelas since the early 2000s.


Mapa: NEV-USP, Fogo Cruzado, Pista News, Disque Denúncia
Red – Comando Vermelho (Red Command)
Green – Terceiro Comando (Third Command)
Yellow – Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends)
Blue – Paramilitary Groups
Grey – Disputing territories (non defined factions)

The researcher and journalist Bruno Paes Manso showed in his book, “República das Milícias“, that the first groups of militiamen and death squads formed by police officers were already identified in the period of 1964-1985, during the military dictatorship. 

In his research, Bruno explains the exponential increase of the militias in the city in the 2000s: “The paramilitary groups developed a very consolidated economic structure. They started to extract revenue from security fees and extortion of local merchants. They also took care of the construction and sale of real estate in illegal areas and had a monopoly on essential services such as water, energy, internet, and gas”.


Public Security Researcher: Bruno Paes Manso – Promotional

It is common to hear sociologists and public security researchers saying in interviews and social media that: “What keeps the militias from moving to the north and south of the city is not the police, nor the state, it is the Comando Vermelho (organized group of drug dealers and cargo robbers)”.

The names of members of these militia groups who have worked in the offices of Jair Bolsonaro and his sons are diverse. Some of them are investigated for corruption cases, which benefited the Bolsonaro family itself. Others are involved in the death of councilwoman Marielle Franco. It is already known, through investigations, that Marielle’s killers met, on the day of her execution, in the Vivendas da Barra condominium, where President Jair Bolsonaro and his family live.


Marielle Franco’s killers and militia members living in prison.

Favela do Jacarezinho is a strategic territory for new criminal disputes in the northern area of the city. It is close to the city’s main connecting roads, close to the international airport, land entrances, and at the same time close to the business center of Rio. In addition, it is a historical reference point of the Comando Vermelho group (CV).

It will not be surprising if paramilitary groups are working, together with the police, to promote the weakening of the CV in this area and prepare the ground for the arrival of the militias.

Jacarezinho, North area of the city – yesterday a quilombo, today a favela

“The North Zone of Rio de Janeiro sheltered fugitive slaved Black people during slavery, it was part of a large industrial hub in the 20th century and was marked over the years by its cultural effervescence and its political mobilization”.

On May 22nd, 2021, Rumba Gabriel, community leader of Jacarezinho, spoke to the press as a result of the May 6th massacre:

“Jacarezinho grew from the top to the bottom, because those first residents were still suspicious of Capitães do mato.” Referring to the initial occupation of enslaved people in the hills of the area, and later its expansion to the “asphalt” (the flat part of the region).


Rumba Gabriel – Photo: Promotional

“There were already Black people there before the 1920s (30 years after “abolition”, as we mentioned above), fleeing from Serra do Mateus, in Boca do Mato. When Father Alexandre Lingua went to build the Nossa Senhora da Conceição sanctuary in Engenho Novo, years later, many enslaved people’s bones were found,” Rumba told several press vehicles.

In another article, from 2020, Rumba comments that there is a samba song that tells the following story: ”Over there, in the Serra do Matheus, in Boca do Mato, every Black man who owned his freedom, in the greatest happiness, went there.” and he continues “To this day if you want to visit there, those bones are there to tell this history”.  We can call Jacarezinho, a Quilombo, as well as the Morro da Matriz, the Morro do Encontro, the Morro da Cachoeirinha, the Morro do Sampaio and Boca do Mato, all of which belonged to the Portuguese empire, which settled there, in what is now known as Quinta da Boa Vista. This whole region was where they kept their horses, where the sheds were. Jacarezinho was born from that history,” says Rumba.

Following the sad tradition of Rio de Janeiro: Where there are bones and human remains of slaved people, there will be our foundational history.


Quilombos, in the past, were places of refuge for enslaved Africans and Afro-descendants throughout the Americas continent. They were understood by the Portuguese Government’s Overseas Council in 1740 as any “group of runaway Black people that exceeds the number of five, even though they may not have ranches built in an unpopulated area nor are pestles found in them”.

May 13th, 2021 – National Protest 

This year’s May 13th was marked by protests in dozens of cities in Brazil. The protests were organized by the Black Coalition for Rights (a group that includes activists from different fields of activism in the Black movement).

