Silencing Women with a Shot in Brazil

        Women with a Shot in Brazil

Virtually nothing is known about females who are murdered at the hand of Brazil’s insidious death squads. Part of a comprehensive investigation of the entire universe of such victims in Brazil, over the past 50 years, Female Death-Squad Victims in the States of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo” looks at these women in an exploratory study.
by: R.S. Rose

It is not uncommon these days to read or hear about groups who’ve taken it upon themselves to cleanse crime from Brazilian streets. Graft, the slowness of the courts, and overcrowding in the prison system are frequently cited as the justifications for such ventures.

For many years this kind of vigilantism has been an unpleasant part of the Brazilian cultural mosaic. Generically referred to as operations of the “death squads,” modern-day extermination groups were, in fact, invented in Brazil and not in one of the Central American republics. This is not to say that the term, or one of its synonyms, and the disposition to employ it, was anything novel in Brazilian history. Since colonial times, the first line of defense of the Brazilian elite was an exercise in the use of and reliance on excessive violence through sub-elites.1

Furthermore, while Brazil’s early ruling classes were often splintered, as befitted the degrees of power retention and aspirations of each member, it is erroneous to believe that this was perpetually the case on all topics of concern to them. One of the unifying factors that brought this privileged group together perhaps better than anything short of war, was the civil war it waged unremittingly against the lower stratum of society.

The watchwords of the rich during these contests were that “order had to be kept” (read: “keep the povão, or multitude, in its place”). This common denominator, at times open, at times hidden, but understood by all, united countless generations of higher-rank Brazilians whenever they unmasked proletarian threats to their own statuses or to some sought-after goal. Such was the case with the initial Portuguese, the generations of slave owners who followed, and the nearly all-white elite of our own times.

In 1958, the moral structure was thus in place when federal police chief and army General Amauri Kruel approved a proposal made by Cecil de Macedo Borer.2 Borer had been an interrogator at the Central Police Station during the late 1930s and 40s. He began his career in 1932 when he was selected to be one of the infamous “Tomato Heads” (the Polícia Especial or Special Police) of Euzébio de Queiroz Filho. Later, he was made a part of the Quadro Móvel (Mobile Squad), the semi-secret unit directly responsible to the chief of police, Filinto Müller.3 By 1958, Borer had been moved upstairs to chair the uniformed Polícia Civil transit section that patrolled the capital’s streets on motorcycles.4 His suggestion to Kruel, in that year, resulted in the creation of the Grupo de Diligências Especiais or Special Diligence Group.

A 33-year police veteran, and former member of Brazil’s World War II era fascist party, Eurípedes Malta de Sá, headed the novel unit.5 The rest of the Special Diligence Group was made up of Itagiba José de Oliveira, João de Deus Dorneles, and Salvador Correia de Oliveira. Although they were small in number, the squad had the green light on eliminating each and every delinquent circulating in the city. There were to be no questions, no paper work, and no prisoners taken. When it was decided to go after a specific criminal, the individual’s death had already been approved.

If his whereabouts was known, Eurípedes, who was nearly 6’5″ in height, simply gathered up a large shopping bag he kept in the station house. Inside, he carried a machine gun. He would then call his men together and they would drive away to do in the unwanted soul. Bodies were invariably dumped in outlying working-class districts. Now and again, reporters were let in on what was about to happen. Sometimes they even followed Eurípedes and his men.

But however they found out, from wherever they got their information, the next day Rio’s newspapers would announce that another bandit was out of circulation. The warning was understood by the povão: if you transgress the rules, you could be next. Note that this kind of social control rarely if ever was directed against the upper classes. That is, a wealthy person being killed and left on the swank streets of Ipanema or Leblon.

There are but a handful of academics serious interested in vigilantism in South America’s largest country. It is a dangerous topic,6 one that has led other investigators simply to plug into events taking place in today’s Brazil. The statistics cited by these efforts, accordingly, have often been inadequate and even incorrect.7 Yet such a numerical undertaking is still a central issue if we are to understand who is at risk.

Dimenstein and Barcellos carried out perhaps the most noteworthy recent attempts in this area in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.8 The first dealt with children and the death squads, the second looked into ROTA, Rondas Ostensivas Tobias de Aguiar (or the Tobias de Aguiar Patrol), the city of São Paulo’s most blatant crop of killers in police uniforms. Neither of these admirable works, on the other hand, nor the guesses made by scholars, looks at the total size and composition of the totality of victims. No one, that is, has actually counted the cases as they occurred—until now.

