By Dom Phillips / Rio de Janeiro
November 10, 2014

The killing of ten people in a northern Brazilian city last week by a militia allegedly linked to the country’s military police has raised fears of a growing problem with police violence in a country where new figures reveal 2,212 people died in confrontations with law enforcement officers last year.

Ten civilians were gunned down last Tuesday in the impoverished suburbs of Belém, a city in the Brazilian Amazon state of Pará, in a bloody night of violence that lasted until the early hours of the morning. The massacre, apparently carried out by a single gang of masked men, followed the killing of a police officer hours earlier who was accused of being involved in a “militia” – in Brazil, the term for a criminal organization that includes former and/or serving police officers.

“There is a big probability that if there was not active police involvement then there were people who already passed through the police,” said Anna Lins, a lawyer from Pará Society for the Defense of Human Rights. “It was summary execution.”

Hers is one of a coalition of human rights groups, politicians and NGOs calling for a state assembly enquiry into militias in Pará. “We do not want the police to act alone in this investigation,” said Lins.

Alexandre Ciconello, a Human Rights Advisor at Amnesty International Brazil, said there were strong indications that police were involved. “It was an orchestrated massacre to kill people,” he said.

The night of mayhem began when Antônio Figueiredo, also known as ‘Pet’, was gunned down when he arrived home in the early evening on Nov. 4. He was a corporal in the special task force, ROTAM, of the state’s military police – Brazil’s street, or ‘offensive’ police force, which works alongside its civil police, which is responsible for investigations.

Amnesty said his fellow officers used social networks to call for vengeance. “Our little brother Pet has just been assassinated,” said a Facebook message posted by Figueredo’s colleague, Sergeant Rossicley Silva. “Let’s give the response.” He blamed a war between rival gangs.

A convoy of masked men on motorbikes and in two cars later drove through the dusty, crime-ridden neighborhoods of Terra Firme and Guamá, amongst others, randomly killing residents until the early hours. Police have since opened an investigation.

Sergeant Silva later said his Facebook post had been misinterpreted. “I asked for support in the sense of combating criminality. Our objective is not revenge,” Silva said, the local Diário Online news site reported.

A spokesman for Belém’s civil police, the department which handles investigations, told TIME that Figueiredo was suspended from duty for health reasons at the time of his death, and was being investigated for two homicides.

A military police spokesperson said it wasn’t possible to confirm a connection between the killings, six of which happened near to each other and five randomly. “All the questions, analyses and conclusions relative to the case and the participation or not of military police in the events in question are being investigated and will be made public,” said the spokesperson, in an e-mail.

Pará has a murder rate of 41.7 per 100,000, according to 2012 figures from the Violence Map produced by the Latin-American Faculty of Social Sciences in Rio. The Los Angeles murder rate that same year was 7.8 per 100,000.

One Terra Firme resident, who asked not be named for security reasons, claimed Figueiredo’s militia was competing for control of the drug trade in the lawless slums where much of the killing took place. The militia also acted as a death squad, said the resident, hired by local businesses to kill drug gang members. “They are like vigilantes who kill bandits, then they become killers.”

When ‘Pet’ was killed around 7.30pm on Nov. 4, residents celebrated by launching fireworks. “Pet was accused of killing many youths, he led a death squad,” the resident said. Some locals have since been placed under witness protection.

Eliana Pereira, Pará state ombudswoman for public security and a human rights activist, said that the revenge killings in Belém would be nothing out of the ordinary for police-linked militias. “This is not the first case. There have been other massacres,” she said, citing the case of former military police officer Rosivan Moraes Almeida, sentenced to 120 years prison in October for killing six teenagers in 2011.

Rio de Janeiro has long battled a problem with militias involving former and serving police officers involved in activities like charging protection money and controlling gas supplies and cable television in poorer areas.

Amnesty International said the massacre was representative of a wider problem with police violence in Brazil. “The Brazilian police is one of the forces that kills most in the world,” said Ciconello, the Amnesty advisor.

According to annual figures to be released Nov. 11 from the Brazilian Forum of Public Security NGO, on and off-duty Brazilian police killed 11,197 people in the five years ending 2013. By comparison, the Forum said, U.S. police have killed 11,090 people in the past 30 years.

The Terra Firme resident said those who were killed in Belém, which means Bethlehem in Portuguese, included a 20-year-old man who collected the money for local minibus transports and a 16-year-old boy. “We want the state to investigate and to live in a society with social peace,” the resident said.

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