Three weeks after having received an award from President Fernando
Henrique Cardoso for his work with favelados
(shanty town dwellers), Caio Ferraz, a sociologist and
favelado himself, asked for exile in the US. He couldn’t take the
death threats of police anymore when they started following his wife and one and a
half -year-old daughter. “I wasn’t born to be a dead hero,” he said.
In Boston, Caio Ferraz, 27, a prominent Brazilian sociologist, now in exile in the US since the beginning of the
year, explains his situation as “very strange, very different from 100% of the Brazilians who come over here.” Ferraz
openly denounced police corruption in the state of Rio de Janeiro after the massacre of 21 people in the
favela (shanty town) of Vigário Geral in 1994. The carnage happened two houses far from his own. Victims were innocent people killed
by the military police in revenge for the homicide of four policemen.
“It wasn’t time to sit down and ponder about death and injustice,” Ferraz said. He decided to create a group
within the community to analyze what had happened. “Astonishing as it sounds, there was a positive side to the
massacre,” he noted. “Vigário Geral got on the map. That made it easier for us to be heard.”
Out of the weekly meetings Ferraz organized the Community Movement of Vigário Geral (Mocovige). According
to the sociologist, the basic idea was to discuss what could be done to the community. “We could have either waited
for justice or tried to achieve justice with our own work,” he told
News from Brazil recently. “We had to show society
that the people who live in shanty towns are honest; we exist, we can also be intellectual, we can also produce culture.”
The group had the idea of buying the house where the family was killed to make it into the headquarters for
Mocovige. “We wanted to transform the house of death into the house of life. A house of war into a house of peace,” Ferraz said.
The House of Peace was inaugurated on June 4, 1995 even though initially there was no financial support. With
the help of the federal bank of Brazil (Caixa Econômica Federal), the group got the money for the house. Support
followed as local entities and artists started to donate from construction material to sculptures and pictures that could
be auctioned for money.
The project was recognized by the Interamerican Bank of Development that promised to invest $123.000 over a
period of two years. Reaching the international community, the House of Peace also got support from the Netherlands
that donated eight computers. The European Community developed a health project together with the group
Doctors Without Borders that assists 600 people monthly; the mayor of Geneva, Switzerland, donated the funds for a
nursery that takes care of over 80 kids, and the clothing chain C&A donated silk-screen equipment that has allowed
120 teenagers to get a job.
The House of Peace also has a project for handicapped people. “We couldn’t forget that there are a lot of
people mutilated by the violence around that area,” commented the activist.
With the community involvement on the project, Ferraz and the members of Mocovige started to teach people
about their rights and duties as citizens. The idea was to teach people how to react when the police acted illegally. They
were taught to file complaints, to make a basic account of what was going on so that the case could be presented to
Rio’s security authorities.
Every time the police would get into Vigário Geral, the group was on the lookout. Soon, the police started to
threaten them back. “I was threatened directly, but they couldn’t stop my work unless they’d kill me,” Ferraz added. He
is positive that the threats came from the police. “I am sure about that because I saw who they were; they threatened
me personally. I know that criminals don’t threaten, criminals kill.”
During the same time that Ferraz was suffering these death threats, he received several awards for his work at
Vigário Geral, including one given him by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the National Human Rights Award
on December 1995. The problem is that, according to Ferraz, the federal government gave the award but not the
security needed so that he could stay in Brazil.
At the end of December ’95 Ferraz’s wife and baby daughter were followed by police cars. “I knew that now was
the time to leave,” he said. Six years ago his brother was killed by Police after they mistook him for a cocaine
trafficker. Ferraz contacted Amnesty International, which had started a campaign in favor of his work and for which he
has worked as a volunteer for over three years now. Elizabeth Leedes, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, reached the Amnesty International and offered Ferraz a position as visiting scholar at the Center
for International studies of the university.
Although Ferraz is far from Brazil, he said he will not allow the distance to interrupt his work. “I am only
physically distant,” he comments. He is often in contact with the House of Peace through faxes and phone calls. “I am happy
know that things are going really well there.”.
The House of Peace is now building a three-story building on the site of the bar that was exploded on the day of
the massacre. “Now that we have full recognition and acceptance from the society, we have to keep that project
working,” Ferraz said, promising he won’t give up his idea of spreading the project to other shanty towns of the
country. “Citizenship is only made available through people who are educated, who have access to the machinery of
culture — through people who can make their own culture important for future generations,” he concluded.
On August 28, 1994, the military police discovered through a tapped phone line that the drug dealers of Vigário
Geral were about to receive a shipping of 70 kg of cocaine paste (approximately 154 pounds). The estimated value of
the quantity was of $1.5 million.
The Running Horses, a group of policemen involved in corruption and extermination, tried to obstruct the
shipment in order to use it for sabotage. The group arrests the drug and deals with the drug lords to exchange it for money.
An exact role reversal.
The drug lords of Vigário Geral managed to change the route of the shipment, but in a subsequent conflict with
the Running Horses, four policemen were killed. The group of 60 policemen swore revenge. For each policeman killed
they said they would kill ten criminals.
On August 29, 1994 at the funeral of the
four policemen, the group decided to go to Vigário Geral to put the
plan into effect and capture the cocaine shipment. They went there and
exchanged gun shots with the drug dealers. After that they got into a
bar and asked everybody for their IDs. According to the bar’s owners
the policemen were intoxicated. They started to shoot at everybody and
they left the bar after throwing a hand grenade inside. Only two men
On the way out of the bar, the policemen bumped into a boy that was on his way home from church.
Angry, the policemen killed the boy as he ran into the house. They invaded the house and started killing
everybody there too. In all eight people were killed in the house, including a girl who had just turned 15 and five kids. The
older was 11, the younger had just one month old.
Caio Ferraz can be contacted at PO Box 557, Somerville MA 02143 – USA
Casa da Paz: Tel/Fax in Brazil: 55-21-372-9373 – E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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