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Thoughts on Letting Brazil’s Military Investigate Itself for Past Abuses during the Dictatorship

April 4, 2014 Comments off

This week, Brazil’s Truth Commission finally managed to get the Ministry of Defense to accede to requests to investigate the military and sites of torture during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985.

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, this absolutely is a major victory in terms of efforts to confront the military’s repressive past. Military archives and records have often long been off-limits for historians and human rights activists, with the military alternately denying such archives and records exist or insisting they were already destroyed (and even sometimes contradictorily making both claims at the same time). Opening up centers where torture took place will not only allow for the forced recognition of the past; it will also help improve our mapping and understandings of the mechanisms of torture and repression in Brazil.

On the other hand, the military itself will be responsible for conducting these investigations, with internal “inquiry units” rather than external agents probing the past. Letting the military be in charge of its own policing on the past is troubling for a few reasons, and not just because it was the military that originally gave itself an amnesty in 1979, an amnesty it has stood behind and that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. The fact that there remain both within the military and outside of it many people who continue to defend the military and its actions during the dictatorship, and there is certainly the potential that internal pressure from above within a system predicated on strict hierarchies could limit the findings. And it is not like there is a strong history of the military being fully transparent even in times of democracy. A culture of impunity (itself a major legacy of the dictatorship) continues to reign in much of Brazil both in its armed forces and in police forces, and rarely do military or police officials face punishment or even inquiries into their roles in human rights violations in Brazil’s cities or countryside. It is not unfair to wonder whether or how an investigation into past crimes will be any different.

To be clear, this is not to say that the investigations are doomed to failure, or that the military cannot directly and transparently confront its past, and the fact that it has finally agreed to participate in investigations, even internally led ones, is encouraging. At the same time, it will be worth watching to see how these investigations occur and what their findings are. Hopefully they provide full, frank, and honest accounts of the regime that further add to our understandings of repression under military rule, but given the recent trends in the armed forces and the contentious nature over Brazil’s military dictatorship today, questions will remain until the investigations can be (and hopefully are) brought to completion and published.

Dictatorship Apologists, 50 Years On

April 2, 2014 Comments off

Yesterday, Brazil’s Congress marked the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew constitutional president João Goulart and ushered in a 21-year military dictatorship that killed hundreds of its own citizens and tortured thousands others.  In 1964, Congress was directly implicit in the coup and the subsequent military dictatorship: Congress proclaimed the presidency vacant even while Goulart remained in Brazil and declared Chamber of Deputies leader Ranieri Mazzilli as the acting President of Brazil for the second time in his life (he’d also assumed the role in the wake of Jânio Quadros’s abrupt resignation in 1961). Mazzilli was president in name only, as a military junta, led by Artur Costa e Silva, established control before Congress selected Humberto Castelo Branco as the country’s new president. By contrast, yesterday’s commemoration was to be a more solemn affair, recognizing the setbacks that human rights and democracy both suffered under Brazil’s military regime.

Of course, that did not mean all were willing to cooperate with such a dignified approach. Ultra-right wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a dictatorship apologist, decided to use the event to celebrate the military in his speech, with various other representatives turning their backs on him. Meanwhile, his supporters unfurled a banner thanking the military, through whose efforts “Brazil is not Cuba,” according to Bolsonaro, while another Bolsonaro supporter shouted to others, “I do not want communism in my Country.” Ultimately, the ceremony ended up being delayed for over an hour. Yet the event reminds us of the degree to which Brazil’s dictatorship continues to appear in politics even while torturers are publicly named but remain unpunished, something that seems unlikely to change anytime soon, given the reluctance of President Rousseff (herself a political prisoner and torture victim during the dictatorship) to review the 1979 amnesty that pardoned all those in the military regime who committed torture and murder.

Around Latin America

December 4, 2013 Comments off

-Peru has launched its biggest exhumation ever, as it tries to find victims from the violence between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state between 1980 and 2000.

-Peru is not the only country exhuming victims of violence. In an attempt to find two missing police officers, forensic scientists in Mexico got more than they expected when their search led to the discovery of 64 bodies buried in mass graves in Jalisco and Michoacán, with the bodies showing signs of torture and indicating they are the victims of ongoing violence between cartels. In spite of the discovery, the two police officers remain missing.