This article is part of a twenty-year project that has uncovered 32,675 suspected victims to the end of 1999 in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Some cases occurred as far back as the early 1950s during the tumultuous times of Grupo de Diligências Especiais. All instances are presented and analyzed in much more detail in a book that is now at the publishers entitled The Unpast.9

Here, I will look at an abnormality in the material uncovered for these victims. For while it was expected that their numbers would be modest, it was not anticipated that the quantity of female fatalities would be so small. As such, this analysis of females victims is offered as one interesting avenue in our conceptualization of the larger Brazil-wide phenomenon.


The kind of data necessary for an analysis of the deaths by extermination groups is obviously not available in official Brazilian statistics. For this reason, a list of killings fulfilling a death-squad modus operandi was determined from prior cases and faithfully applied to homicides published in two crime-specialty newspapers. A journalistic accounting was chosen because Brazilian reporters perform a daily check of police stations—indeed, many correspondents are assigned to hang around stationhouses—for boletins de ocorrência, or Notices of An Incident.

Boletins are required police paper work. When a boletim is issued for a murder, it is instantly followed up by the journalists and included in the next day’s edition. Instances that fail to make the boletins include those where an individual is killed and buried secretly, or when they have their bodies disposed of in such a manner or at such a distance, that their deaths go unnoticed by the long nose of the press. As one example, albeit in the state of Bahia, an officer of the law, known only as “França,” regularly took common criminals from the city of Salvador, bound and or handcuffed, out to sea in a ship. They were then thrown into the Atlantic Ocean.10

The tabloid selected to enumerate crimes in Rio de Janeiro was O Dia. Its counterpart for São Paulo was Notícias Populares. O Dia began publication as a six-day per week newspaper on June 5, 1951. It did not come out on Mondays until June 11, 1979. Notícias Populares began as a complete daily newspaper at the outset. Its initial issue hit the newsstands on October 15, 1963.

Where possible, each case was recorded for several variables: 1) date; 2) sequential order on date; 3) weekday, 4) page(s) in newspaper; 5) sex; 6) race; 7) age; 8) profession; 9) type of profession; 10) social class; 11) crime(s) accused of; 12) suburb of residence; 13) suburb where the body was found;12 14) zone of residence; 15) zone where the body was found;13 16) group responsible for the killing; and 17) whether or not a gunfight had occurred.


The female cases included in the database begin in 1960 in Rio de Janeiro and in 1966 for São Paulo. The total number of female victims was 1,415 (or 4.33% of the 32,675 total). Of these, 783 were recorded for Rio and the remaining 632 in São Paulo.

There were more extermination group type killings in Rio than in São Paulo, for virtually all years except 1975, 1976, and 1979. What with São Paulo’s larger population, we might envisage that the number of women murdered by eradication squads would also be more prevalent than in Rio de Janeiro. But such is not the case. Moreover, beginning by about 1980, death squads in Rio have slain substantially more women than their counterparts in São Paulo.


When available the ages within the sample are likewise of interest. Once again the women from Rio de Janeiro are in the forefront: they are older. In fact, they are one year and four months older, on average, than their sisters in São Paulo. The mean age for both groups of females was 25.3 vs. 23.9 years at the time of their deaths. The youngest female in both states were 3 month-old babies and the oldest were 70 in Rio and 75 in São Paulo. It is commonly assumed that most victims of both sexes are adolescents. The results of this project point in a different direction, at least for females.


Race was recorded as one of five alternatives: Black, Brown, Red, White, Yellow, and unknown. While there were no Red or Yellow women in this sample, the largest proportion of female victims were Brown or of mixed race backgrounds. And if taken together, all non-White women far surpassed the White women by a ratio of over 2 to 1 in Rio de Janeiro and 1.8 to 1 in São Paulo.

In actual numbers, there were 78 Black females in Rio and 33 in São Paulo, 128 Brown females in Rio and 101 in São Paulo, and 93 White females in Rio as opposed to 80 in São Paulo. Note that the numbers of Black women are the smallest racial group of all. This runs counter to common thinking reinforced by the mass media.

Social Class

Blue-collar individuals were greatly over represented in terms of social class. There were no victims from Social Class I, but there were 16 for Rio, and just 3 in São Paulo for Social Class II. The largest category of female victims was from Social Class III, the poorest class, with 332 from Rio and 105 from São Paulo.


What were these women being assassinated for? While in some news reports the alleged crimes of victims were not reported, in others it was, and in still others, women were said to have committed various offenses. Lumping the women from both states together there were 164 accusations of narcotics violations, 60 of assault and robbery, and 32 of prostitution. That might not seem dramatically different from what would be predicted. What was different, however, was that a total of 163 women were killed because they were family members of the intended target, and 654 were killed because they happened to be together with this individual at the time of his murder.

