Medieval Murder in Brazil Highlights Rio Brutality

João Hélio Fernandes, the 6-year-old boy killed in Rio, BrazilWith only days remaining until the start of Carnaval, and after weeks  of  escalating violence confirming the sudden emergence of powerful  militias in  the city, inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro were again left reeling this  week as  details emerged of the most recent chapter in the city’s brutal descent  into  archaic lawlessness.

Six-year old João Hélio Fernandes was killed on Wednesday night after  being  dragged through the city’s North Zone, suspended from the rear door of  his  mother’s stolen car as teenage bandits sped past horrified onlookers  and a  routine carjacking turned to tragedy.

In the wake of the latest heinous murder to rock Rio and with a  rapidly-worsening conflict between militias and drug gangs on his  hands,  state governor Sergio Cabral was expected to ask Alberto Gonzalez of  the  U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for help in combating the city’s  cocaine-fueled violence, during a meeting this week in Brazilian capital Brasília.

The  request follows a post-Christmas period in which policemen have been  ambushed and murdered and packed public buses incinerated by  traffickers.

Like a Paper Airplane

Fernandes’ mother and sister were ordered from their car at gunpoint  Wednesday night. After exiting the car, Rosa Fernandes tried to pull  her son  to safety, but the assailants sped off, trapping João’s seatbelt in the  door. The boy was dragged alongside the car for five miles. He is  thought to  have endured the ordeal for around ten minutes before dying of head  injuries.

Police and journalists alike wept openly as the horrific remains of  João’s  corpse were removed for burial. Two teenage gang members were quickly  arrested and charged with manslaughter after the eldest, Diego  Nascimento da  Silva, 18, was denounced to the police by his father.

The second, a 16  year-old minor who could not be named by police, was charged as an  accomplice while a known associate of the two was released after  questioning. Under Brazilian law, the accused are likely to spend five  and  three years in jail respectively.

Witnesses say they saw the car speeding so quickly along the streets  that  João was flying alongside it, undulating "like a paper airplane."  Scores of  horrified onlookers screamed at the driver to stop, but da Silva was  heard  shouting that the boy was his "Judas doll," referring to a Brazilian  tradition in which dolls representing Judas are punched and exploded.

A motorcyclist pursued the vehicle, pleading with da Silva through the  driver’s window until a gun was aimed at his head, forcing him to  desist.  One man later spoke of seeing the boy’s "little body" hanging in fetal  position behind the rear wheel of the car, decapitated, a stream of  blood in  its wake.

When the car was finally abandoned, the assailants fled to their favela  homes and then into hiding, but they were quickly caught after da  Silva’s  father called police and told them his son had admitted to the crime.

Paradise Lost

The boy’s death is the latest episode in an escalating climate of  brutality,  in a catastrophically corrupt city where two percent of murders are  solved  and the only consistent law and order has long been meted out by the  rival  cocaine gangs who fight for control of the city’s more than seven  hundred  favelas, or slums.

Gangs maintain medieval codes of law, extorting  money  from residents and handing out death sentences to anyone who dares to  cross  them.

Fernanda da Cruz, a nineteen year-old favela resident, told me of  the  death of her seventeen year-old sister: "She was dating a drug dealer  and  the rule is, you cannot break up with a dealer. He can have as many  girls as  he wants but no-one may leave him. My sister broke up with the guy and  he  came back to our house later that night and shot her in the head."  Fernanda  went on to tell me that her youngest sister, aged three, had recently  left  kindergarten because it was "too violent."

In 2002, Brazil was appalled by the murder of TV Globo journalist Tim  Lopes,  who was kidnapped and cut into small pieces with a samurai sword after  attempting to film traffickers forcing girls to have sex with them at  one of  Rio’s notorious "funk balls."

Lopes’ murder may have been the incident  which  forced home the reality of life in the favela for those who dare not  step  inside it, but as 2007 gathers pace, it is becoming clear to even the  richest and most privileged citizens of a place which boasts one of the  largest gaps between rich and poor in the world that the most beautiful  city  in the Americas is a paradise already lost.

Reality was highlighted in  November 2006, when the 58 year-old socialite ex-wife of billionaire  businessman Germano Gerdau was shot dead at the wheel of her Mercedes  in  Leblon, Rio’s richest neighborhood, by a thief on a bicycle.

The city’s violence has been worsening for decades, particularly since  the  early nineties, when cocaine gangs began reaching Colombian  proportions.  There are so many guns in the hands of the city’s cocaine-addled youths  today that routine robberies have turned into routine murders, and the  ruthless Military Police who patrol the city’s streets are estimated by  human rights organizations to be eight times more likely to kill than  be  killed.

Now though, a new player is emerging. Militias comprised of current and  former policemen, prison guards, and firemen are forming to eject drug  gangs  from the favelas – something the state apparatus has only ever been  able to  achieve temporarily.

Unlike the police and the army though, the  paramilitary  groups stay in control of conquered favelas, filling a power vacuum and  essentially replacing the drug gangs as extorters of money, or  "security  taxes," from the favela’s population.

Openly recruiting new members on  ‘Orkut’, Brazil’s Google-operated alternative to My Space, the militias  have  surged since early 2006 and are now thought to be in control of around  100 favelas in Rio.

The state’s politicians are publicly appalled by the success of the  militias, with Cabral labelling them "the end of the world." If they  can be  controlled, however, they may actually aid the state in its bid for the  favelas.

But as drug dealers are driven out, where will they go  instead? The  acts of terrorism which claimed so many lives in December were claimed  by  traffickers who had lost their territory to militias, and Comando  Vermelho,  Rio’s most powerful gang, promised a "river of blood."

Whether attributable to Rio’s principal gang or to smaller players like  those who killed João Fernandes on Wednesday, that river is certainly  flowing. Now, after a miserable early summer of heavy rains and endless  violence, Rio needs its Carnaval like never before. The police, right  on  cue, are threatening a strike over wages.


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