-In the wake of a close election and allegations of electoral fraud, Honduras will hold a recount after thousands took to the streets in support of Xiomara Castro, who allegedly lost the election to conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez (who got 37% of the total vote)  and whose husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office in a coup d’etat in 2009. The recount comes amidst outsiders’ observations allegations of chicanery and after Honduras’s electoral council was very slow to issue the data from the November 24 election, adding to suspicions of fraud.

-Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral announced that he will leave office 9 months early after seeing his popularity plummet in the midst and wake of protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a number of causes, including political elites’ disconnect and corruption. Cabral himself became a particular target of that anger in Rio de Janeiro.

-The bad news for governors is not limited to Brazil. In Mexico, former governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington faces charges in the US of having ties to the drug cartels while he was in office during his 1999-2004 governorship.

-Costa Rica closed a probe into the 1984 bombing that killed 7 journalists and Nicaraguan Contras and wounded 20 more people, after forensics revealed that the attacker died in the late-1980s.

-Mexico’s Senate has approved electoral reform that would allow reelection and would strengthen Congressional power in the face of executive power even while approving President Enrique Peña’s efforts to increasingly privatize the state-run PEMEX oil company in Mexico.

-Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador for the conservative ARENA party, is under investigation for the misuse of upwards of $10 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador during his presidency, money that apparently never made it to its intended institutional destinations.

-Finally, in Brazil, Guaraní indigenous leader Ambrosio Vilhava, whose struggle to help protect Guaraní land was documented in the 2008 film Birdwatchers, was found stabbed to death after his father-in-law allegedly killed him. While the circumstances around his death remain unclear, the fact remains that his death marks the loss of an important activist and leader in Brazilian indigenous mobilization.

The Brazilian Truth Commission after One Year

December 3, 2013 Comments off

The truth commission investigating repression and state-sponsored violence during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985 has recently completed a full year of work, and issued a report of some of its major findings after one year:

Part 1. Hiding of Documentation from the Brazilian State. The Brazilian Navy deliberately concealed information from President Itamar Franco in 1993, when he requested information from the Brazilian Navy, Army and Air Force regarding political disappearances during the dictatorship. By cross-checking a 1972 report of deaths from the CENIMAR with its 1993 response to President Itamar Franco, Truth Commission analysts concluded that in 1972, the CENIMAR already recorded the deaths of many political prisoners, whereas in 1993 they reported that these same individuals were variously exiled, disappeared or imprisoned. The released documents on the 11 individuals presented by Heloísa Starling was the only disclosed information  from the CENIMAR, whereas 12,071 pages of similar documentation remained undisclosed to President Itamar Franco.

Part. 2: Chain of command within the DOI-Codi. “Ultra-secret” documents detailing the structure of the DOI-Codi (Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations), the organ of political repression responsible for the disappearances, tortures and deaths of individuals arrested for opposition to the military regime, reveal that its chain of command reached and included the Brazilian Ministers of Defense, thus implicating the Brazilian State in crimes against humanity. The documents included a chart illustrating how local Secretaries of Defense, the Federal Police and other arms of government intel had three direct lines of communication to the Ministers of Defense—revealing two more in addition to the one of which was known. According to other documents, the DOI-Codi of Rio de Janeiro perpetrated 735 cases of torture between 1970 and 1973.

Part. 3 CENIMAR recognizes violence against its own agents Documents reveal that soldiers were trained by the CENIMAR to become infiltrators of leftist and revolutionary groups, notably to participate in the Student Movement. In a letter to the Minister of the Marines, the Commander of the CENIMAR recognizes that violence was done to one such double agent and that his actions were “full of merit.” This document shows that violence done to double agents was perpetrated to the same degree as normal revolutionaries, and it did not deter further violence, but rather it was seen as an occupational hazard.

Part. 4 The Use of Torture: 1964-1968

The Truth Commission’s research shows that torture had been used as a means of interrogation as early as 1964. It had been originally accepted that the use of torture had began with the Institutional Act Number 5 (“AI-5″), whose suspension of habeas corpus made torture de jure legal. Whereas torture as a means of repression did skyrocket after the imposition of the AI-5, the Truth Commission found that torture has always formed the base of  repression since the installment of the military regime in 1964. Moreover, in 1964, all of the forms of torture which would be used throughout the entire period of the dictatorship had already been taught, used and established as early as 1964.

