The death of a six-year-old girl exposes police brutality in a famous Brazilian tourist beach destination

Editor’s note: Ever since a six-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet during a police operation in Porto de Galinhas, this famous beach town in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco has been in turmoil.

As the residents took to the streets to protest Heloysa Gabriele Fernandes Nunes’s death, on March 30, the police responded with more repression – and more violence – to silence them.

There have been so many reports of police abuse in the town in the past weeks that a group of 119 Human Rights organizations sent a letter to the United Nations denouncing the violations and asking for help to stop them.

As soon as we arrived in Porto de Galinhas, a beach town famous as Pernambuco state’s main tourist destination, we saw the police frisking three young black guys in bathing suits. It was 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in early April. It would be the first of many patdowns we would see that day. The police operations had a common target: all of the people searched were black men wearing shorts and flip-flops.

We headed to Salinas Community, a neighborhood that has been the main target focus of unrest since March 30, a week before our visit, when a 6-year-old girl, Heloysa Gabrielle Fernandes Nunes was killed by a stray bullet during a police operation.

According to witnesses, the cops entered the community that afternoon chasing a suspect on a motorcycle. Heloysa was riding her bike on the street in front of her grandmother’s house and was hit in the chest. The police said there was crossfire, but residents tell a different story. “Only the police shot,” said a neighbor who didn’t want to be named in the story out of fear of reprisals by the police.

A neighbor and longtime family friend, who also asked not to be identified, told us what happened that night. Shaken, she described the moment she tried to save Heloysa, whom she used to call Lolô. “I will never forget it. I close my eyes and see her on the floor. What upsets me the most is that I still yelled ‘stop! Lolô was shot, stop!’ and they (the cops) didn’t stop, they even passed us with a mocking face and went looking for the cartridges,” she said. The collection of empty cartridges impairs or even prevents forensic evidence, making it difficult to hold the cops accountable for the death.

This is how she recounts the events of that day:

“They [police] got there already shooting. The guy (the suspect the police were chasing) fell off his motorcycle. The cop who was chasing the boy tripped and fell. When he got up, he was very angry and started shooting in the direction where I was with my friend and a neighbor. Lôlô was on the bike with her brother on the street. I saw the boy (the suspect) falling off the bike and the police car behind. At that moment I shouted to my godmother: ‘come in, it’s the police.’ Then she looked at me and replied: ‘the children!’. Then I just heard the shots. Even if the boy (the suspect) had a gun, he wouldn’t have had time to shoot because it was too fast. Only the police fired. That shot was going to catch me, but it caught Lôlô. When I looked at her (Heloysa), she was screaming “I’m scared, Auntie,” then I took her hand and put her inside the terrace of her grandmother’s house and she just stood there. Until then I hadn’t seen that she was shot. After that, I picked her up and put her behind my legs. When I held her hands I felt that she squeezed them hard and then immediately let go of my hand and then dropped to the floor. From then on, I started screaming desperately: ‘stop, stop, you killed Lôlô’ and they (the cops)] didn’t stop shooting. At the time of despair, I couldn’t even get her off the ground, who took her was my godmother and put her in her father’s arms. With his daughter in his arms, he looked at the police and said: ‘look what you did to my daughter’ and one of them replied: ‘She was on the street’,” the neighbor said.

The neighbors took to the streets after Heloysa’s death to protest her murder and demand justice. But instead of hearing the community’s claims, the police responded with more operations, aggravating the tension in the area. In total, 250 officers were sent to the town to quell the protests and have been patrolling the beach town since then. Cops walkaround hooded and heavily armed, firing flash bombs at residents. Police helicopters have been flying low over the houses. In normal times, fewer than 20 cops usually work in Porto de Galinhas, a city of four thousand inhabitants.

When we walked through Salinas that Wednesday morning, everything seemed quiet at first in the neighborhood, which has many shopping spots at the main entrance surrounded by simple houses and some unpaved streets. But all we needed to do was to start talking to people to find out that their silence was out of fear. “We live under a code of silence, nobody talks,” said a vendor that didn’t want to give his name nor allow us to record the interview.

In the Salinas community, residents are afraid of the police and have avoided speaking about the case in public. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/MZ Conteúdo)

Like him, all the people we reached out to didn’t want to have their names on the story. They explained the reason with variations of the same phrase. “If we talk, the police can threaten us or even assault us,” they said. The police operations have been so frequent and intimidating that they asked us not to expose our press credentials or cameras, fearing the police would go after them if they suspected that they were speaking with journalists.

During our five-hour visit to the city that Wednesday, we saw 15 police cars in different areas, a number at least three times higher than what would be expected in a small town like Porto de Galinhas. The residents we spoke to reported several cases of abuse by the police, including breaking into their residences and assaulting and battering residents. There are also claims of privacy violations, such as cops taking phones from people’s hands to check on messages.

The police frisks have become so frequent that residents have normalized them. “If I go out in shorts I already know they will stop me, we always have to carry an ID,” a storekeeper told us. During the interview, he received a phone text from his mother asking him to take extra care because she had heard the police were preparing a new operation in the city. “She wants me to sleep at her house to be safer,” he told us.

