Howls of grief, cries for justice at funeral of Rio girl killed by stray bullets during police operation

Relatives and friends of María Eduarda Alves mourn during her funeral.
Relatives and friends of María Eduarda Alves mourn during her funeral.PHOTO: EPA
Relatives and friends of María Eduarda Alves attend her funeral in a cemetery in Rio de Janeiro.
Relatives and friends of María Eduarda Alves attend her funeral in a cemetery in Rio de Janeiro.PHOTO: EPA

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Relatives and friends of a 13-year-old Rio schoolgirl killed by stray bullets during a police operation howled with grief at her burial Saturday (April 1) - and demanded justice.

Maria Eduarda Alves da Conceicao, shot on Thursday while in a gym class at her school in a poor northern Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood, lay under a gauzy white veil in a small coffin in the cemetery chapel.

Around her, inconsolable parents, siblings and school friends swayed, holding each other.

"Please come back, Maria!" a classmate screamed over and over until she was carried from the chapel, unable to stand. "Why, God? Bring her back, please!"

An elderly woman emerged from the chapel sobbing so hard that she too had to be carried out. Another schoolgirl was taken away, raging hysterically, jumping up and down as she cried: "She's not going to come back anymore!"

The men in the group of more than 100 people sat largely in stunned silence, barely moving, until one of them also broke down, burying his face in a friend's shoulder and shaking.

Rio, one of the most crime-ridden cities in Brazil - a country where some 60,000 murders are committed a year - is used to daily bloodshed. But Thursday's tragedy laid bare the war-like levels of violence faced by ordinary people caught in the crossfire between ruthless criminal gangs and trigger-happy police.

Police say they were chasing suspected thieves armed with assault rifles and got into a firefight. At the end of the clash, two police officers were filmed by a bystander walking up to two apparently wounded suspects lying on the ground and shooting them dead at point blank range.

STRAY BULLETS, EXECUTIONS

This all took place immediately outside a school, where da Conceicao was in gym class.

Several bullets hit her - no less than four, according to the latest Brazilian media reports - while other children dived for cover. She died before an ambulance arrived.

Initially, police portrayed the incident as an unfortunate accident in what a spokesman called "a necessary operation." Only after the cellphone footage emerged of the execution-style killings of the wounded men did the force arrest the two officers allegedly involved.

As far as the death of da Conceicao, police are so far saying only that they are investigating and that it is hard to know which side fired the fatal bullets.

Relatives of the slain girl say she must not become just another statistic.

According to Antonio Carlos Costa, who runs the nongovernmental organization Rio Pela Paz, or Rio for Peace, 33 children have been killed by stray bullets during police actions since 2007, with 20 of those deaths just since 2015.

"A public city school is full of children," he said, angrily criticising the decision by police to engage the armed suspects.

"Not one arrest of a bandit is worth the life of our children."

In a surprise appearance at the end of the funeral, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella said police should not routinely mount such intense operations "in populated areas, in areas with schools, when there are innocents".

"We cannot simply accept that a tragedy like this is repeated as something normal," he said.

In a statement read out by da Conceicao's brother Uidson Alves Ferreira, 32, the family said she deserved justice.

"Our Maria was in a school, trying to build a better future. Is this the better future for our children? Are they meant to be killed in a cowardly way while they study?" he said.

"We hope this tragedy will not go unpunished. We trust in the justice system."

At the end of the statement, the family, including the girl's father and mother, shouted in unison: "Justice, justice, justice!"