By Pablo Reis and BW of Brazil
Yesterday, the Huffington Post posted an article entitled “Brazil Police May Have Executed 30 During Strike” highlighting the aftermath of a recent police strike that brought chaos and federal troops to the city in northeastern Brazil. While the article did mention that those who killed were “young drug users, black, with no known address and with police records involving theft and burglaries”, the article did not give a complete picture of the problem or cite any records or opinions of activist or research groups. The fact is, the Brazilian state has actively pursued the elimination of its black population since the inception of slavery back in 1538. The brutality of slavery in Brazil was such that the average slave only lasted seven years reaching an average age of 25.
In the 1870s, faced with a huge majority of non-whites making up more than 70% of population, the government began offering subsidies to European immigrants to come to Brazil. It is no coincidence that more than 4 million European immigrants would enter Brazil between the 1870 and 1950 because Brazil shipped at least 4 million African slaves to the country in a period of 300 years. Since the end of slavery in 1888, the Afro-Brazilian population has been forced to fend for itself as European immigrants were given priority for jobs. The idea was to whiten the population both through the sheer numbers of Europeans flowing into the country and by a process of miscegenation that, after successive generations of mixture, would eventually erase the physical presence of the African descendant. And Brazilian elites were quite blatant in revealing their vision. Politician and writer and Joaquim Nabuco wrote that “European immigration could bring, continuously into the tropics a stream of lively energetic and wholesome Caucasian blood.”
In 1911, at the First Universal Races Congress, held in London in 1911 scientist João Baptista de Lacerda predicted that due to miscegenation, black Brazilians would no longer exist in Brazil and mixed race Brazilians would make up only 3% of the population. Seeing that we are now in the year 2012 and Brazil just declared itself a non-white majority country, it seems that his prediction was wrong, but we see a clear pattern in the minds of Brazil’s elites as to which population was expendable. Through the cruelties of a 21 year military dictatorship (1964-1985) and up to the present day, Brazil’s authorities have always treated its black population with disdain, disregard and brutality. While the country’s propaganda machine has consistently pointed to the United States as the true racist country, the objective has been to deflect the truth away from the practice of extermination that is going on in Brazil today. And the color of the victims of extermination is obvious.
Black, a resident of the periphery, unemployed, with only a primary school education, between the ages of 15 and 29, speaker of street slang and a body decorated with some type of tattoo: This profile is marked for death. The profile of victims of death squads in the northeastern state of Bahia makes young black men from low-income families living in poor neighborhoods targets of vigilantes, incorporating the role of policeman, judge, jury and executioner. The surveys conducted by organizations for the defense of human rights and specialists of public security paints in almost totality of the those killed in the actions of death squads with the brush of racial and social discrimination.
The Fórum Comunitáriode Combate à Violência (Community Forum for Combating Violence), an organization that brings together NGOs, neighborhood associations, police representatives and academic researchers, presents alarming statistics on the racial disparity in executions. The only data available are from 2004, based onthe records of the Instituto Médico Legal Nina Rodrigues (Nina Rodrigues Institute of Forensic Medicine), but the picture remains unchanged. Of the 706 killed in homicides between the ages of 15 and 29, 699 were black and 7 white.The percentage in relation to the number per one hundred thousand of each ethnic group is 50.1 for blacks and 1.7 for whites. The arithmetic of terror makes blacks 30 times more likely to be victim of a death squad than whites under the same conditions.
To be a person of these characteristics is, for the sociologist and researcher of urban violence Antônio Mateus de Carvalho Soares, to bear a “mark of Cain”, a reference to the biblical character marked with the stigma of being a wrong-doer. Also these young people, in view of the vigilantes, are tainted by the stereotype of a potential delinquent. “The killers make an X-ray: if he is black, poor, has (certain) mannerisms, dyed hair, talks slang, either he is or he will be a marginal. Their solution is to eliminate (him),” says Carvalho Soares, reflecting on the logic of the groups.
