RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – Police said Friday that they have identified and are searching for four of the more than 30 men suspected in the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl, a case that has rocked Latin America's largest nation and highlighted its endemic problem of violence against women.
The announcement came as acting President Michel Temer called an emergency meeting of the security ministers for each of Brazil's states to consider gender-related crimes.
"It's absurd that in the 21st century we have to live with barbarous crimes like this," Temer said in a statement. He promised to create a federal police force unit tasked with tackling crimes against women.
The assault came to light after several men joked about the attack online, posting graphic photos and videos of the unconscious, naked teen on Twitter.
Police also asked for the public's help to track down the four men and identify the others. Local reports said more than 800 people had called a hotline that was set up to share information.
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Authorities say the rape happened last Saturday while the girl was visiting her boyfriend in the Sao Joao shantytown on the west side of Rio de Janeiro.
"I want them to await the justice of God. I feel like trash," the 16-year-old said in brief comments to O Globo newspaper. "It's the stigma that hurts me the most. It is as if people are saying 'it's her fault. She was using scanty clothes.' I want people to know that it is not the woman's fault. You can't blame a robbery victim, for being robbed."
At a news conference Friday, police said the girl reported being raped by 33 men and regaining consciousness the following day. Police said they had been unable to confirm exactly how many men may have taken part.
Rio police chief Fernando Veloso said at a news conference that investigators will review forensic evidence and seek to interview the suspects.
"If these images hadn't been posted, maybe we wouldn't be here right now," said Veloso, adding that many rapes go unreported.
The girl's 19-year-old boyfriend was one of the men being sought, but police said they did not know whether he may have been one of the attackers. Police said the men were armed, though it wasn't clear if the weapons were used to intimidate the girl during the attack.
Guns are common in Rio's drug- and violence-plagued slums, as are reprisal killings.
When asked by reporters if the girl's life might be in danger for reporting the incident, Veloso responded: "That would be a subjective answer. Who isn't at risk in Rio de Janeiro?"
The images began circulating earlier this week.
Danusia Thomaz, a 41-year-old resident of Alemao, another large slum in Rio, said a friend sent her the video via Whatsapp and she immediately feared for her 21-year-old daughter.
"When I watched the video, I said to myself, 'My God, what is this?'" said Thomaz, the president of a local residents' association. "I couldn't finish watching it. I don't know how a human being is capable of doing that."
Brazil, a conservative, majority-Catholic nation of 200 million people, has long struggled to curb violence against women.
A study by the Brazilian Center for Latin American Studies found that between 1980 and 2010, more than 92,000 women were killed in crimes related to gender, involving incidents from rape to domestic abuse.
Last year, when Congress passed legislation sharply increasing punishments for violence against women, President Dilma Rousseff noted that 15 women were killed per day in Brazil simply "for a question of gender."
The shocking case comes as Brazil is suffering its worst economic crisis since the 1930s and Rio prepares to host the Summer Olympics in August. Yawning deficits and billions of dollars being dedicated to building Olympic venues have translated into sharp cuts to public services, including policing. This year the state of Rio de Janeiro has cut about $550 million from its security budget, about 20 percent compared to last year.
Veloso, the police chief, acknowledged that the cuts have impacted operations but said that would not stop investigators from solving this case.
"We are fathers, sons and brothers," he said, speaking of the police. "This shocked us."