RIO DE JANEIRO — Activists pressing for light to be shed on the disappearance of a bricklayer who was last seen in police custody more than two weeks ago staged a protest Wednesday on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach.
The case of Amarildo de Souza, a 42-year-old father of six who has not been seen since he was picked up for police questioning on June 14, has sparked widespread outrage here, particularly in the sprawling Rocinha hillside "favela" where he was born and raised.
Souza's case has also shone the spotlight on the nearly 35,000 disappearances reported in the state over the past five years. Activists say that many of the disappeared were likely killed, some by organized crime and others by the police.
Two officers detained Souza at a bar in Rocinha on suspicions he was involved in drug trafficking and took him to a nearby police station for questioning, said Antonio Carlos Costa, whose Rio de Paz organization coordinated Wednesday's protest, citing accounts from Souza's family as well as eyewitnesses.
Police say it was a case of mistaken identity and that Souza was released shortly thereafter. They say he left the building by foot, but images from nearby surveillance cameras don't show any sign of him. Neither of the two surveillance cameras outside the police station were working on the day of Souza's detention, according to media reports.
"In the community of Rocinha, everyone is sure that Amarildo was executed and his body dumped in the woods somewhere," said Costa.
A body discovered in Rocinha on Tuesday was initially thought to be Souza's, but it turned out to be a woman's, the Globo television network reported. A blood stain found on the seat of a police car is being examined to determine whether it could be Souza's, and the results are expected on Friday.
Orlando Zaccone, the police official in charge of the investigation, said Wednesday they're also looking into allegations that a body was ferried out of Rocinha in a garbage truck.
Several officers have been transferred out of Rocinha pending the investigation.
Extrajudicial killings by police officers have long plagued Brazil, where officers routinely open fire on suspects they say represented a threat or were resisting arrest. In Rio state alone, police have killed more than 5,300 people for resisting arrest over the past five years, according to official statistics.
Costa said that many of the 34,681 people that official statistics report as missing in the state from January 2007 to May 2013 are thought to have been killed by police, while others were likely slain by organized crime. However, he added, it's impossible to determine which percentage of the disappearances can be attributed to the police and which to the drug gangs.
Costa also said the number of disappearances in the state could actually be higher, as many are thought to go unreported.
"Public security officials know Rio de Janeiro is riddled with clandestine cemeteries," Costa told journalists at Wednesday's symbol-heavy protest, which saw gauze-shrouded mannequins buried in the sand to represent the fate of the disappeared. "There are clandestine cemeteries spread throughout the metropolitan region where today rest the bodies of people whose families are still waiting for them to come home."
Costa said the Souza case has further strained relations between residents and the police in Rocinha. Police took over Rocinha about 1 1/2 years ago under a government "pacification" program aimed at pushing out the violent and heavily-armed drug gangs that had long controlled most of Rio's 1,000 slums. Currently more than 200 communities have been pacified, many of them near the city's rich, beachfront neighborhoods.
Earlier this week, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch sent an open letter to Sao Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin complaining about extrajudicial executions by police officers there.