Not Taking It Anymore

Not Taking It Anymore

Angry citizens were deciding to express frustrations and demand accountability. A growing Carioca constituency against violence had adopted 21st century tactics to organize and schedule a Sunday rally.

As daylight faded on 23 July, 1993, dozens of homeless children returned to “roost” on the steps of the Nossa Senhora da Candelária cathedral in Rio’s financial district. The children’s “work day” had consisted of rifling through garbage for bits of food, sniffing glue to dull the senses, stealing from tourists and begging for money at intersections where their presence could not be avoided. Any one of them might exhibit violence or unpredictable behavior, and society largely sought to avoid them. All that remained in their 24-hour cycle of tormented existence were the darker hours of their desperation and hunger. With luck, those hours might melt into worlds that could only be known to such children in dreams.

But on this night the cycle was broken. As if to emphasize that suffering can never find a lowest level, the relative silence of sanctuary was ruptured by chaos and blood. In premeditated retribution for an earlier incident, several masked men, all but one later identified as policemen, leapt from an unmarked car and fired indiscriminately into the gathering. One child was gunned down as he fled, two others and a young adult were abducted and murdered. By the time the violence subsided 7 children and the young adult had been killed.

Brazil’s Isto É (from isto é, or “this is”) magazine recently reported that 39 of 62 survivors have since that time been killed, mostly by the police. Most reports at the time of the massacre suggested that the number of children at Candelária was actually 50. Amnesty International’s annual report on police abuses in Brazil also gave this number. There was a second police assault on street children in another district of Rio on the same night, but the Isto É article makes no mention of it. According to Isto É’s figures, the mortality rate for the “children of Candelária” is about 10 percent per year; approaching 70 percent over a 7-year period. It could actually be higher, nearly 80 percent over the same period, since no one can seem to account for another 8.

But the whole world knows where at least one of them, Sandro do Nascimento, was on 12 June of this year. Sandro commandeered a bus in the `nice’ Jardim Botânico community adjacent to both Rio’s exclusive south beach zone and the infamous Rocinha favela (shantytown) where he lived. Nascimento was clearly agitated and desperate; and probably in a drug induced stupor. After all, the juvenile courts in Rio have seen a 1,600 percent increase in the number of drug trafficking cases involving children since 1991. Drug use in the favelas has become culturally institutionalized, and the nation that was forged in the furnaces of sugar slavery seems locked into a cycle of self-perpetuating, self destructive, karma.

A Call to Action

Any rational assessment must concede that the Brazilian government, and a majority of its citizens, are striving to join in the waltz of nations pursuing progressive economic and social development. But the actions of Nascimento on 12 June resurrected the agonizing legacy of Candelária and moved people in Rio to express outrage and despair.

20-year-old Geisa Firmo Gonçalves, the girl killed by police when they tried to end the bus incident, instructed school children and lived in the same Rocinha favela as Nascimento. She’d followed her husband from the hot, dusty, dry regions of northeastern Brazil hoping for a better life. Geisa was an idealist whose journey symbolized the hardships of impoverished Brazilians who seek to escape a seemingly preordained fate. She also represented the extraordinary compassion they exhibit by working with the most vulnerable among them.

Geisa had struggled to survive in the harsh environments of two regions in Brazil, and on 12 June she struggled to survive a horror that unfolded live before all of Brazil on CNN. After 4 1/2 hours of uninterrupted terror Geisa died in a hail of bullets; not all of which were fired by Nascimento. June 12th, ironically, was also the printed release date for an issue of Newsweek magazine whose cover trumpeted the debate over capital punishment in the United States. The irony was compounded by the fact that the death penalty appears to have significantly less support in Brazil, where an upward trending increase in violent crime contrasts with consistently falling violent crime rates in the US.

Contrasting violent crime trends in the US and Brazil against a backdrop of North American support for a death penalty can be misleading. Highly publicized discussion in the US has suggested that economic prosperity, rather than harsh pen alties, is the primary reason that violent crimes have diminished there. Additional data has suggested that a significant number of innocent individuals in the US may have been executed for crimes they did not commit.

The murder rate in Rio has now reached 24.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 8.5 in urban areas worldwide. And, before sunrise on 13 June, Nascimento himself joined the growing list of victims. Although media images had shown an apparently healthy Nascimento being apprehended, he was somehow asphyxiated while in police custody.

Cariocas, as residents of Rio are called, were outraged. Seventy one percent of residents responded to a poll conducted by Brazilian media giant O Globo by indicating a lack of confidence in the police. The fact is that many Brazilians consider the effects of severely marginalized existence to be largely responsible for spawning an abundance of desperate individuals who commit crimes.

A common perception is that Brazilian police are insensitive to the effects of marginal existence on the lives it produces. This is the environment that spawned the children, and the bloodletting, of Candelária. Veja magazine quoted Luanna Guimarães Belmont, an acquaintance of Geisa and a fellow hostage on the bus, as responding to the apparent extra-judicial execution of Nascimento by saying, “I never wished for his death. I only wish he had never existed.”

