In the light of day, the historical Candelária Church in Rio de Janeiro serves as the venue of not only extravagant weddings and an attractive tourist destination in the heart of the city’s business center, but also of a gothic event that is not likely to ever be forgotten. The Candelária is also haunted by congregations of Brazil’s infamous street children who meet there, attempting to sleep peacefully and enjoy a temporary recess from the nightly hardships they find themselves facing on a regular basis.
On July 23, 1993, the Candelária Church, a holy place where many Cariocas go for spiritual comfort, became the scene one early morning of one of the most horrific death squad operations against street children in Brazilian history.
Ultimately, the shooting at the Candelária resulted in the deaths of seven children, along with one adolescent, and the wounding of many more. An outline of all eight bodies can be seen painted on the sidewalk in front of the church in memory of the victims of that night.
Survivors of the shooting reported that two cars pulled up to the front of the church entrance early on the morning of July 23, letting out at least five men, some of whom were later identified as police officers. The men opened fire on the sleeping children.
Although their apparel did not immediately indicate that they were police or military officers, one key witness, Wagner dos Santos, recognized the men as military police and later testified against them in court.
It is well known among Brazilians that the country’s death squads, whose objectives are to “cleanse” the streets, are primarily comprised of off-duty officers. Lamentably, street children often, through no fault of their own, find themselves in the middle of this “cleansing” process.
The most solid piece of evidence given to investigators regarding the shootings focuses on an incident that occurred on Thursday July 22, 1993, one day before the massacre. As a police officer placed a street child into custody for partaking in drug related activities earlier during the day, other children in the vicinity, who had witnessed the arrest, began throwing stones at the police officer’s car in protest.
The day after the shootings, the New York Times reported that one of the survivors had overheard an officer threaten to return at a later time to “pass the mop” in retaliation for the stones the youngsters had thrown.
The police officers vengeful act against the street children turned out to be so heinous that it received more attention than the officers could reasonably have expected. International media coverage of the massacre, encouraged by human rights organizations, played a major role in bringing the suspected officers to trial.
After three years of investigation, four men, three of whom were police officers, stood trial for the atrocity committed that day at Candelária. Organizations like Amnesty International and UNICEF became involved on behalf of the street children, arguing that human rights violations had occurred for no justifiable reason. Quickly, the Candelária massacre became a symbol for children’s rights, not only in Brazil, but throughout the world, especially where injustice and neglect leaves abandoned children to fend for themselves.
By 1997, a total of nine men were linked to the shootings, though not all of them were members of the police force. In a 1996 trial, two military policemen were found guilty of participating in the atrocity, with one officer receiving a sentence of 89 years and the other for 261 years. A third officer would later be convicted and sentenced to 204 years in prison.
Also in 1996, two officers and one civilian were acquitted, while two more officers were released without ever being formally charged. Not on trial but also implicated in the massacre was an officer known by the name of Sexta Feira 13 (Friday the 13) who was shot and killed in 1994. Several of the officers on trial attributed a significant amount of responsibility to him for the shootings at Candelária. Due to his death and unavailability at the trials, he became what many considered a scapegoat for the police department.
Lack of Legislation Not the Problem
The protection of children and their rights was not unfamiliar activity in Brazil at the time of the Candelária shootings. Because a number of laws were already in place regarding children’s rights at the time the shootings occurred, much of the blame was placed on the legal system for failing to implement those pre-existing laws and consequently failing to protect Brazilian children.
Article 227 of the Brazilian constitution was introduced in November 1989, just one year after the seventh and current constitution was ratified. The article very clearly articulates its position on children’s rights in its opening statement: “It is the duty of the family, the society and the State to ensure children and adolescents, with absolute priority, the right to life, health, nourishment, education, leisure, professional training, culture, dignity, respect, freedom and family and community life, as well as to guard them from all forms of negligence, discrimination, exploitation, violence, cruelty and oppression.”
The article does not specifically exclude street children from these protections. It has, however, allowed for the ratification of future decrees directed at protecting and ensuring the rights of minors.
