We Scoured the Streets of Rio de Janeiro After Gun Fights. Here’s the Story the Bullet Shells Tell.

The gun violence that plagues Rio is made possible by ammunition made largely in Brazil, but also from all over the world. We collected the evidence.

Last year, over the course of 100 days, The Intercept Brasil combed 27 neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro in the immediate aftermath of gun battles. The bounty: 137 spent ammunition casings, or shells.

High-powered shootouts are not unusual in Brazil. Despite tighter gun regulations than the U.S., in the poorer neighborhoods of many Brazilian cities, armed gangs and police trade fire with high-caliber assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, and sometimes even grenades and rocket launchers. Rio averages 24 shootouts per day. Large hours-long gun battles often don’t even make the headlines. Yet the shootouts leave a mark: piles of dead bodies.

Where, though, are all of these bullets coming from? The ammunition comes from just about everywhere.

Among the bullet casings we found were warm shells from the same batch of ammo — originally sold to the Federal Police — as the bullets used to assassinate Rio city council member Marielle Franco last year. And that wasn’t all: In back alleyways, there was ammo that had been manufactured in places as far-flung as China, the U.S., Russia, and Bosnia. Most of the shells had no way of being imported legally under Brazilian law, which long maintained an effective monopoly for domestic producers with strong ties to the military. Alongside state-of-the-art munitions produced in modern factories around the globe, we found shells that had been manufactured four decades ago in Belgium that bore a NATO stamp.

Our analyses of the bullet shells were conducted in exclusive partnership with the Brazilian NGO Instituto Sou da Paz and the Swiss research group Small Arms Survey, who identified the domestic and imported capsules, respectively.

The story told by this sample is clear-cut: In Rio’s armed conflicts, the costs are borne locally by society’s poorest residents, but the responsibility — and the profits — are spread across the globe.

Brazilian Bullets

Last August, in a group of favelas in Rio’s north zone, known as the Complexo do Alemão, we collected 10 bullet casings. One of them, a 7.62 caliber shell used in assault rifles, is part of batch UZZ-18: 1.859 million bullets manufactured by Brazil’s largest weapons manufacturer, Companhia Brasileira de Cartuchos, or CBC. Thirteen 9 mm bullet casings were found at the crime scene of the assassinations of city council member Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Pedro Gomes in March 2018; they also came from batch UZZ-18, as did the ammo in the 2015 Osasco massacre that killed 19 people in São Paulo. That same year, UZZ-18 bullets were used to kill two drug dealers in Rio.

None of the shootings officially featured the participation of the Federal Police — which had bought this batch of ammunition in 2006. Brazil’s Federal Police is roughly comparable to the Federal Bureau of Investigations in the U.S. Like the FBI, the Federal Police very rarely participate in shootouts. Instead, police-involved street battles usually engage state-level forces called the Military Police, who do the bulk of street-level law enforcement. However, in 2018, in an extraordinary measure, the Brazilian Army assumed command of Rio’s state security apparatus for nearly 11 months. Soldiers conducted operations in some neighborhoods, sometimes side-by-side with Rio’s state-level police.

As with the casings collected from Complexo do Alemão, the Franco assassination, and the Osasco massacre, most of the bullet casings we collected — 94 out of 137 shells — were from shootouts in which neither the police nor the military were involved. Only 43 were found in areas where a police presence was reported on the day of the confrontation. The police did not respond to The Intercept’s inquiries and the military only acknowledged one official operation in the neighborhoods we surveyed during the hundred days we collected shells.

Almost all the ammo we collected was sold with restrictions designating it to police and military use — including some that even the police are only supposed to use under limited circumstances.

Two-thirds of the shells collected were manufactured in Brazil — all by CBC, a privately held company and the main shareholder in Taurus Firearms, one of the biggest gunmakers in the U.S. market. CBC and Taurus are dominant forces in the gun and ammo industries in Brazil.

Of the 94 Brazilian-made bullet casings in the sample, it was possible to identify the original batch number of 52 of them. Of those, however, we were only able to identify the original purchaser in four cases, because those batches were involved in an investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Brazilian state of Paraíba. (In response to public records requests, multiple government agencies said information related to the ammunition batches was sensitive or classified.)

