Another Bloody Killing Shakes Rio

Mar 19, 2014 at 4:56 PM ET

It was 9 p.m. when the carjackers pointed revolvers at Rosa Fernandes at a Rio de Janeiro stoplight. She and her 13-year-old daughter got out of the car, but as she reached for her 6-year-old son in back, the bandits hit the gas pedal. Fernandes watched in horror as they sped away, little João Hélio entangled in his seat belt, dragging along the pavement. Miles later, when the joy ride was over, the boy was dead and disfigured into a bloody pulp.

That was back in 2007, during Brazil’s bad old days. But even by the standards of the time, it was a ghastly murder. João Hélio became a symbol of a city plagued by unspeakable violence. His death came to represent a barbaric threshold that Brazilians vowed never to cross again.

Now another bloody killing has shaken the city. This time, however, a passing motorist captured the ghastly scene on a cellphone camera. The video, which was later posted on the Brazilian news site Extra, shows a police car speeding along a busy thoroughfare in a Rio de Janeiro suburb. The hatchback of the car is wide open—and trailing the blue-and-white vehicle, tethered to it by a rope, is the bloody body of a woman in shorts and a red blouse.

The woman’s name is Cláudia da Silva Ferreira, and the three officers inside were apparently oblivious as her inert body skidded along the pavement like “a sack of dirt,” as one of Ferreira’s relatives later put it. Extra posted a second video on Tuesday, which captured the scene from another angle, and the website reported that the cruiser dragged the victim at least 380 yards.

As the news roiled Brazil, the press quickly recalled the death of little João Hélio, although this incident was arguably far worse. Seven years ago, the culprits were hardened outlaws. But Ferreira was dragged to her death by Rio’s finest, the very people who are charged with keeping the city safe. “It was an execution,” said Alexandre Ferreria, the victim’s husband. “Not even the worst drug trafficker deserves what she got,” he told reporters yesterday, stifling sobs as he left the hospital.

Before her brutal death, Ferreira took three bullets from the cops during a Sunday morning raid in Congonha, a flatland slum north of the city. The police were looking for a group of alleged criminals and wound up shooting her three times at close range, while she held a cup of coffee and six reais (about $2.75) to buy bread from a corner bakery. The police suspected she had a gun, though never found one at the scene. “Everyone saw there was no shoot-out,” the victim’s husband said.

Instead of waiting for an ambulance, the police said they bundled her in their car and headed to the hospital to save time. Witnesses say Ferreira was still breathing when the authorities tossed her in the car “like a dog,” as one relative put it. When family members pleaded with the police to wait for an ambulance, the cops allegedly fired shots into the air to make them back off.

Rio authorities have since arrested two police lieutenants and a sergeant involved in the incident, and called for an internal investigation. “This is unacceptable,” said Secretary of Public Safety José Mariano Beltrame.

Even Dilma Rouseff, Brazil’s president, weighed in on Twitter, writing: “Claudia’s death shocked the country.”

By Monday evening, residents of Congonha had taken matters into their own hands, barricading the street in front of the favela and setting a city bus ablaze.

Not so long ago, the incident might have gone down as one more tragedy, the type that poor people in Brazil have come to know so well. But this is 2014 and the venue is Latin America’s most storied city, where the police and the politicians are scrambling to pretty up the streets for the World Cup, which kicks off in three months, and the Olympic Games in 2016. In the glare of the global spotlight, state authorities have been struggling to reduce street crime, launching a massive offensive to take back the favelas from heavily armed outlaws.

The crackdown has largely succeeded. Violence has plunged. The country’s 44,000-strong military police force has occupied dozens of hot spots, where drug lords had long enjoyed free reign. The counterinsurgency also has gone a long way toward mending the reputation of Rio’s cops, who are known for hair-trigger reactions and a penchant for garnishing their wages.

Ferreria’s death, however, has called that good work into question. And lately, the outlaws have been pushing back. On Monday, police held a candlelight vigil for fallen troops. Eleven police have been shot dead in ostensibly pacified slums, five of them just this year.

In a closed-door meeting with Ferreira’s family yesterday, Rio Governor Sergio Cabral apologized in the name of the state and promised that justice would be served.