Rio’s kids are dying in the crossfire of a wave of violence

An unborn boy’s lung is punctured by a bullet while still in the womb. A 2-year-old girl is shot in the head while playing at a restaurant. Three stray bullets cut down a 13-year-old during physical education class at school.

Rio de Janeiro, which just a year ago was in the global spotlight as it hosted the Summer Olympics, has always struggled with crime. But amid a national economic crisis that has exacerbated deep problems of inequality, this city famous for both its glamorous beaches and its sprawling slums is experiencing a wave of violence that’s the worst in a decade.

A year after Rio de Janiero was basking in the global Olympic spotlight, this city is in the grip of a shocking wave of violence. Video by Renata Brito | Photos by Silvia Izquierdo | Additional Editors Dario Lopez-Mills and Peter Prengaman

With an estimated average of 15 shootings a day involving police and heavily armed gangs that control large swaths of the city, hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured in the crossfire — and increasingly that includes children, many of whom have been felled this year by bullets intended for others.

In July, the federal government deployed over 8,500 soldiers to try to stamp out crime in Rio’s roughest neighborhoods. But so far they have not been able to stem the bloodshed.

Here are the stories of six children who died this year for no reason other than they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 

JAN. 21: NO SAFE PLACE

In this Aug. 17, 2017 photo, Felipe Fernandes poses shirtless to show the tattoo on his chest depicting his daughter Sofia Lara Braga, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

As a police officer in Rio, where more than 100 of his colleagues have been killed this year, Felipe Fernandes always knew he was risking his life each day on the job. But he never imagined his 2-year-old daughter, Sofia Lara Braga, could become a casualty.

As the family was dining early in the evening at a restaurant on the city’s north side, Sofia was romping in its play area. Suddenly a gunshot rang out from the street.

“Everyone was coming down from the playground, but not her,” Fernandes said.

This Aug. 17, 2017 photo shows a souvenir pillow from a birthday party attended by the family of police officer Felipe Fernandes, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

He realized Sofia was motionless atop the jungle gym, and he ripped its protective netting to get to her. A stray bullet had hit the toddler in the head, killing her instantly.

Investigators have yet to determine whether it came from a gun fired by criminals or by police, who were pursuing a stolen car when the shooting happened.

Fernandes and his wife, Herica Braga, have since moved in hopes it will help them leave painful memories behind. But Braga is holding on to Sofia’s belongings. In their new home, a room dedicated to the girl has her dolls, teddy bears and clothes.

“I live with the illusion that maybe one day my daughter might come back home,” Braga said, tears rolling down her cheeks.

 

FEB. 15: PLAYING OUTSIDE

In this Sept. 6, 2017 photo Thayana Caparica poses with a photo of her 7-year-old daughter Fernanda, at the Mare complex of slums, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Classes at Fernanda's school were canceled on the morning of Feb. 15, due to gunfire between gangs. Caparica took her daughter home and ordered Fernanda and her two brothers not to leave the house. But by the afternoon Fernanda had grown impatient and wanted to play outside. She kept insisting. Finally Caparica let her go to a friend's house. Later that day she learned that her daughter had been shot in the face. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Classes at Fernanda Caparica’s school in the Mare slum were canceled that morning due to gunfire between rival gangs, something that is all too common in Rio.

Thayana Caparica, 23, took her daughter home and ordered Fernanda, 7, and her two brothers not to leave the house.

But by afternoon Fernanda had grown impatient and wanted to play outside. She kept insisting. Finally Caparica let her go to a friend’s house.

This Sept. 28, 2017 photo shows a view of the Rocinha shantytown, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rocinha attracts a lot of attention from authorities as Rio's largest "favela," or slum, and because it borders several upscale neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Around 7 p.m. Caparica heard gunshots and immediately called the friend’s mother, who said the children were playing on the terrace. Moments later she learned that Fernanda had been shot in the face. The girl died at a hospital.

Their hearts broken, Caparica and her sons also now live in constant fear of more shootings. The eldest boy is especially petrified.

“Every time there is crossfire, he tells me, ‘Mom, I don’t want to die like my sister,’” Caparica said.

 

MARCH 30: KILLED AT SCHOOL

This April 12, 2017 photo shows an outer wall of the Daniel Piza Municipal School riddled with bullets, alongside spray painted messages labeling Battalion 41 of the military police as assassins, at the Acari slum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The toll the violence takes on children attracted national attention on March 30 when a 13-year-old girl was shot and killed at the school, when she was caught in the crossfire of a lengthy shootout between police and gangsters. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Maria Eduarda Alves da Conceicao, 13, had wandered from her PE class on an outdoor basketball court over to the entrance of her school when she was hit by three bullets. They came from police officers who were after armed suspects nearby in the northern Rio slum of Acari.