Public outcry over the handling of the hijacking precipitated the firing of the state’s Secretary of Security (Secretaria de Segurança do Estado do Rio de Janeiro) and the resignation of the head of the Battalion of Special Operations (Batalhão de Operações Especiais), or BOPE. (BOPE units are equivalent to American SWAT teams, and the development of BOPE training included consultation and assistance from US law enforcement representatives.) But the violence continued. On 13 June, businessman Carlos Bessa and lawyer Monica Lopes were also murdered in the vicinity of Rio.

March Against Violence

Computer keys began to click and messages flashed from monitor to monitor around the city. Angry citizens were deciding to express frustrations and demand accountability. A growing Carioca constituency against violence had adopted 21st century tactics to organize and schedule a Sunday rally. They would gather on the Avenida Vieira Souto that parallels a beach made famous by Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes in their bossa nova anthem “The Girl from Ipanema.”

State Deputy, Carlos Minc, a member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) and representatives of Viva Rio—an organization dedicated to the reduction of violence in Brazil’s “glamour city”—accompanied the procession as it solemnly proceeded at a mournful pace to the haunting cadence of drum beats. A banner at the head of the procession read LUTO PELA PAZ, or “mourn for the peace”.

The northbound lane of Ipanema’s divided beachfront Avenida closes to automobile traffic on Sundays. This allows joggers, cyclists, skate borders, in-line skaters and casual strollers an opportunity to stretch muscles and relieve tensions before taking on a new week. But on 17 June it seemed to be print journalists and television crews darting about at the head of the procession commandeering the lane that most benefited from the fresh salt air and exercise.

Many befuddled tourists were apparently unaware of the proceedings and their purpose. They joined with local residents in sidestepping the throng of placard wielding protestors who inched forward like a lava flow methodically consuming the territory that lay in its path. The crowd was generally well disciplined and peaceful, a boon to the many vendors who profited from extra attention as curiosity seekers swelled normal beach attendance.

There were brief interruptions punctuated by heated discussion when a group concerned about homeless children in the adjacent beachfront community of Leblon twice unveiled a large banner in front of the march. The group from Leblon argued that the overwhelming legacy of marginal existence and suffering can’t be separated from what threatens the security of Rio’s middle and upper classes. But protest organizers angrily replied that the march needed to remain tightly focused on only the issues of violence and police conduct. In the midst of all this anger and frustration an outsider looking in could easily fail to recognize the more positive signs of growing public pressure for concerted effort to resolve problems.

In the days leading up to the march, Isto É seemed to offer the most even handed coverage among print media, including the personal profile of a member of BOPE who had participated in the June 12 proceedings at Jardim Botânico. The story revealed that BOPE units, although representing the “elite” of Brazilian law enforcement, are woefully underpaid and function under pressures that can hardly be imagined. A post-Candelária government proposal to seriously address the issue of police salaries had never been acted on. Isto É also reported that the distraught policeman responsible por Geisa’s death is now undergoing psychological counseling.

In further response to the national outcry, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Minister of Justice José Gregori unveiled an aggressive plan to reduce crime by at least 10 percent in the coming year. Another national campaign to combat the rapidly expanding trafficking of drugs was also announced. But these strategies, while perhaps necessary, leave important questions unanswered. Is the escalating violence in, and around, Rio symptomatic of the fact that problems are not being effectively addressed because political and business priorities are being allowed to supercede the national interest? And is there really sufficient focus on eliminating the social conditions that spawned the children of Candelária and Sandro do Nascimento?

Special Footnote: Long time residents and social activists who congregated under a bright yellow sun in Ipanema around midday on 17 June included Vasda Landers, a friend of North America’s preeminent Brazilianist Thomas Skidmore. Vasda received a doctoral degree in Brazilian and Latin American Literature, and is a professor at Colombia University in New York.

Originally from Rio, Vasda has for 35 years shuttled to and from the United States where she lives with her American husband Clifford. She was accompanied by activist lawyer Maria do Carmo and environmental activist Marisa Jurberg. Jurberg has been prominently involved in efforts to forestall commercial development on one of the great landmarks in Rio; the Dois Irmãos, or “two brothers” promontory.

Dois Irmãos defines the end point of Leblon, the southernmost stretch of beach along Rio’s famed south zone. Marisa believes that a succession of environmental issues and ecological near disasters have awakened the consciousness of local residents. She asserts that this is contributing to a growing propensity of Cariocas to step forward and “draw a line in the sand”. Evidence supporting her conclusion includes a recent massive polluting of the Freitas lagoon, the proposed opening of a tunnel to the Barra de Tijuca district, the break in a submerged sewage pipeline off Ipanema beach, and proposed development of Dois Irmãos.

And, as if to underscore her point, serious fires in Tijuca National Forest broke out following Festa de São João celebrations on 24 June. Tijuca, nestled in and around the city of Rio, is the world’s largest urban national forest. The fires there were precipitated by a dangerous Brazilian tradition. Each year, during the festival of St. John, Brazilians in some regions release balloons with small baskets containing lit candles. There have been years when these “fire balloons” have been considered a threat to air traffic in and around the world’s third (or is it second now?) largest city, São Paulo.

Phillip Wagner is a free-lance photojournalist, a frequent traveler to Brazil and a regular contributor to Brazzil magazine. Phillip is a graduate of Indiana University and hopes to one day pursue post- graduate study focusing on Brazil. Visit Phillip’s Brazil websites at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm . Phillip may be contacted at pwagner@iei.net

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