Friends and family of a young pregnant woman killed by a stray bullet during a police shootout with alleged criminals in Rio de Janeiro gathered to mourn on Wednesday.
For them and other residents of the Brazilian city, the death of Kathlen Romeu — a Black woman from a working-class neighborhood, or favela — was the all-too-familiar outcome of confrontations between police and traffickers. It generated national media attention and some at the cemetery displayed banners of protest, with demonstrations scheduled for later.
More than 100 people went to the 24-year-old interior designer’s wake and burial, and they crowded into the narrow alleys of the cemetery. Her grandmother was overcome with emotion and had to be carried out. Few were willing to share their thoughts with reporters.
“We just want justice, that’s all,” one friend said through tears. She declined to provide her name.
Rodrigo Deniz, 25, described himself as Romeu’s best friend. “A part of me is being buried now,” he said.
Rio’s police have said Romeu was hit by a single shot in her torso during a shootout with criminals. Officers brought her to a nearby hospital, but neither she nor her baby survived. Some residents have questioned whether local traffickers even had time to return police gunfire before Romeu was shot. Police have opened three separate investigations into the shootout.
Romeu had a sizeable following on Instagram, where she often shared photos of herself. More recently, she started posting photos of her new pregnancy.
“I’m discovering myself as a mom, and I get scared thinking about how it will be. … I laugh, cry, and I’m afraid. A mixture of feelings,″ she wrote in a post one week ago. “Little one, I feel ready to receive you, love you, care for you!!! God bless us!″
Stray bullets have struck at least six pregnant women in Rio since 2017, but Romeu was the first to die, according to Crossfire, a nongovernmental data project that tracks armed violence.
Romeu’s neighborhood, Lins de Vasconcelos, suffers frequent shootouts, even during school hours, Luis Pablo Figueiredo, a local community leader who works with kids, said at the cemetery.
“She was our model in the neighborhood: She came from below, started fighting and she made it,″ Figueiredo said. “We can’t take it anymore. We just want peace.”
Lins is only a couple miles from the Jacarezinho favela where last month police killed more than two dozen people they alleged were criminals. One of the city’s deadliest-ever police operations, it prompted claims of human rights abuses and days of protest followed.
Mario Braga, senior analyst for risk consultancy Control Risks, said that underfunding of police in Rio means officers often lack preparedness. Shootouts with criminals have proven ineffective over the years, yet the hard-charging method is unlikely to change as long as it appeals to a large portion of voters, he added.
“Most of these cases are focused in low-income areas, favelas, and the numbers show most of the victims of police are young Black males, and some part of society thinks this issue isn’t related to them directly, and is in a parallel reality,″ Braga said by phone from Rio. ″But this has direct consequences for society as a whole.″
A Supreme Court ruling last year prohibited police operations in Rio’s favelas during the pandemic except in “absolutely exceptional” circumstances. Despite the vague wording, it had a marked impact: The number of shootouts in Rio’s metropolitan area dropped 38% from 2019, according to Crossfire data.
Still, the group registered more than 4,500 such events in 2020, with more than 100 people hit by stray bullets.
The number of shootouts has since crept back up to around pre-pandemic levels, as have the number of deaths Rio state’s official data say resulted from police interventions.
In the wake of the Jacarezinho operation, several justices from Brazil’s Supreme Court have said last year’s ruling must now be reviewed.
In a tear-filled video post on Instagram on Wednesday, Romeu’s partner Marcelo Ramos laid the blame on “unprepared police.″
“Last month, there was the massacre in Jacarezinho, now it’s Katy, and next month or tomorrow it’s another family losing someone close,″ Ramos said. “We have to speak out.″
Several hundred people marched just outside Lins on Wednesday afternoon after the funeral. They carried banners and printed-out photos of Romeu, and chanted “Justice!″ Once inside the neighborhood, the group recited a prayer in the spot where the pregnant woman was shot. ___ Associated Press writer David Biller and producer Diarlei Rodrigues contributed to this report.
Just days before the shootout, Romeu posted a photo on her Instagram account showing off her baby bump with the caption “Mom 2021”. In a June 2 post translated from Portuguese, she wrote, “I’m finding myself as a mother and I get scared thinking about what it’s going to be like…A mix of feelings. Maybe the craziest in the world but I’m going to laugh in front of it all.” Romeu added, “Thank you Lord for blessing my womb and allowing me to generate the love of my life.”
It is unconfirmed whether the bullet that struck Romeu and her unborn child came from Brazilian police or civilians in the area where she was at the time of the shoot out. Violent police raids in Brazil, fueled by a government initiative to crackdown on illegal drugs and weapons, has alerted global coverage in recent years and disproportionately ravages Black and Brown communities in the country.
“It all happened very suddenly. My granddaughter fell as a lot of shooting started. I tried to protect her because I knew she was pregnant. I saw a hole in her arm and shouted for help. I lost my granddaughter and great-grandson in a barbaric shootout,” said Romeu’s grandmother who was with her at the time of the shootout. The Sun reports that Romeu’s grandmother told Brazilian media that Romeu had moved away from Lins de Vasconcelos just a month ago to avoid the violence.
“24 years full of life and making a life. So many broken families, broken lives. Until when? This genocide needs to stop. There are no words that can comfort Kathlen Romeu’s family and so many other families. And the feeling of impunity makes everything even worse,” wrote Afro Brazilian physician and Big Brother Brazil Season 20 star, Thelma Assis, on her Instagram on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Romeu’s partner and father of their unborn child Marcelos Ramos posted photos of Romeu during her pregnancy. One was of her holding a positive pregnancy test, another was of the couple embracing.
“My love will never be forgotten, you and Maya/Zayon will always live inside of me. The ground has been taken from beneath my feet. Sometimes it’s hard to understand God’s will, but I know you’re better than us,” wrote Ramos. “Here I will only miss you and the memories of you, the most radiant and lively person I’ve met in my life..”