“They saw it was a school, and they kept shooting,” said Rosilene Alves Ferreira, the girl’s mother. “Over 60 shots were fired.”

A police officer has been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

In this July 26, 2017 photo, Rosilene Alves Ferreira, mother of Maria Eduarda, stands in the exact spot where her daughter lay bleeding to death, inside the Daniel Piza Municipal School in the Acari slum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Maria Eduarda was shot three times on March 30. The shots that killed the 13-year-old came from police targeting armed suspects near the school. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

In this July 26, 2017 photo, Rosilene Alves Ferreira, mother of Maria Eduarda Alves da Conceicao, cradles Lucas, a baby she hopes to adopt, as she reflects on her slain daughter's belongings, at her home in the Acari slum, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her daughter was hit by several rounds at the school entrance as she walked to the water fountain."They saw it was a school, and they kept shooting," said Ferreira. "Over 60 shots were fired." (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

The school is full of reminders of the curly-haired teen, who dreamed of becoming a basketball player or a flight attendant. On the outer wall, bullet holes have been painted over with red hearts. Maria’s smiling face is painted on a giant mural opposite the entrance. On the basketball court she is depicted with angel wings, taking a selfie.

After her death Rio’s security chief promised to revise police protocols for operating near schools. The mayor promised to build bulletproof walls around public schools in dangerous areas. Neither change has yet to materialize.

 

APRIL 26: A PUDDLE OF CRIMSON

In this Aug. 13, 2017 photo, family portraits of Felipe Farias line a shelf in his mother's new apartment, in the Alemao complex of slums, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The 16-year-old was killed on April 26 in the Alemao while returning from a protest condemning the death of a 13-year-old who was also killed by gunfire. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Every night before going to bed, Tereza Farias looks at cellphone pictures taken by bystanders who witnessed her son’s slender body lying in his own blood.

Felipe Farias, 16, died in the Alemao slum complex while he was returning from a protest condemning the death of a 13-year-old who was also killed by gunfire.

Felipe was the fourth person killed in Alemao just in that week. The wall of the narrow alley where it happened is still pockmarked with bullet holes the size of bottle caps.

This Aug. 13, 2017 photo shows a cross scrawled on the wall pockmarked with bullet holes of the narrow alley where 16-year-old Felipe Farias died, in the Alemao complex of slums, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Several witnesses have testified that the fatal shot came from police. However, investigators have told Felipe's mother they will not go to the crime scene for fear of being attacked by a local gang. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

In this Aug. 13, 2017 photo, Tereza Farias poses with a photo of her 16-year-old son Felipe, on the exact spot where her son was also killed by gunfire not meant for him, in the Alemao complex of slums, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Every night before going to bed, Farias looks at cellphone pictures taken by bystanders who witnessed her son's slender body lying in his own blood. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Several witnesses reported the fatal shot came from police. However, investigators have told Farias they will not go to the scene for fear of being attacked by gang members.

“The investigator told me that if he came here it would be like signing his death sentence,” said Farias.

Felipe had hoped to join the army when he turned 18, following in the footsteps of his two older brothers and his uncle.

“I used to tell him, ’Don’t worry, your time will come,’” Farias said. “But his time didn’t come.”

 

JUNE 30: SHOT IN THE WOMB

In this July 31, 2017 photo, Claudineia dos Santos Melo and her husband Klebson Cosme da Silva, hold the coffin containing the remains of their newborn son Arthur, as they transported to the crypt, at a cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Melo was almost nine months pregnant when she was caught in the crossfire between police and drug traffickers. Doctors performed a cesarean and discovered that a bullet had also hit her baby, damaging his lungs and spine. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

Claudineia dos Santos Melo, almost nine months pregnant, had just finished running errands at her local supermarket in a slum in the metro-area city of Duque de Caxias when she saw a police car racing in her direction.

She sensed a shooting could break out at any moment. But before she could take cover, she was hit.

“I immediately thought of him because my belly hurt a lot,” Melo said, referring to her unborn son, in an interview with Globo TV a few days later.

This July 31, 2017 photo shows the niche where the remains of baby Arthur Cosme are stored, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On June 30, baby Arthur was shot while still in his mother's womb. After undergoing a successful spinal surgery, the infant appeared to be recovering. But he died of hemorrhaging July 30, exactly a month after the shooting. AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Melo was taken to a hospital, where doctors performed a cesarean section to deliver the baby. The bullet had damaged his lungs and spine.

Melo met the son she named Arthur for the first time a week later in the intensive care unit. After spinal surgery, Arthur appeared to be recovering. Doctors even called him a “miracle” baby. But he died of bleeding July 30, exactly a month after the shooting.