These are important findings, but not for their newness. Indeed, almost all of these matters have been well-known, and even documented, among historians, activists, human rights workers, political scientists, sociologists, and others. Indeed, taking the issue of the military hiding documents (points #1 above) as an example, this has long been a source of frustration to human rights activists and historians alike: the former because it has prevented the full knowledge of the experiences of the tortured and disappeared and those who perpetrated these acts, the latter because it has made archival work on the period more difficult. However, it has not made such work impossible. Indeed, the numerous branches of secret police and state security apparatuses that operated during the dictatorship resulted in an alphabet soup of organizations like DOI-CODI, DOPS, SNI, DSI, CENIMAR, etc. that were a part of the state’s broad repressive apparatus. Thus, while documents like CENIMAR reports are harder to come by, one can find them annexed or cited in the DOPS archives in the State Archive of Rio de Janeiro or the DSI archives at the National Archive. Indeed, documents that military officials insisted never existed are cited with regularity in other security apparatus reports, suggesting that they not only existed, but have been concealed for decades.

So if we’ve known all of this before, why does any of it matter? Well, in no small part, because it is finally the state doing the investigating. For example, regarding the state’s use of torture from 1964 to 1968, this was no secret – numerous victims have provided oral accounts of torture in that period, and sometimes it was publicly visible. Likewise, the military government itself had to issue a decree against torture in the first months of its regime, particularly after journalist Márcio Moreira Alves published thorough accounts of military torture. So the fact that the military tortured between 1964 and 1968 was not new to anybody who has studied the dictatorship. However, the state itself had never taken responsibility for it; rather, the more general officialist narrative insisted torture only came after AI-5. Again, there were numerous historical, activist, and sociological accounts that revealed how false that narrative is, but it had persisted nonetheless. With the Truth Commission’s official recognition of the state’s use of torture from the very first days of the military regime, the Brazilian state is finally acknowledging the systematic use of torture from its inception, rather than just in the “years of lead” from 1969 to 1974 (and beyond). Indeed, the point stands for all four of the conclusions mentioned above. Even if they were known, the fact that the state is acknowledging these facts at long last is more than symbolic, as it provides any number of psychological, historical, and legal points of closure and helps to build for future understanding the military regime in Brazil (and hopefully preventing future repressive regimes).

That is the biggest benefit of the truth commission’s findings thus far, but it’s far from the only reward. Particularly regarding the chain of command in DOI-CODI and in the military’s use of repression against its own agents, the commission has shed new light on processes scholars only previously had incomplete understandings of. Certainly, works like Ken Serbin’s have revealed the use of military repression against its own members, but the fact that it committed “acts of violence” even against its own double agents, and justified such violence. Likewise, while scholars long had a general sense of the chain of command in DOI-CODI, an infamously violent security apparatus, the truth commission’s findings have brought that sense into sharper focus, more concretely demonstrating a direct correspondence between the security apparatuses and the highest levels of government during military rule, a correspondence that was long suspected through the fragmentary archival records available but never in such detail.

Overall, the truth commission’s report after one year has to be considered a success, albeit a qualified one. After all, the truth commission still lacks the authority for any prosecutorial actions against those members of the regime who conducted torture, murder, and other forms of state violence. Additionally, the fact that the commission is operating more than 25 years after military rule actually came to an end means that many of the highest-ranking officials who ordered, oversaw, or were aware of such state-sponsored violence have long since passed away, meaning they could never face either prosecution or the public scorn that such findings might create. And some have even complained that its investigation only into the state violence, and not oppositional violence, is problematic (an assessment I understand but do not fully agree with). Nonetheless, the fact remains that the truth commission has finally provided state acknowledgement of repressive actions it had long ignored or denied, even while shedding new light on processes scholars often had glimpses of but lacked the archival resources and materials available to the commission itself. It will definitely be worth watching what paths the commission takes in the coming months, what its final report says, and how those findings are received by the public writ large.

Around Latin America

November 30, 2013 Comments off

-Dozens of Haitians are dead after the boat they were traveling on capsized as they sought to seek refuge and a new start in the wake of recent tensions and violence in the Dominican Republic.

-For those who missed it, earlier this week a crane collapsed on a stadium being built for the World Cup in São Paulo, killing two workers. Now, workers for the union on the construction of the stadium are saying their warnings that the soil on which the crane sat could not support its weight went ignored, unnecessarily putting workers’ lives at risk.