One bullet whose origins we were able to identify was fired on July 3, 2018, during a gunfight between the police and drug traffickers from a gang called the Red Command. The shootout took place in the Manguinhos favela in northern Rio. The bullet came from a batch numbered BNS23, purchased by the Brazilian Navy in 2007 — though the Navy did not participate in the shootout.

So how did the bullet end up in this favela? Nobody seems to know — or, at least, is willing to tell. We couldn’t figure out how the bullet found its way into the gunfight — and apparently neither could the Navy.  “There is no information in the Brazilian Navy’s database about the theft or misplacement of any type of ammunition with the tracking code BNS23,” the Navy told us.

BNS23 was the largest batch of ammunition ever produced by CBC — more than 19 million units. The extraordinary size of batches like BNS23 represents one of the top difficulties for tracking bullets in Brazil. Ordinarily, the military purchases small arms ammunition in batches of 10,000 units, which itself is too large to allow for tracking. A recent official recommendation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office suggested lowering the maximum size of ammo batches, but without specifying a number. The 19 million units of ammunition shipped in batch BNS23 exceeds the limits established by law.

Map: The Intercept Brasil
Seventeen days after the gunfight in Manguinhos, we found another bullet casing from BNS23 in a favela three miles away. This bullet was likely fired in a shootout between rival drug traffickers in group of favelas known as Complexo da Maré.

Among the CBC casings collected was a 7.62×39 mm round with markings that indicated it was produced for export — ammo that is not supposed to be sold in Brazil, even to the military. In response to inquiries, CBC said, “7.62x39mm MRP / CBC ammunition is not currently manufactured or marketed by CBC.” The company said the ammo was last sold in 2005. Thirteen years later, on July 11, 2018, it was collected by our team in the Bateau Mouche favela, 10 miles to the west of Maré.

On map, from left to right: United States (22); Brazil (94); Belgium (1); Bosnia (1); Czech Republic (2); Russia (14); China (2). One shell was of an unidentifiable origin. Graphic/Map: The Intercept Brasil

Ammo From Abroad

One-third of the ammo collected by our team was made outside of Brazil. Of the foreign-produced cartridges, the majority were produced in the U.S. We found 21 U.S.-made shells in five different locations, including 9 mm rounds manufactured by Blazer Ammo and Federal Ammunition, and a .38 Special produced by Winchester. Some of these shells lay strewn on the ground after a battle between the Red Command drug gang and the local militia, a sort of paramilitary mafia typically run by current and former police officers, firefighters, and soldiers.

The U.S. wasn’t alone: We found bullet casings from Belgium, China, Russia, the former Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic.

On June 12, 2018, we came upon a shell stamped with a cross inside a circle. Our research found that it had been produced in Belgium in 1977 by Fabrique Nationale Herstal. The 7.62 NATO, as the widely used ammo is known, has been the standard small-arms munition for North Atlantic Treaty Organization armies since 1950. How and why was a 41-year-old bullet fired more than five thousand miles away from where it was made? It’s not clear. That same day, however, heavily armed Civil Police entered the neighborhood where it was found, in what they described to the media as a “counter-trafficking operation” and a gunfight ensued.

Not far from the Belgian bullet casing, we picked up a .223 Remington-style round manufactured by the Chinese defense contractor Norinco. The cartridge was designed in 1957 to be used in American-made AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. This one was made in 1995.

Meanwhile, Russia, the world’s second-largest arms producer, manufactured 14 of the cartridges we encountered in three locations between July and August 2018. Ten were 7.62×39 mm, produced by the Tulammo Company and the JSC Barnaul Machine Tool Plant for use in assault rifles such as the AK-47. We also came across four .308 Winchester casings, manufactured by JSC. Our forensic analysis suggests that it was most likely fired from a German-made Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifle.

All of the retrieved .308 shells featured a golden primer and a silver casing, suggesting that the shells had been used, then had new bullets loaded into them. While Brazilian law allows for refills by sharpshooters, recreational hunters, shooting clubs and federations, weapons industries, and similar entities, they must be granted permits by the Army. These same organizations also may be granted permission to import certain weapons and ammunition. Another possibility, therefore, is that the bullet casings we found may have been diverted from one of these entities.