At the funeral, the only sound was the clicking of journalists’ cameras as Arthur’s father silently carried the tiny white coffin.

 

JULY 4: A RAID TURNS DEADLY

In this Sept. 28, 2017 photo, residents walk past an armored vehicle at the Rocinha slum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nearly 1,000 troops were sent in, in mid-September as shootings erupted in Rocinha and other slums across the city. Schools cancelled classes and roads were closed as many feared the violence could escalate. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Police officers barged into the home of 10-year-old Vanessa dos Santos in the Lins slum complex, purportedly in search of a suspect. But the girl was the only one there.

From next door, Vanessa’s neighbor and godmother shouted a warning for her to get out immediately. As Vanessa bent down to pick up her flip-flops, a high-caliber bullet struck her head. She died on the doorstep.

In this July 25, 2017 photo, Leandro Monteiro de Matos holds a photo and school identification of his slain daughter Vanessa, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On July 4, a group of police officers on patrol barged into the home of 10-year-old Vanessa dos Santos in the "pacified" Lins complex of slums. Allegedly they were searching for a suspect, but only the girl was inside. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

“The first thing (police) said was that it was a stray bullet,” said her father, Leandro Matos, visibly outraged that they treated it as such. “It wasn’t. They started shooting inside the residence.”

To this day, police have yet to officially assign responsibility for the deadly gunshot.

Like relatives of some other victims, Vanessa’s mother and two older brothers have moved because they were haunted by the holes left on the yellow walls of the living room.

“I use to imagine the bad things that could happen — like a car running over my child,” said Matos, who had already moved years ago after divorcing Vanessa’s mother. “But now I’m neurotic. Everything scares me.”

In this July 6, 2017 photo, shadows are cast on the burial site and coffin containing the remains of 10-year-old Vanessa dos Santos, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As is common in crimes that happen in areas controlled by drug gangs, investigators are not always able or willing to risk their lives and examine the crime scene. To this day, police have not yet determined the origin of the bullet that killed Vanessa, who live and died in the Line complex of slums. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

In this July 6, 2017 photo, Laisa accompanies the coffin containing the remains of her friend and neighbor, 10-year-old Vanessa dos Santos, as the remains are transported to the burial site, at a cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On July 4, a group of police officers on patrol barged into Vanessa's home. As she turned to flee shooting erupted. She died on the doorstep with a high caliber bullet wound to the head. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

In this July 6, 2017 photo, youths stand on the doorstep where 10-year-old Vanessa dos Santos fell dead, in the Lins complex of slums, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When police officers on patrol barged into the home, Vanessa’s godmother and neighbor shouted for her to leave the house immediately. As Vanessa leaned down to pick up her flip-flops, shooting erupted. She died on the doorstep from a high caliber bullet wound to the head. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

In this Aug. 23, 2017 photo, Leandro Monteiro de Matos poses with a photo of his 10-year-old daughter Vanessa Dos Santos, standing in the exact place where his daughter fell dead from a high caliber bullet wound to the head not meant for her, in the Lins complex of slums, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "I used to imagine the bad things that could happen, like a car running over my child," said Matos, who had already moved out of the slum years ago after divorcing Vanessa's mother. "But now I'm neurotic. Everything scares me." (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

In this April 26, 2017 photo, relatives and friends attend the burial of 13-year-old Paulo Henrique Oliveira, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The boy lived with his family in the Alemao complex of slums and was walking to visit a neighbor when he was mortally wounded by a stray bullet from a shootout between Brazilian police and drug traffickers. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

In this Aug. 20, 2017 photo, girls watch a demonstration calling for peace, demanding an end to the violence between drug gangs and police, at the Manguinhos slum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Amid a national economic crisis that has exacerbated deep problems of inequality, this city famous for both its glamorous beaches and its sprawling slums is experiencing a wave of violence that's among the highest in a decade. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

In this April 26, 2017 photo, friends and relatives surround the coffin containing the remains of 13-year-old Paulo Henrique Oliveira, during a burial ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. With an estimated average of 15 shootings per day involving police and heavily armed gangs that control large swaths of the city, hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured in the crossfire, and increasingly that includes children, scores of who like Oliveira have been felled by bullets intended for others. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

This July 26, 2017 photo shows a mural with a message that reads in Portuguese; "I fought the good fight, I ended the race and kept the faith" alongside images of fellow student Maria Eduarda Alves da Conceicao, painted on a wall of the Daniel Piza Municipal School where she died when she was hit by three bullets not meant for her, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The curly-haired teen dreamed of becoming a basketball player or an airline hostess. Instead she became a symbol of Rio's violence. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)


Text from the AP news story, Rio's kids are dying in the crossfire of a wave of violence, by Renata Brito.

Photos by Silvia Izquierdo