-Though more tragic, the stadium accident was not the only architectural bad news to emerge from São Paulo this week. Yesterday, a fire broke out at the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Latin America Memorial, which houses a large auditorium and a number of cultural artifacts caught on fire, and pictures from the interior of the building reveal that the damage was extensive.

-In an effort to protect the rights of LGBTI individuals in the Americas, this past week the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) created a Unit on the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Persons. While the IACHR has long been an important instrument in bringing awareness to and investigating human rights violations in Latin America, it has not directly addressed violent acts and other forms of persecution against the LGBTI community. The potential importance of this new institution should not be understated, as it  will actively investigate reports of human rights violations against LGBTI persons throughout the Americas, even while also providing an arena for activists to make the issues facing the LGBTI community more visible.

-In a reminder both of the unequal treatment of politicians and the power of popular mobilizations in Latin America, after thousands of Paraguayans gathered outside of the Congress to protest against the Senate’s decision to uphold the parliamentary immunity to a colleague under investigation for fraud and corruption, the Congress retreated, stripping senator Victor Bogado of his parliamentary immunity and opening him to prosecution for fraud and corruption.

-Brazil has reached a tragic milestone, as the number of femicides in the country reached 40,000 in the last 10 years.

-Cuba has suspended consular operations in the United States, citing its inability to get any banks to work with it as the main reason.

-Finally, Brazil has sent in its national police to try to settle a land dispute between indigenous peoples who were awarded exclusive land rights in 2010 on the one hand, and landowners in the region who continue to challenge the ruling on the other hand.

Remembering Tlatelolco

October 2, 2013 Comments off

Around Latin America

September 11, 2013 Comments off

-Yesterday, Chile marked the fortieth anniversary of the coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the 17-year military dictatorship that killed over 3000 people and tortured tens of thousands. Even while the date was commemorated, the search for justice for some continues. Family members of murdered folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands the military cut off before killing him in 1973, have sued an officer tied to the murder who now lives in Florida, while former friends and colleagues of US journalist Charles Horman demand an investigation into his own death in Chile shortly after the coup (a story that was portrayed in Costa Gavras’s 1982 film Missing).

-Of course, Chile is not the only country continuing to pursue justice decades after the rise of right-wing military regimes. It recently extradited judge Otilio Romano to Argentina, where Romano is wanted for his role in cases of torture, disappearances, and other crimes.

-In the wake of wire-tapping scandals that revealed the US spied on Mexico and Brazil, the Obama administration has begun trying to patch up its relationship with Brazil in the wake of the revelations (and as President Dilma Rousseff weighs whether or not to cancel a planned state visit to the US in October).

-Thousands of teachers in Mexico continue to take to the streets in protest of a new educational law that would create mandatory evaluations, reforms they say erode labor rights.

-As Cuban doctors continue to travel to Brazil to help with medical care in the country (one of the many issues raised in massive protests throughout Brazil in June this year) and even enjoy the support of a majority of Brazilians, that has not stopped them from facing racism from some Brazilians, including Brazilian doctors who oppose the Cuban doctors’ presence, a powerful reminder of the ways racism operates within and in between Latin American countries.

-Another former Guatemalan guerrilla is set to face trial for his role in killings during the civil war that left 250,000 Guatemalans dead or missing, providing another reminder that the court system in Guatemala has gone after more than just military human rights violators.

-Brazilian prosecutors have launched an effort to prevent Canadian mining company Belo Sun mining from creating an open-pit mine in the Amazonian basin, arguing such a project will devastate indigenous communities and the environment.

Chiquita Trying to Shirk Responsibility for Aiding Terrorist Organizations

August 26, 2013 2 comments

Banana companies have long had a horrible history in Latin America, based upon political corruption, economic exploitation, and even the overthrow of democratically-elected regimes. Yet the horrible practices of multinational fruit companies in the region is not a relic of the past, limited to the twentieth century. Just in the last decade, Chiquita Brands International (which was originally the United Fruit Company, which in turn played no small part in the 1954 Guatemalan coup that led to 36 years of civil war and violence that left 250,000 people dead or missing) was found to have given money to Colombia’s Autodefesas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-defense Forces of Colombia; AUC). Given that the US government declared the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary organization,  to be a terrorist organization in 2001, Chiquita’s funding of the AUC was a criminal act.

