Death squads and hired killers belong not just to 1980s São Paulo,
but to the here and now
of contemporary Brazil. According to
a new report handed to the UN, the victims of death squads
are almost without exception poor, black men, between
15 and 24 years old, accused of petty crime.
It was dawn on June 28, 2003 when the group arrived at the Irmãos Maciel estate, in the northern state of Pará, but
Iraildes Maciel’s son had already left for the fields. When he returned, he found the body of his mother. She had been executed,
whilst he was tending the cattle.
Antônio Alves da Silva was also at work in the fields when the 11 gunmen arrived, at the São José settlement in
Paraíba last September. Minutes later the 43-year-old farm hand was dead, and ten othersincluding a 14-year-old childlay injured.
The two victims didn’t know each other and lived in different states, hundreds of miles apart. Iraildes de Sousa
Maciel was a rural landowner from Bannach, a small municipality in the south of Pará. She had lived for nearly two decades on
the land, with permission from the National Institute of Colonization and Land Reform (Instituto Nacional de Colonização
e Reforma Agrária – INCRA).
Da Silva, on the other hand, was part of a group of landless squatters. With 50 other families he eked out a living
from a small patch of unused land in the northeastern state.
The connection between the pair is what they represent. They are just two examples of the 335 summary executions
detailed in a new report by the Brazilian non-governmental organization,
Justiça Global. Two signs that death squads and hired
killers belong not just to 1980s São Paulo, but to the here and now of contemporary Brazil.
Even the government is now admitting the extent of the problem. According to an official document passed to the
UN, death squads are operating in at least 15 states. The
Justiça Global report goes further, detailing executions in 24 of
Brazil’s 27 states.
It was with this in mind that a UN team, led by the Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur on extra
judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Asma Jahangir, arrived in Brazil in September. It will hardly be a holiday for the
Pakistani: her job is to investigate summary executions in six states, including Rio de Janeiro and Bahia.
"The UN will demand that the Brazilian state acts, and for the first time Brazil will have to admit that this is a
national problem which, is rotting the police force and letting barbarity take root," the national secretary for human rights,
Nilmário Miranda, told the O Globo newspaper.
And take root it has. In the past, Brazil has been denounced 13 times to the International Court of Human Rights, for
its failure to halt such killings. In two states, Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo, the murder rates of 42.3 and 55.1 deaths
for every 100,000 citizens, are closer to those of Colombia (78) than the USA (7).
According to the state government, the number of violent deaths in Espírito Santo rose from 70.99 per 100,000
inhabitants in 1997 to 90.97 in 2001.
"Internationally known episodes like Eldorado do Carajás, Candelária, Carandiru, Corumbiara, Favela Naval and,
most recently, the murder of Chinese businessman Chan Kim Chang in Rio de Janeiro, are extreme examples of the
extermination and oppression carried out on a daily basis, directly or indirectly, by state police across virtually the entire national
territory," states the report "Summary Executions in Brazil (1997-2003)."
The response to this phenomenon has, until now, been disassociation and denial: the authorities have consistently
swept the problem under the carpet. And, with a landmass of 3.2 million square miles, Brazil has a big carpet under which to
sweep the undesirable.
According to Sandra Carvalho, director of research and communication for
Justiça Global, police involvement in
such crime means few cases are ever looked into.
"The biggest problem is impunity," says the Brazilian activist. "In some cases there is a delay of up to 6 years in
investigating these cases, when the legal expiry period is 90 days. In this time people can be eliminated, as can evidence," she
explains from her office in São Paulo. Of the 335 executions highlighted in the
Justiça Global paper, no action has been taken in
As if to highlight Carvalho’s point, one such witness was assassinated last week in the northern state of Paraíba. Less
than a week after making a statement to the UN about death squads in the region, Flávio Manoel da Silva was shot dead. Six
months earlier the farm-worker had asked, unsuccessfully, to be included in a witness protection scheme.
"This murder is a sign of the difficulties that the Brazilian government has in carrying out the recommendations of
the OAS (Organization of American States)," responds Carvalho, unsurprised.