The community fears the police more than the drug dealers 

Residents explain they aren’t against the police operations, but the way they are done. “When the cops frisk us in downtown, they even say ‘good night’ first, but in the community, they just say ‘up against the wall, bum!,’ said a Porto de Galinhas community leader. By “downtown” he refers to the area full of stores, cafes, and restaurants where the tourists go out.

According to him, police brutality has increased in the past six months, following the increase of drug trafficking in the region. “Drug trafficking is a really serious issue here and it needs to be fought,” he admits. “What we question is why, whenever there is a police operation here, there is a body lying on the ground. They don’t give the traffickers a chance to surrender, they come shooting.” The Special Police Operations  Battalion (BOPE), he adds, is behind the most violent operations there. “They don’t differentiate between who is a resident and who is a criminal. For them, it’s all the same.”

Heloysa is not the first victim of police violence in the community. Weeks earlier, on March 17, the cops killed three teenagers suspected of involvement in drug trafficking during an operation in the community. “After these murders, the population burned a bus (in protest against the police violence) and the police started doing more crackdowns, then the BOPE started coming here more often,” explained the community leader.

250 police officers were sent to Porto de Galinhas to clamp down on the local protests after Heloysa’s death and residents have reported a series of human rights violations since then: black men have been the main target of frisks. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/MZ Conteúdo)

Data from the City’s Social Defense Secretariat indicate that in January and February of this year 10 people were murdered in Ipojuca City, where the district of Porto de Galinhas is located. Residents believe this number could be higher. According to them, there are deaths that were not reported by the police. Since the uncounted victims were involved in trafficking, the families are also afraid of reporting their deaths. Despite their suspicions, data from Fogo Cruzado, a digital platform that monitors armed violence in the metropolitan regions of Rio de Janeiro and Recife, does not confirm this hypothesis. Their data show numbers for Ipojuca City are even lower than the official figures.

Heloysa’s family denounces threats and demands Justice

On April 4, relatives and friends of the six-year-old girl Heloysa Gabrielle’s family held a protest in front of the Governor’s Palace demanding justice. “There was no exchange of fire,” they shouted. The demonstration took place at the same time as Heloysa’s parents were meeting with the executive secretary of the Civil House of the Government of Pernambuco, Eduardo Figueiredo, to discuss the progress of investigations into the child’s murder and to call for an end to police operations in Porto de Galinhas.

Shaken by the loss of their daughter and fearful of revenge from the police, Heloysa’s parents decided not to give interviews. However, they have repeated that “there was no crossfire.” reinforcing that the girl was killed by shots fired by military police from BOPE. Other relatives have spoken about the case.

Wilma Fernandes, Heloysa’s aunt, used to take care of the girl while her parents worked. “All I want now is justice for her,” she said, during the protest. Wilma asked for protection for her family and said that she is being intimidated by police officers. “Every day, they [police officers] pass by our house, my mother and I are so scared, we can’t sleep,” she said.

The bike that Heloysa was riding at the moment of her death is still at her grandmother’s house. (Photo by Arnaldo Sete/MZ Conteúdo)

Other residents highlighted how much the girl was dear to the community and reinforced the complaints against police violence. “We want justice, we want our cry to be heard,” said Marilene Rosália, a neighbor of Heloysa’s family. “In addition to losing Heloysa, we are being threatened in our community. Police actions still happen constantly, they go to the family’s house, trying to frighten us in order to distort the facts.”

Although she’s frightened by the police threats, the neighbor said that she will not remain silent because she wants justice. “They want us to say that it was a crossfire, but it wasn’t. I was there in the moment and saw what was the worst scene of my life. I am a native of Porto de Galinhas and I have never seen a situation like that,” she said.

She insisted on taking us to the crime scene, showing the bullet marks on the walls of the houses. At the child’s grandmother’s house, there are bullet marks. The bike Heloysa was riding is still there.

In the meeting with the parents, Figueiredo said the “Pernambuco state does not tolerate any sort of violence.” But several organizations and the Black Movement have publicly reported the increase in police brutality, so while the governor may say that the State does not tolerate it, the practice and modus operandi of the police is different,” stated Eliel Silva, the lawyer who represents Heloysa’s family.

The Civil Police’s Southern Metropolitan Homicide Division, located in Jaboatão dos Guararapes, is investigating the case. According to Eliel Silva, the investigation has already been launched and the transparency and speed of the investigations will be closely monitored by the family.

On April 5, a collective of 119 organizations sent a letter to the United Nations and the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights reporting human rights violations in Porto de Galinhas. Besides denouncing the abuses, the letter asks the organizations to formally require that Brazil present a plan to address police brutality, with the participation of civil society and support to the victims.

According to State Governor, Paulo Câmara, the operations aim “to restore peace in the South Coast,” as he tweeted. In official statements, the government stated that Heloysa’s death is still under investigation and it’s not possible to conclude that the stray bullet that killed Heloysa was shot by the police.

The residents of Salinas Community have no doubt that the police killed Heloysa and feel anything but peace. “Are we living under a dictatorship again? How is it possible that we go to protest the murder of a child and the police come to attack us?,” a resident who spoke with Marco Zero asks.