The number of females who were slain while in the company of a male is arguably the most startling discovery of this analysis. Both bodies were found together. In Rio de Janeiro, this amounted to 52.2 percent of the time. In São Paulo, 38.8 percent of all women assassinated in death-squad type situations were discovered together with a male victim. While being in the company of a man is not itself an offense, the females in question seemingly fell victim to that poignant Brazilian expression of queimando o arquivo (“burning the archive”).

In other words, extermination groups getting rid of anyone who could testify against them. The conclusion to be drawn is that over half of the Rio women, and a good third of the females from the state of São Paulo, were destroyed simply to cover the tracks of the assassins. Additionally, an unknown number of the instances where females were killed because they were family members of intended victim could well have been further cases of queimando o arquivo. The actual combined percent of females so purged with could be as high as two-thirds of the total.

Residence and Body Location

Geographic concerns likewise provided revealing material. Turning first to Rio and the areas in which victims lived, a rank ordering would suggest that for female victims in the state of Rio de Janeiro, little variance exists between where the victims resided and where the victim’s corpse was discovered. In order of most numerous, female executions took place in the Northern Zone, then Nova Iguaçu, the Western Zone, and Duque de Caxias. These results for women modify the position that most victims live in the Baixada Fluminense, the district of working-class communities made up of Duque de Caxias, Nilópolis, Nova Iguaçu, and São João de Meriti immediately above and to the north of the Northern Zone itself.

In São Paulo, the residence of female victims and the location of the their bodies quite convincingly shows that Santo Amaro, a region in the southwestern part of metropolitan São Paulo, was far and away the leader in both categories. Or, more exactly, there were 43 women who resided in Santo Amaro prior to their executions, and 90 who had their bodies discovered there. Only two additional locals had high figures. Next to Santo Amaro, and second on the list of residence vs. body location numbers was Capela do Socorro with 29 inhabitants and 56 fatalities. Last of the São Paulo big three was the region to the northeast around the international airport, Guarulhos, with 26 residents and 50 victims. Clearly, however, the combined Santo Amaro-Capela do Socorro area should be considered as one vast cauldron of potential sufferers and one huge dumping ground for their remains.

Groups Responsible

Some comment is likewise in order on those responsible for this butchery. While the larger study has identified eighty-six different hit teams, there were only eleven such groups in Rio de Janeiro and nine in São Paulo when the victims were female. In Rio, every group was a police unit, combination of units, or had at least one member who was from the police. In São Paulo, this scenario was identical except that irate citizens entirely made up one group. In both states, the Polícia Militar—or main uniformed civilian police entity – not a part of the armed forces’ police—were the main villains. In Rio, this amounted to 69 percent of the cases. In São Paulo, this group assassinated 63 percent of the victims.


This initial report for females who fell prey to the assassination crews in two Brazilian states were far fewer than anticipated. They were older in Rio de Janeiro but generally of mixed-racial backgrounds and decidedly from the lower classes in both states. The chances are high that each was murdered just because she was with the intended male target. These victims probably came from the same districts in which they lived.

In Rio, this was the Northern and Western Zones of the larger city plus parts of the Baixada Fluminese. If she was from the state of São Paulo, she could well have lived her entire short life in two parallel killing fields: Santo Amaro and Capela do Socorro. And lastly, it didn’t matter in which state she lived; her executioners likely wore the uniform of the Polícia Militar.

Indeed, as former São Paulo prosecutor Hélio Bicudo has stated, “the death squads usually have a connection with the police”14 In focusing our attention on women, it would appear that they are a negligible factor in the macho sub-culture of the Brazilian police vis-à-vis the alleged perpetrators of crime where the men of law and order look in the first instance at other males. Anyone caught in the crossfire, including women; but also children and the aged will be eliminated by a corrupt police force simply to protect their own skins.

At the level of contact with the public, the Brazilian police have long been noted for their involvement with narcotics, weapon smuggling, and a numbers racket called jogo do bicho (or game of the animals). Seen in this overall context, the female victims of police connected extermination groups in the Wild West of Brazil were, and will continue to be, dead victims rather than live eyewitnesses.


1. The ideas first put forward by Marie Kolabinska, La circulation des élites en France, Lausanne: F. Rouge, 1912), p. 6, which were reaffirmed by Vilfredo Pareto, The Mind and Society, A. Bongiorno and A. Livingston (trans.), A. Livingston (ed.) (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935), vol. Iii, pp. 1423-25, on governing elites and non-governing elites, have been expanded here to include this new category of individuals. For this study, I characterized sub-elites as being situational and transitory muscle providers. Examples would include the police, guards, bodyguards, and all types of bullies in the employ of some higher authority. Note that the Brazilian lower classes—including trustworthy non-whites—were and are easily fitted into the fleeting roles of sub-elites.