Yet today, Chiquita is fighting to prevent further knowledge, details, and understanding of its ties to the AUC to become public, filing a lawsuit to prevent the release of thousands of pages of documents. While such an act already smells like more than a little bit of a coverup, the fact that Chiquita is framing the issue as one of victimhood is even worse:

Despite the clear and existing evidence that Chiquita had engaged in criminal activity, Chiquita is arguing that under Exception 7(B) of the Freedom of Information Act, mandatory disclosure provisions do not apply to “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes . . . to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information . . . would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.”

In an effort to portray the multinational corporation as the real victim in this case Chiquita’s lawyer, James Garland, argued that the disclosure of the documents “will make them available to the general public, including members of the press and individuals and organizations that seek to distort the facts surrounding the payments that Banadex (a subsidiary of Chiquita) made to the AUC under threat of force.  Past experience with release of Chiquita’s documents has demonstrated that media campaigns based on gross mischaracterizations of released documents are certain to occur in an effort to entrench misconceptions of relevant facts in the minds of fact finders integral to the fairness of the proceedings.”

Furthermore, Garland has engaged in a campaign alleging that the National Security Archive is not an independent research organization, but instead is seeking to assist lawyers involved in a class action lawsuit against Chiquita in Colombia, on behalf of the victims of paramilitaries, in addition to an ongoing criminal investigation of former Chiquita employees in Colombia.  The fact that the National Security Archive would not have found evidence of criminal wrongdoing if it had never happened in the first place seems lost on Garland.

This is not just a case of some benign, consequence-free series of financial transactions, either. In 2007, the families of over 400 murdered and tortured individuals sued Chiquita, pointing to the company’s support for the AUC and the AUC’s subsequent violence as leading to the fruit company’s responsibility, and the AUC has long been known for targeting civilian populations and worsening the violence in Colombia’s nearly 50-year civil turmoil. That it is doing so while trying to prevent further understanding of the nature of Colombia’s civil war, and the ways multinationals affect and are affected by it, is disturbing; that Chiquita is framing itself as the victim, while disregarding the actual dead and their loved ones who suffered at the hands of the right-wing paramilitary forces Chiquita itself was giving money to is simply vulgar.

Around Latin America

August 25, 2013 Comments off

-In spite of a recent attack that left 13 Colombian soldiers dead, peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC continue, in an attempt to end civil war and conflict that has lasted nearly 50 years and left tens (if not hundreds) of thousands dead and millions displaced.

-Although Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto managed to remove powerful union leader Elba Ester Gordillo earlier this year, her absence has not prevented broader teacher mobilization against unpopular education reforms that Peña NIeto has pushed through. Thousands of teachers and their supporters have taken to the streets in Mexico City, protesting against an evaluation system they say is designed to fire teachers.

-Speaking of protests, in Colombia, thousands of farmers have mobilized, protesting against the government’s economic policies and issuing a wide number of demands, including access to potable water and lower taxes on agricultural goods.

-In Brazil, plans for a highway through the Iguaçu Falls National Park have prompted protests and intensified struggles between environmentalists and government officials.

-And in yet one more example of popular demonstrations in Latin America in the last few weeks, in Ecuador, protesters expressed anger at President Rafael Correa’s decision to open parts of the Yasuni National Park to oil exploration. Anger is understandable, given the ongoing effects of decades of toxic spills, pollution, environmental degradation, and health crises that resulted from oil production in Ecuador’s Amazonian basin.

-Chilean General Juan Emilio Cheyre has stepped down from his post as the head of Chile’s national electoral service after revelations that he was involved in the Chilean military regime’s practice of taking children of arrested and murdered activists.

-Meanwhile, in other episodes involving the legacies of the PInochet regime and the ongoing quest for justice, a judge has ruled that there is not sufficient evidence to try former dictator Augusto Pinochet’s family members for embezzlement and corruption, while another judge rejected a legal request to try former General Fernando Matthei for the murder of General Alberto Bachelet, an officer who opposed the 1973 coup. Bachelet was the father of former president (and current candidate) Michelle Bachelet.

-Twenty-two soccer players in El Salvador have been suspended amidst allegations of match-fixing.

-I previously commented on the non-military ways in which drones could be deployed in Latin America. Peru is adding to that list, now using drones to protect and further learn about archaeological ruins, simultaneously combating the effects of illegal mining, squatting, and scavenging at sites even while learning more about what these sites hold.

