RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Hundreds of police strapped on gas masks and readied a water canon as Pope Francis met with Brazil’s president inside the Rio de Janeiro governor’s office.
Suddenly a flaming Molotov cocktail came hurtling through the air from a crowd of demonstrators, burning two policemen. That prompted cops to charge the protesters, unloading their own arsenal of stun bombs, rubber bullets and tear gas at the mob of more than 1,500.
That was late Monday, day one of the pope’s momentous weeklong visit to Brazil, but the aftermath is still billowing. Conflicting versions of who hurled the bomb have swept social media and now threaten to scorch Rio’s police.
Prosecutors are now investigating whether undercover military police allegedly infiltrated the protests themselves to lob the projectile.
“We are analyzing images from diverse sources to identify the people involved in vandalism. Among those images, the man who is said on social media to be a police infiltrator. If such a suspicion is confirmed, punishment will be applied,” Rio de Janeiro state prosecutor Paulo Roberto Mello Cunha told Rio’s O Globo newspaper.
The police acknowledge planting clandestine agents in demonstrations but deny the accusations, which started with a series of videos.
Late Thursday, police released two videos they claimed clear the plainclothes officers of acting in the petrol bomb attack.
Pope Francis’ visit for Catholicism’s World Youth Day was partly expected to signal a safer Rio de Janeiro, a city struggling to shake its decades-old reputation for violence and crime. Brazil will also host the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and 2016 Summer Olympics.
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But Monday’s clashes, frenzied mobs around the papal motorcade, and the discovery of a homemade explosive at a shrine on Francis’ itinerary raised concerns about the safety of a pope who favors lighter security. The authorities here have elevated his visit to “high risk.”
Brazil has the world’s largest Catholic population and its people mostly have offered the first Latin American pope a rock-star welcome.
Still, protesters pledged to come out in droves during his stay. Some of them have carried signs saying “Go away, Francis!” but they’ve also directed their anger toward the government, which is spending billions to prepare for mega events like the World Cup and the pope’s visit.
The protesters deeply distrust the police, whom they accused of using excessive force to repel the massive demonstrations that thundered across Brazil in June. Yet this week’s allegations of foul play by police point to more sinister suspicions. Protesters fear the authorities have secretly prompted violence with them to justify quicker crackdowns on demonstrators.
Demonstrator or police infiltrator?
Initially, Rio state police said they had apprehended Monday’s bomb suspect: student Bruno Ferreira Teles, who’d been at the front line of Monday’s protest outside the governor’s palace. Police said on Twitter they had arrested a demonstrator with 20 Molotov cocktails. Soon after, they released a report of arrests made during the night, in which Teles was the only suspect accused of having explosive materials.
But activists and citizen journalists spent Tuesday onward scrutinizing the police version of events.
A video distributed by police aired on TV network Globo showing the bomb thrower, wearing a white cloth around his face and a black shirt with a print. (See second 38 of the video below.)
“Watch the video with the demonstrator who initiated confrontation throwing a Molotov cocktail toward police,” the police said in a Twitter message Monday.
However, the video in that tweet was quickly taken down. A police spokeswoman suggested that could have been the work of hackers attacking the site.
On social media, supporters of the demonstrations alleged that the black-shirted protester in the Globo video was the same man later seen running into the crowd of police, where he’s apparently accepted as one of their own.
A citizen journalist took another video at the scene showing two men, one wearing a black shirt with a print and another with his shirt around his neck, running through a police barricade. Officers stop the men but quickly let them go after they show what looks to be an ID.
The police fought back Thursday with — you guessed it — more videos. This time they show that the man lighting and throwing the Molotov cocktail had a tattoo on his arm, but in later footage the alleged infiltrators do not. Here there was an implicit confirmation of the presence of undercover agents planted in the crowd.
“The military police has never denied that its intelligence has agents accompanying the demonstrations,” police spokeswoman Vanessa Andrade said when asked about the videos. “These intelligence agents only work with observation. To imagine that a police officer would throw a Molotov cocktail at his professional colleagues, putting their lives at risk, is something that goes beyond common sense and reveals a sordid conspiracy used to justify the criminal violence of these vandals.”
Yet further media investigation makes the police’s version look shaky.
A police report obtained by Brazil’s Jornal Nacional includes an officer’s testimony that the student arrested Monday had no explosives in his possession.
Rio's governor said he would investigate whether there were mistakes made in arresting Teles.
Pedro Montojos, 18, an economics student who participated in the demonstrations, says he witnessed the man with the white cloth on his face hurl the Molotov cocktail.
The timing of the incident — shortly after the pope departed the governor’s palace — convinced him that it wasn’t a protester.
“Certainly, if it had been from the demonstrators, they would have thrown it earlier,” Montojos said.
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