Even government figures support Carvalho’s assertions. It admits, for example, that in the state of Rio de Janeiro 95
per cent of such executions are never investigated.
One of the main reasons for this judicial lethargy is the involvement of the police themselves. The Scuderie Detetive
Le Cocq (SDLC), in Espírito Santo, is a prime example. The "vigilante group", founded in the 1960s, counts among its
number police, civil servants, judges, businessmen and even politicians. "[It is] not dissimilar to a paramilitary organization,"
say Amnesty International sources.
"Killings are often committed by groups of hooded gunmen armed with sophisticated weaponry, which execute
people in broad daylight on the basis of information obtained through intelligence networks. Failure by the authorities to disarm
and dismantle the SDLC or successfully prosecute security force agents linked to it for human rights violations, suggests that
the organization operates with official sponsorship at the highest levels."
Such violence is not unique to Espírito Santo. In fact it seems to have few geographical boundaries: the
Justiça Global report details a variety of human rights abuses right across the country. However, it does limit itself to the very poorest
sections of Brazilian society.
"This is the criminalization of poverty," explains the 272-page document. "For the inhabitants of the poor areas of
our country, happiness means just being able to open the window."
"To be poor in Rio de Janeiro continues to mean being trapped in a cycle of violence, with few, if any places to turn
for protection," agrees an Amnesty International spokesperson.
"The policing of poor communities is violent, repressive and often corrupt. Not only are such communities excluded
from access to fundamental economic and social rights, but their right to live in peace and security is consistently neglected,
or even abused, by the state."
The government agrees here too: according to the paper handed to the UN, the victims of death squads are almost
without exception poor, black men, between 15 and 24 years old, accused of petty crime.
Such bleak statistics beg one simple question: what now for Brazil? How does a country that struggles to feed many
of its people, find the resources to begin effectively policing its people? How, for that matter, can it begin to root out
institutionalized corruption from the police force itself?
The Justiça Global report offers twenty recommendations, largely revolving around policing methods and witness
protection. Equally important, argue some, is changing the country’s mindset: forcing the world to accept that death squads
are not the exclusive property of remote Amazonian communities, but the reality of postcard seaside resorts such as Rio de
Janeiro, Vitória and Salvador. Despite constant
denúncias of such crime in the Brazilian press, many continue to ignore the reality.
"The actions of these groups provoke the occasional scandal, but the Brazilian people still don’t recognize the extent
of the problem," says Carvalho.
Amongst President Lula’s election messages in the historic 2002 campaign, was a commitment to fight such abuses.
"You don’t negotiate human rights, you respect them," declared the PT (Workers’ Party) leader. But right now there seems
little sign that human rights are receiving any more attention here. In the eight months since Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came
to power the killings have continued. Beneath the names of Iraildes Maciel and Antônio Alves da Silva, we can now pencil
in hundreds if not thousands moreone of the most recent being Chan Kim Chang.
On 25 August 2003, the 46-year-old Chinese businessman was arrested at Rio de Janeiro’s international airport, in
possession of $30,000, which he had not declared. 48 hours later he was taken to hospital in a coma. Eight days later he died.
A post-mortem found he had died of head injuries; bruises and lesions covered his body. "Who can deny that the
Brazilian police practice torture?" said Anthony Garotinho, Secretary of State for Public Securitythe inference being that
Chang had been beaten or tortured to death in police custody. "I would be a hypocrite. It does."
Smothered by press coverage, the authorities promised a "correct, transparent and definitive investigation" into
Chang’s death. And the publication, on October
1st, of a 1300-page dossier, detailing the involvement of 12 people7 prison
officers and 4 prisoners amongst themsuggests that this may be happening.
Yet if so, it is the exception and not the rule.
After Iraildes Maciel and Antônio Alves da Silva, now follows Chang Kim Chang: another name, on a seemingly
Tom Phillips is a British journalist living in Rio de Janeiro. He writes for a variety of publications on politics and
current affairs, as well as various aspects of the
cultura brasileira. Tom can be reached on:
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