Rio de Janeiro — The asphyxiation death of a Black man shown in a video being held by two officers of Brazil's Federal Highway Police inside an SUV's smoke-filled trunk is sparking outrage among Brazilians. Images of the police stop Tuesday in Umbauba, in the northeastern state of Sergipe, show the officers forcibly keeping Genivaldo de Jesus Santos, 38, in the back of their police vehicle as a dense cloud of white smoke, which appears to be tear gas, emerges from the SUV.
The man can be heard screaming and his legs, which stick out of the SUV, kick for a time, until they eventually stop moving. The officers seem undisturbed by onlookers surrounding them.
Social media erupted over the images, and dozens of people gathered to protest Wednesday in Umbauba, where they blocked a road and burned tires.
"The population is outraged," a man can be heard saying in a video of the protest posted on Twitter. "They murdered the guy!" another told the crowd through a loudspeaker.
In a statement, the Federal Highway Police said the man had displayed aggressive behavior and was "actively resisting" the officers who pulled him over. The agents immobilized him, the statement said, then used "instruments of lesser offensive potential" to contain him.
The statements says Santos fell ill as he was being transported to a police precinct and was taken to a hospital, where his death was confirmed.
A preliminary autopsy concluded the man died of respiratory failure due to "mechanical asphyxia," George Fernandes, a spokesperson for Sergipe state's forensic institute, told The Associated Press.
Santos's nephew Alisson de Jesus told local news outlet FANF 1 that he saw police stop his uncle and that de Jesus Santos told the officers he had medication and a prescription in his pockets, indicating that he suffered mental health problems, before they began what the nephew described as "a torture session."
"They took my uncle, put him inside the vehicle and took a gas bomb and held the trunk closed with him inside," he said. De Jesus said his uncle was hit and shoved by the officers before they held him in the back of their SUV.
FANF 1 reported Thursday evening that five officers involved in the incident had been placed on leave pending an investigation.
The Guardian newspaper cited statistics from the Brazilian Forum of Public Security that show police killed 6,416 people in Brazil in 2020 — almost 80% of them Black. Many activists pointed out on social media that de Jesus Santos died in police custody exactly one day before the two-year anniversary of the by officers in Minnesota, which sparked global protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
"Police officers turned a car into a gas chamber and executed a mentally ill man," local politician and human rights activist Renata Souza said on Twitter. "There are no words in the face of such inhumanity. Brazil is an extermination camp!"
The incident "shocked Brazilian society due to the level of its brutality, exposing the institution's lack of preparedness to guarantee that its agents obey basic procedures," the Brazilian Public Security Forum, an independent group, said in a statement.
President Jair Bolsonaro said he would find out from the Federal Highway Police what happened. He also mentioned a separate incident two weeks ago when a man shot two on-duty highway officers.
The Federal Police opened an investigation. The forensic institute must submit its final, more in-depth report to the Federal Police within 10 days.
The incident comes just days after officers of the highway police participated in an operation in Rio de Janeiro that left more than 20 people dead. Police have said they had no choice but to use lethal force, but accounts from residents published in local media have raised doubts on that claim.
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