SAO PAULO – A huge party in the Sao Paulo shantytown – or “favela” – of Paraisopolis ended in tragedy on Sunday when at least nine people were trampled during a police operation.
The crowd panicked, according to the police version of events, at a “funk dance” where some 5,000 people were enjoying themselves when police entered the area searching for two suspects who had mixed in with and hidden themselves among the partygoers after firing on police who had been chasing them.
The police, they said, were received by the crowd with hurled bottles and stones and responded by deploying tear gas and firing rubber bullets to protect themselves, a situation that quickly got out of hand and resulted in nine people being trampled.
The spokesman for the Sao Paulo Military Police, Emerson Massera, said at a press conference that the stampede began “when the criminals went in among the crowd, even firing shots at the police.”
“The criminals used the people as human shields to hinder the police chase. When the police arrived, the people moved in the direction of the officers and the officers acted to protect themselves,” Massera said.
The dead included seven men, one woman and a 14-year-old boy, police confirmed, going on to say that two people were injured, although initially they had reported that seven people had been hurt.
According to the preliminary investigation, one of those injured was shot, but police denied that they had used firearms during their operation.
In addition, some of the young people participating in the party said that they were attacked by the officers, including a woman who told Globo television that she was hit with a bottle and beaten by police with a billyclub as she was trying to flee.
The Sao Paulo Neighborhood Association denounced the police operation, called for an end to the violence and demanded justice so that “the guilty may be punished.”
“This morning, young people were trapped in side streets and were taken on the road to death, and those who should have been protecting (them) are creating more violence,” said the Paraisopolis Neighborhood Association in a statement on the social networks.
“It’s too early to say if the Military Police made a mistake, because the people who caused this were the criminals,” Massera said in announcing an internal investigation of the incident.
Sao Paulo state Gov. Joao Doria expressed his regret over the tragedy and ordered a “rigorous investigation of the facts to clarify what the circumstances were and (who bears) responsibility for that sad episode.”
Rio de Janeiro funk dances – a musical style closely linked to the favelas in that city – are common in Brazil’s poorest neighborhoods and they draw thousands of young people to massive street parties all over the country.
These parties are the frequent target of police operations, given that law enforcement authorities say that the dances are just a cover for crime and drug trafficking.
“There are drugs, young girls are made pregnant, there’s sex, they also rob people ...” said Military Police commissioner Emiliano da Silva Neto, who called for the “uniting” of all security forces to “resolve that problem.”
The Paraisopolis Association, meanwhile, said that the funk dances are a place where people can enjoy themselves given “the lack of cultural opportunities.
“Paraisopolis and the (favelas) need social action to confront their difficulties. Instead of just addressing the problem, we need to prevent it,” it said.
Parasaopolis is an enormous favela where more than 55,000 people life and which is adjacent to one of Sao Paulo’s wealthiest neighborhoods.