Authorities said a shootout erupted after police officers were shot as they prepared to enter Vila Cruzeiro, an underprivileged community where leaders of a suspected criminal group had gathered.
In an official note released by its press office on Tuesday evening, Rio’s military police said that although “necessary”, the raid could not be considered a success given the loss of life.
“It is not possible to consider a success as an operation that resulted in death,” the statement said.
At an earlier press conference, Rio de Janeiro Military Police Secretary Luiz Henrique Marinho Pires said the operation had been spurred by “criminal migration” in the neighborhood, which he said is home to drug traffickers from other states.
After the raid, residents of Vila Cruzeiro gathered at the top of the hill where the shooting took place to search for dead bodies, according to local activist Raull Santiago. Schools and public health departments also closed following the raid, the city’s education secretary said.
The raid took place despite a June 2020 ban by Brazil’s Supreme Court on anti-drug operations in the densely populated slums of Rio de Janeiro, except in “absolutely exceptional” circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic. The decision was designed to avoid further strain on public health and humanitarian services.
The Getulio Vargas Hospital press office told CNN that 21 people arrived at the hospital dead after the raid, and six others were admitted with injuries.
Pires said the anti-raid decision drew suspected criminals to poor communities.
“Making this (community) their hideout is the outcome of the decision,” he said at the press conference.
Police raids in Rio de Janeiro regularly result in high death tolls, drawing heavy criticism from human rights defenders.
A May 2022 study by researchers at Brazil’s Federal Fluminense University (UFF) found that from 2007 to 2021, police raids in Rio de Janeiro led to three massacres – where at least three people are killed – per month in disadvantaged communities.
A total of 2,374 people died in police raids during this period, according to UFF data.
Tuesday’s raid marks the second deadliest of its kind in the city’s history, according to the UFF. The deadliest operation, carried out by security forces in the Jacarezinho district of Rio de Janeiro, killed 28 people in May 2021, according to the university.