One of the most curious casings comes from the former Yugoslavia, modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. Arms manufacturing was Yugoslavia’s primary industry, providing for massive stockpiles with which to fight more than a decade of bloody civil wars that marked its breakup, starting in 1991. Leftover weapons and ammunition from the conflict are notorious and present in Europe’s black markets to this day. Bosnia still receives international funding and technical support to collect and dispose of the enormous quantities of outdated weapons and ammunition scattered throughout the country.

We retrieved a 7.62×39 mm bullet casing, made for use in AK-47s, at a scrap yard in Manguinhos on July 20, 2018. On that same day, a shootout between drug traffickers from the Red Command and the police left one civilian dead and two others wounded. The cartridge is stamped with “??”, an identifier for the Igman Zavod company (now Igman d.d. Konjic) and “1978,” indicating the year it was manufactured. According to U.N. data, Brazil has not reported the import of any Bosnian arms in the last decade and only $15,163 in goods in the decade prior.

Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s decadeslong military dictator, was a key figure in the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement. As Brazil was one of the countries with observer status in the movement, Yugoslav law permitted that ammunition could have been legally exported to Brazil prior to 1992, but we were unable to locate any such records showing that it had been.

An Armed Forces soldier, backed by armored vehicles, aircraft, and heavy engineering equipment, takes part in an operation in the violence-plagued favela of Vila Kennedy, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 7, 2018.

Photo: Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

How Not to Track Munitions

We requested information about the more than 50 other batches of ammo that we identified but could not track down any purchase records despite multiple requests to CBC, the Army Command, the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety, and Comptroller General’s Office. All of these entities denied access to the relevant information, claiming it was either confidential or outside the scope of their competency.

Graphic: The Intercept Brasil
The overall lack of information regarding its arms sector earned Brazil very poor marks in the Transparency Barometer put out by the Small Arms Survey, an international index of transparency for international weapons exporters. Brazil placed 43rd out of 52 countries in the index, behind only China, Ukraine, Singapore, Bosnia, Peru, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that a country with poor arms controls and transparency also happens to have an out of control homicide problem — 51,589 dead in 2018 — and a dismally low rate of solved homicide cases, about 20.7 percent nationwide and an abysmal 11.8 percent in Rio alone.

These numbers could be improved by a handful of simple measures. The legislation and guidelines already exist: the Statute of Disarmament from 2003, Army Decree 16-D LOG from 2004, and the U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs’ guideline on arms tracing, IATG 03.50.

Either the Army failed to properly oversee millions of ammunition units, or an arms manufacturer flouted rules without consequences.

Together, these statutes establish that ammunitions manufacturers must stamp the bottom of each shell with the batch number of each shipment and the name of the buyer; that each batch be limited to a maximum of 10,000 units; and that each nation create an integrated system to track weapons supplies among different public safety agencies, covering both the issuing and receipt of ammunition between manufacturers and buyers. The companies and government agencies must also make all of these records available to the public.

CBC, Brazil’s main firearms and ammunition manufacturer, told us that their “labeling involves three letters and two numbers stamped on the butt of the cartridge, which will uniquely identify the batch and purchaser of each product.” Since the company does not provide these details to anyone besides the Army, however, these stamps are of little help to the public. They stand only as a sort of secret code.

On the rule of a maximum of 10,000 units per batch, CBC replied to our inquiries that this quantity refers to the limit for partitioning each batch. “CBC complies with clauses I through VII of article 6 of Law 10.826 of 2003, in accord with the quantity established in contracts and authorizations determined by the Brazilian Army,” the company said. Meanwhile, the Armed Forces take a different view: The limit of 10,000 units per batch “holds for any purchase, specifically relevant for traceable ammunition, whether sold to public safety agents or to the Armed Forces.”

In other words, either the Army — which is responsible for monitoring the rules they established — failed to properly oversee millions of ammunition units, or CBC flouted these rules without consequences. More likely, both explanations are simultaneously true. The information we obtained from the Army through the Access to Public Information Act shows that, in the eight years between 2010 and 2018, the number of cartridges imprinted with manufacturer information has actually decreased, plummeting from 43 to 26 percent.

In the past six years, more than 960,000 rounds of ammo have been seized by authorities in Rio de Janeiro. In 2018 alone, that number was 212,000. Given the poor state of oversight of legal, domestic ammunition, one can only imagine the situation with imported and contraband bullets.

Meanwhile, 1,338 people were murdered in Rio de Janeiro in 2018.

Translation: Andrew Nevins

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