2. Barbosa, Eduardo Barbosa, “As 1200 mortes do Esquadrão da Morte,” Violência (cited in Ettore Biocca, Estratégia do terror: a face oculta e repressiva do Brasil, Maria de Carvalho [trans.] [Lisbon: Iniciativas, (n.d.)]), p. 213.

3. Cf.: Political Police Archives, Rio de Janeiro [hereafter PPARJ], miscellaneous documents, “Sindicância para apurar como o jornal O Mundo obteve fotografias idênticas do prontuário de Cecil Borer,” 1947,administração/pasta 1e; Cecil Borer, interviews, Rio de Janeiro: May 28, 1998 and April 10, 2000; Salomão Malina, interview, São Paulo, July 28, 1994; Roio, Jose Luiz del Roio, telephone interview, Rio de Janeiro/São Paulo, July 31, 1994; and Thomé Amado, interview, Rio de Janeiro, August 21, 1994. It has been incorrectly stated in the press (Jornal do Brasil [Rio de Janeiro] April 11, 1994, p. 7) that Müller introduced the death squad phenomenon to Brazil. Kruel had another reason, a morbid one, for paying attention to the plan by Cecil Borer. Kruel’s brother Riograndino Kruel had been one of Borer’s colleagues in torture/questioning at the Central Police Station back in the 1930s and 40s.

4. In 1960, when the federal capital was moved to Brasília, this section of the Polícia Civil, or detective bureau, along with the uniforms was done away with. Runtonio Santa Ana, interview, Rio de Janeiro, September 17, 1992.

5. PPARJ, letter, “Chefe do setor [unsigned] to D.P.S.,” relação de investigadores nsº 1 a 87, July 31, 1947, administração/pasta 15.

6. Indeed it is. One of the victims discussed below was a female sociologist who was trying to get a little too close, a little too fast, to the hit groups under study.

7. As an example, in the edited work by Martha K. Huggins, Martha K., Vigilantism and the State in Modern Latin America: Essays on Extralegal Violence (New York: Praeger, 1991), civil-rights advocate Paul G. Chevigny presents as Chapter 12: “Police Deadly Force, as Social Control: Jamaica, Brazil, and Argentina.” As for that part of Chevigny’s article that dealt with the city of São Paulo, he provided statistical information on the total number of civilians killed by the Polícia Militar (see text: Groups Responsible for definition of the Polícia Militar) from 1982 to 1987:

1982  1983  1984  1985  1986  1987 286  328  481  585  399  305

Unfortunately, Chevigny cites Paulo Sérgio Pinheiros’ Núcleo de Estudos da Violência as the source of his figures. But the real origin of his material is the Polícia Militar themselves. They periodically release data, which newspapers like Folha de S. Paulo, and groups such as Paulo Sérgio’s, publish. We object to using Polícia Militar statistics as a measure of the number of killings that they commit; seeing that their members are often the diverse tentacles of the various death squads, including the ones in São Paulo. There is no safeguard against information being under reported by them. The data from our own research would support the position that all of the above figures from 1985 on should be dramatically higher.

8. Cf.: Dimenstein, Gilberto, A guerra dos meninos (São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1990); and Caco Barcellos, ROTA 66: a história da polícia que mata (São Paulo: Globo, 1992).

9. R.S. Rose, The Unpast: Elite Violence and Social Control in Brazil, 1954-2000 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, [late 2003]).

10. Runtonio Santa Ana, interview, Rio de Janeiro, November 6, 1999.

11. Note that there is also, in varying degrees relative to the type of offense, a filtering effect at work. A study by Tulio Kahn, Veja (São Paulo), April 19, 2000, p. 30, reported that for every 100 crimes of all types in São Paulo, thirty-three are registered in boletins de ocorrência, six are investigated by the police, and only two result in prison sentences. The majority of the infractions failing to make the boletins are probably instances unknown to the police. On the other hand, the data presented here may well represent the tip of the death-squad iceberg.

12. Recorded by bairro.

13. That is, larger metropolitan areas such as the Baixada Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro or the ABC paulista in São Paulo.

14. See also above, 5n.

15. Hélio Bicudo, interview, São Paulo, February 8, 1993. Bicudo became famous in 1969 by being the first prosecutor to stand up against local death squads. See in this regard his 1976 classic, Meu depoimento sobre o esquadrão da morte (São Paulo: Pontifícia Comissão de Justiça e Paz de São Paulo, 1976).

R.S. Rose took his doctorate from the Sociology Institute at the University of Stockholm. He is the author of the celebrated Uma das coisas esquecidas: Getúlio Vargas e controle social no Brasil, 1930-1954 (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2001). He can be reached at:






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