[Gallery] Black Coalition for Rights – Promotional

An uprising of thousands of people, with international repercussions in the media and participation of other countries, showed that the Black movement is on its feet in the fight against the systematic genocide of our poor youth.


Photo – May 13th, 2021 – NYC

Much more than highlight the massacre in Jacarezinho, which had taken place a week earlier, the acts marked a blunt scream for ending racism and state violence in different contexts: in the favelas, prisons, hospitals, and access to healthcare in the pandemic, in the dignified condition of being able to feed and take care of our families.

The rumble of this movement resonated strongly on social media placing the hashtags #BastaDeGenocídio and #ChacinaDoJacarezinho on Twitter’s Trending Topics in Brazil.

It also acted as a strong social pressure to the governmental justice bodies to investigate the deaths and find those responsible for the 29 summary and extrajudicial executions.

It is the true scream for the survival of Black youth, from the favelas and poor areas of Brazil, that needs to be amplified more and more by the media.

Community Communication and the camera in the resident’s hand

Once again, the crucial role of the cell phone in the hands of favela residents became evident as a tool in the struggle for human rights. All the first images circulating on social media and denouncing the barbarism in progress came from the smartphones of brave residents in the shooting range. They were literally between the bullet and the cry for help on social media.

Little by little, the people who were witnessing the ongoing slaughter were sharing videos over social media or messaging applications, distributing images and their points of view to the whole population. 

As well as the spontaneous camera on the resident’s hands, in Jacarezinho there are also audiovisual collectives that use cameras to denounce violence and to interrupt the cycle of social stigmatization. Cafuné na Laje is a group created in 2013, which carries out various activities aimed at strengthening the favela and promoting audiovisual as a tool for defending human rights, including facilitating workshops with children and adolescents.


JV Santos, a member of the group Cafuné na Laje that talked to our media channel:

CopwatchMedia: What is the role of the audiovisual in the visibility and defense of human rights in the region?

JV: The various cameras present in today’s daily life have been witnesses to practices that are already old: the murder of the poor and Black people. In my view, the difference in the power of outreach and visibility is in the actions of the people affected by this daily violence. The construction of networks of activity and dissemination of another narrative, a narrative different from the hegemonic one, which has always been on the side of the death policy implemented by the State, has the audiovisual as a tool, but it does not end there. The mobilization of Black people, including building alliances with white people who no longer accept to remain silent in the face of a conflict in which their privileges are inserted, has been the primary potential vector of this message of rebuke and indignation from favelas and poor areas. 

CM: How do groups like Cafuné na Laje use video as an advocacy tool in this context?

JV: Cafuné has always understood the audiovisual language based on the gestures of the residents of Jacarezinho and other favelas and poor areas in general. Our action is not journalism. All the videos we have made since 2012 were guided by the residents’ responses to something that has always happened and denounce police brutality in the territory. 

I believe that the idea that we bring, putting the audiovisual at the service of a collective project with the residents, can be an ally because we are available to the residents to do it together, whether it’s videos or other forms of action. The idea of working with children and teenagers also moves in that direction.

When I was filming the protest that took place the day after the massacre in Jacarezinho, I met Miguel, a friend of ours, one of the children who grew up playing filmmaking with us. I saw Miguel on the cover of a newspaper that reported the massacre and the uprising of the residents. The first thing Miguel said when he saw me was: “Let me film this.”He understands that he can be on both sides. At the same time, as he is part of the news, he can also build the information from his perspective. I believe that tour work can be another force in this place, the residents have to take the floor. There is no more talking or discussing us without us.

Video produced by the Cafuné na Laje collective covering the massacre and the protests in Jacarezinho.

Closing note: It is important to conclude by saying that even though the right to film is  guaranteed by Brazilian law, it is not always a reality. The stories of people who faced violence, destruction of equipment, arrests, threats, or even died for using cell phones to film state violence are multiple. That’s why we must always sympathize with groups that boldly wield their cameras to tell stories that matter! 

This article is also a global call to stay interconnected and share learning in using video to defend the human rights of the people!


Translated from Portuegese by Ana Paula Barreto

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