-A battle between rival gangs at a Bolivian prison has left at least 31 people dead, including an 18-month old child who was living with a parent in the prison, a practice allowed in Bolivia if children six years old or younger have no other living relative with whom they can live.

-Finally, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed into law new provisions designed to protect and aid rape victims, including guaranteeing medical treatment and providing emergency contraception to those who have been raped. The new provisions are part of a broader effort to combat rape in Brazil, where recent data suggest it is a broad and, for far too long, unaddressed problem.

On This Date in Latin America -July 24, 1993: The Candelária Massacre

July 24, 2013 1 comment

In the early hours of the morning on this day twenty years ago, police in Rio de Janeiro murdered eight street children on the steps of Rio’s Candelária Cathedral in what came to be known as the Candelária Massacre.

The Igreja da Candelária in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

The Igreja da Candelária in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

Official violence in Brazil is nothing new – indeed, the use of brutal forms of both direct and indirect violence against the racially and socio-economically marginalized in Brazil can be traced back to slavery itself. Although Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, like the United States, it did little to address the greater political, social, and economic inequalities that left free blacks at a greater disadvantage within society more broadly, and the poor (and often racially “darker” within Brazil’s own complex matrix of race and ethnicity) faced ongoing challenges. For example, when authorities decided to renovate Rio’s downtown in the 1910s in preparation for a visit from the Belgian royal family, they forcefully displaced the poor who lived along the mountainsides in downtown, relocating them to the city’s periphery, a pattern that has continued into the twenty-first century, as hundreds of favelas now dot the city’s surroundings and mountains where upper-class high-rises cannot be built.

Even while Brazil’s poor continued to be marginalized within the cities, their numbers also grew considerably, and not just through basic population growth; between 1930 and 1980, the rural-urban populations saw a complete inversion, as Brazil shifted from a 70% rural population and only 30% urban population in 1930 to only 30% rural and 70% urban populations by 1980 (even while the total population in the country grew from around 35 million in 1930 to nearly 120 million in 1980). This growth in cities like Rio only added to the strain on the poor, as the growing numbers of rural migrants to cities were unable to find adequate-paying jobs in a glutted market and the favelas only grew.  By the 1960s, as the growing urban poor faced dim prospects, neglect, and poverty, they tried to survival any way they could. Many, especially children and mothers, would beg in the streets, even while the drug trade took root in the favelas, providing means to wealth to many who otherwise were completely shut out from economic improvement in Rio de Janeiro.

Unfortunately, the inequalities facing Rio’s urban poor were not limited to economics. Police also regularly targeted poor neighborhoods, employing increasingly brutal tactics to stamp out “crime”. Already by the late-1960s, police death squads were openly operating in the favelas, killing “criminals,” often extrajudicially. Though reports of the death squads appeared in some of Brazil’s more popular magazines, the fact that the victims were poor led many in the middle- and upper-classes to turn a blind eye, blithely accepting the police’s accounts of events and disregarding conflicting reports from the favelas themselves. Indeed, in the context of the military dictatorship (which had begun in 1964), the repression in the favelas increased, and while middle-class students and parents mobilized to defend human rights for university students and “political prisoners”, they were notably silent when it came to favela residents who were labeled “criminals.” The distinction was notable – the political prisoner/criminal dichotomy created a sense that those university students and activists were unfairly persecuted, while those in the favelas legally “deserved” their fates.

By 1985, the military dictatorship had left power, and with it, political and police persecution of middle-class activists had faded away. Sadly, the same could not be said for the urban poor, as police activities and the operation of death squads and paramilitary groups continued to operate, often killing dozens of “traficantes” (dead favela residents who in death were labeled traffickers, regardless of whether or not they were tied to the drug trade or criminal activity) and arresting numerous others, creating a massive strain on Brazil’s already-overcrowded prison system. As had been the case in the 1960s, the middle- and upper-classes, along with the media, continued to accept police accounts of violence at face value, never considering the ways in which the police repression and violence that they had associated with the dictatorship had continued in the favelas. Additionally, Brazil’s 1979 amnesty, which pardoned political prisoners and state agents guilty of torture or murder alike, had further reinforced a culture of impunity, giving the police a greater sense that their actions against the poor would go unpunished (a belief that has sadly persisted well into the 2000s, in spite of some judicial attempts to rein in extrajudicial violence, attempts that have been met with more murders of officials investigating such crimes).