Following article 227 of the Brazilian constitution was The Child and Adolescent Statute. It was signed by President Fernando Collor de Mello and was ratified on July 13, 1990. It provided a more detailed identification of what rights were guaranteed to children and adolescents, placing an emphasis on the responsibilities of the state and families of the children.
Later that year, Brazil approved the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it incorporated into its domestic law on November 21, 1990. Unlike the previous two legislative acts, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was a legal contract to be upheld across borders. The Brazilian government assumed a good deal of responsibility by approving the convention and agreeing to hold Brazil to a universal standard for protecting children’s rights.
Between 1989 and 1990, Brazil signed on to three laws (two domestic and one international) regarding children’s rights. Vast amounts of research into Brazil’s social and legal system, prompted by the Candelária massacre, exposed impunity as a reoccurring theme in Brazilian modern history. The government’s inability to hold military police and well-placed civilians accountable for their actions thus became the focus of the trials.
Death Squads and Impunity: Dangerous Combination
Brazilian death squads are infamously known for being comprised of off-duty military police officers with occasional civilian members who are hired by outside parties and only rarely face legal punishment. Because their police salary is so low, many officers are easily drawn to death squads as a “second job” to supplement their financial needs.
The common link between those seeking to employ death squads is their willingness to invest money in an illegal group in order to protect their own personal investments, or accomplish some illegal task. Death squads are known to conduct jobs that may involve murder in order to protect shops, restaurants and other tourist centers, as well as preserve the safety of neighborhoods from suspected criminal activity.
Unfortunately, street children become the targets of these death squads because shopkeepers and wealthy citizens view them as threats to public safety and commerce and label them criminals and thugs who freely roam the streets. The combination of off-duty officers in search of extra income and wealthy citizens willing to pay to have their lifestyles and investments protected ultimately produces the emergence and acceptability of death squads.
The impunity in the Brazilian legal system, specifically as it affects the police force, encourages the constant violation of street children’s human rights. Death squads remain in existence because of the disenchantment with the proper functioning of the legal system.
This system has been set up so that when military police officers are tried for alleged crimes, they normally are taken before special military courts rather than civilian panels. Military courts are notoriously known to be much more lenient on the part of their officers than civilian courts.
Corruption in the legal system also provides many more opportunities for death squads to thrive. The significance of the Candelária case is that the perpetrators involved were indicted in civilian courts rather than military courts.
Civilian courts do not offer the usual protection against legal punishment that the military courts normally offer to their officers. Thus, keeping the trials in civilian courts has called for a level of justice rarely achieved against Brazilian human rights violators.
The Candelária Church massacre now stands as a reminder of what happens when limitations, surveillance and accountability are not enforced in branches of the government overwhelmed by power arrangements. While many in Brazil, especially in the city of Rio, have unwillingly come to terms with the prevalence of violence, the international media coverage of Candelária has managed to expose the world to a dark and untold theme in Brazilian society.
Indeed, a July 22 BBC article cites a study that found that around 5,000 youth, ages 12 to 18 are killed every year in Brazilian towns and cities.
The convictions of the three officers involved in the Candelária massacre provided temporary satisfaction for advocates of justice and legitimate court trials. However, little has changed as far as street children and death squads are concerned.
Injustices carried out against children by security forces continue to plague Brazil despite the existence of a variety of laws advocating protection of human rights for children. The busy streets of Rio provide limited refuge for children with no homes nor families, and police officers continue to turn to death squads as a supplementary source for income.
Research following the incident revealed that the Candelária massacre, although much more publicized than others, was just one of many such incidents. As recently as 2008, reports have been drafted depicting Brazil’s inability to properly implement human rights laws.
In an April 2008 document, Amnesty International stated, “there remains a huge gap between the spirit of these laws and their implementation.” Four months later, a 49-page report compiled by U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Phillip Alston, revealed that in Rio alone, “on-duty police are responsible for nearly 18 percent of the total killings, and kill three people every day.”
This analysis was prepared by COHA’s Research Associate Leonardo Faria Chusán. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: email@example.com.