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Rio governor: rising police killings 'normal,' will continue

MARCELO SILVA DE SOUSA
FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2019 file photo, Rio de Janeiro Gov. Wilson Witzel attends the swearing-in ceremony for the new president of state-run oil company Petrobras, Roberto Castello Branco, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Witzel said Tuesday, July 16, 2019, that it is natural that deaths by the police will continue to rise during his term in office as a consequence of a policy of confrontation with terrorists. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Amid a soaring number of police killings in Rio de Janeiro, the state's tough-talking governor said Tuesday that it was "normal" for the rate to increase and will likely keep rising during his administration.

Gov. Wilson Witzel said the high number of killings by police in the state of Rio is a consequence of his policy of "confronting terrorists," as he calls drug trafficking groups.

"It is normal" that there are more deaths, said Witzel, who is known for his controversial comments and ties to far right President Jair Bolsonaro. "We live in a situation of confrontation and the criminals are testing the limits of the police and the government."

Police in Rio killed 714 people in the first five months of his year - almost five a day - 20% more than in 2018, according to official figures.

The governor, a former judge with a military past, shrugged off the increase, saying it is due to police "hitting hard" at criminals.

Witzel also said "an investigation will soon reveal" that one of the largest criminal factions in Brazil, which controls drug trafficking in many Rio slums - the Red Command - has ties to Hezbollah. He provided no evidence to support the claim.

"Are we going to be tolerant toward Hezbollah, which acts with bombs and missiles against the population of Israel? No, we are going to act with rigor, as does Israel," he said.

"The message is: If you do not want to die, do not walk with a rifle in the street," he said during a meeting with foreign correspondents.

According to official figures, police lethality in Rio has reached its highest level since 2003, when records began. Homicides by criminals have fallen by 24% so far this year.

Witzel went from being almost unknown in Brazil to being the governor of Rio, one of the largest states in the country, with his discourse of zero tolerance for criminals resonating with voters in the violent state. During his campaign he proposed using helicopters as platforms for sharpshooters, who could target anyone carrying a weapon.

Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said the rise of Witzel should be seen in the context of a generalized disbelief in the political class and an economic crisis that battered the state.

"Like Bolsonaro, Witzel - an unknown - benefited from the current idea that the entire political elite is corrupt and incapable of offering an alternative," Santoro said. "Many (voters) chose a harsh approach as a manifestation of their despair and the lack of government perspectives" on the violence impacting them.