All of that set the stage for the events of the wee hours of the morning on July 24, 1993. Facing these socioeconomic inequalities, neglect, and even abandoned by their own families, thousands of homeless children tried to eke out an existence any way they could, begging in the streets in popular tourist districts or in the business districts where foot traffic was heavy, and finding shelter where they could. One such place was Candelária Church, in the heart of downtown Rio. The church became a popular place for street children to gather, providing some space for rest as well as a place for socializing among those who shared similar plights. Of course, being at the church did not mean that they did not face persecution; police regularly harassed them. Then, on the evening of July 23, the police arrested one youth who had taken shelter there for sniffing glue; indignant, some of the other children threw stones at the car. The police left, saying they would get them sooner or later, a threat they regularly made to the children. Around midnight, cars pulled up to the church where around 72 children were resting. The cars opened fire on the unarmed children, wounding several  suddenly opening fire on the unarmed kids, leaving eight dead. The youngest was 11; the oldest was only 20.

At first, authorities did little, even while the news spread worldwide and led to international pressure for an investigation. Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, a social worker who worked with the children and the person who first arrived to help the children on the night of the 23rd/24th, tried to bring attention not just to the murders, but to the broader challenges and violence street children faced. Brazil’s slow legal system began to move, charging several police officers with the murders. Some of the survivors served as witnesses, but still faced violence for their willingness to speak out and identify their attackers; indeed, in 1995, police kidnapped 1993 survivor Wagner dos Santos, shooting him four times; though dos Santos survived this second attack, nobody was arrested for it.

Ultimately, the trial led to conviction of three police officers. In 1996, courts sentenced Nelson Oliveira dos Santos Cunha to 261 years in prison for his role in the attack; in 1998, Marucos Aurélio Dias Alcantara received a 204 year sentence; and Marcos Vinícius Borges Emanuel ultimately received a 300 year prison sentence in 2003. Yet in 2013, not a single one of them is in jail; Cunha and Alcantara have been released, and Emanuel was pardoned. Though his pardon has since been overturned and he is once again wanted, he remains free.

The survivors of the attack were nowhere near as fortunate. By 2003, just 10 years after the massacre, only around twenty of the 64 survivors was still alive; many had died violently, be it at the hands of the police, gang wars, or other ways. In perhaps one of the most tragic and highest-profile cases, in 2000, survivor Sandro do Nascimento took passengers on the Bus 174 line hostage after a robbery gone awry (events recaptured in the powerful 2002 documentary Bus 174). As Brazilian media and bystanders flooded to the scene, worsening the situation. As the scene was broadcast nationwide, Nascimento said he did not want to kill anyone, and that he was a survivor of the Candelária massacre. Around 7:00 that evening, he descended the bus with Geisa Firmo Gonçalves as a hostage. A police officer approached to apprehend Nascimento, opening fire and hitting not Nascimento, but Gonçalves; the shot immediately killed her. In the pandemonium, the crowd that had gathered, thinking Nascimento had fired, moved to lynch him. Police prevented a public lynching and took Nascimento to the back of the police car, where, before millions watching across the country, they suffocated him to death, finishing what they had failed to do to him in 1993. The officer who killed Gonçalves was acquitted; not  a single officer was even charged with Nascimento’s murder, reinforcing the social inequalities in which the murder of Brazil’s poor could go unpunished.

Sandro do Nascimento, one of the survivors of the Candelária Massacre, talks to police from a bus where he held hostages in 2000.

Sandro do Nascimento, one of the survivors of the Candelária Massacre, talks to police from a bus where he held hostages in 2000.

Though Brazilians today recall the deaths of the eight killed on the night of July 23/24 1993, the broader issue of violence against the urban poor remains ignored. Indeed, Mello, the social worker who first worked with the children who were victims in 1993, estimates that there have been over 170,000 street children killed in Brazilian cities in the last thirty years, and their deaths go unpunished.  And so, while we remember the eight children who died that night and the survivors who have since died in poverty (and often violently), the socioeconomic inequalities, legal weakness, and culture of impunity that defined the events of July 24, 1993, continue in Brazil even today.

The sidewalk across the street from Candelária, with children's bodies painted into the stones to remember the eight children police murdered there in 1993.

The sidewalk across the street from Candelária Church, with the outline of children’s bodies painted into the stones to remember the eight children police murdered there in 1993.

 

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