Victim – By fitting some features of this stereotype, the teenager is no longer seen as a citizen and becomes a species of preferential target. On February 7, 2003, NailtonManoel da Conceição, a 17-year old black male, was killed three days short of completing a year working in a cafeteria in Pituba with pistol and machine gun shots by police that would later justify the murder as a situation of “confusing the victim with a marginal.”
He was lying down in the room in his home of the Pero Vaz district, when he was surprised by agents who came in shooting, in an action described as the hunt for a dangerous criminal in the region. Two officers of the four participants had exonerations published in the Diário Oficial do Estado (Official Daily of the State) on February 3, 2006, after an investigation showed that the succession of mistakes and the precipitated manner in which they shot based only on a presumption of guilt based on physical type.
“Whoever lives in the periphery always suffers more. If it were a white boy from Pituba or Graça, they would never do this,” laments Nailton’s older brother Nilton Esperança Conceição, a little embarrassed by his tears in recalling the episode. “I was able to prove that my brother had no connection with a criminal lifestyle, but that won’t bring him back.”
Easy targets for killers
In the sight of the “killers for hire”, are never gang leaders accused of major crimes, dope house bosses or dangerous assailants. Weapons are almost always pointed at the bodies of primary perpetrators of theft or simply candidates for such, according to the scale projection of crime developed by exterminators.
Names like Ricardo Matos dos Santos, 21, Robson de Souza Pinho, 19, Clodoaldo Souza, 22, and Alexandre Macedo Fraga, 17, ended up re-enforcing the statistical data. The bodies are aimed at during noctural actions that end up printed on the pages of newspapers in an illustration of barbarism.
The unburied dead, corpses displayed in the community and in publications, work by logic of example. “Bodies exposed symbolically unburied, operate as a warning to merchants and exterminators. They are extreme examples of a fate that could happen to other young people who make careers of crime,” explains the book Sociabilidade e violência (Sociability and violence), coordinated by the sociologist Gey Espinheira, that takes an account of violence on the outskirts of Salvador.
“These groups elect a target and go for what they consider social cleansing, or taking action on what they consider as a possible circulation of delinquency,” said the prosecutor Ana Rita Cerqueira Nascimento, who is on a staff of the Ministério Público (Public Ministry) responsible for action against organized crime. “These are people that don’t need to be paid, and sometimes act out of conviction of doing good.” The prosecutor was working in the district of Santo Antônio de Jesus when she denounced five military policemen that were part of a death squad in the region. Two of them were sentenced to prison, but they were eventually released by means of habeas corpus. The case had repercussions several years ago, mainly because of the visit of the rapporteur of the United Nations for summary executions, Asma Jahangir.
Some authorities estimate that here are more than 80 death squads that are in action in thestate. Last year, the then deputy chief of Public Security Secretariat of Bahia, João Laranjeira, warned that eight killer associations had been identified. None had been disarticulated.
‘Better them than a father’
Participants of death squads wear masks, drive by in tinted glass black cars or motorcycles and circulate freely on city streets or avenues. One such participant granted an interview to one of Bahia’s newspapers to explain why he does what he does. A compatible voice of a man between the ages of 30 and 45, sometimes serious responses, and sometimes sarcastic, and sure that he is doing something good for society. For just over ten minutes, a man who assumed his status as a member of a death squad agreed to speak to the Correio da Bahia, by phone, after contacts with common counterparts. Jack – as he requested to be called – called the phone number of the reporter and the number was identified as “restricted.” He said he that he has worked as security of a neighborhood grocery store and that “we’ve dropped four vagabonds” in three years. The main passages of the discussion are the following:
CORREIO DA BAHIA – You are part of a death squad?
Jack – Together with some colleagues, I “dropped a few vagabonds” who have caused confusion in the neighborhood.
CB – What kind of confusion?
Jack – Stealing, drug running, attempted rape.
CB – What is the profile of the group members?
Jack – It’s mixed. It has police and also ordinary people. One was once in the police and now works as security. Another two only go along, they aren’t hardcore.
CB – Do you always act in four?
Jack – Sometimes, depends on the place, the drug-house of the lower part of the city. If it’s a hot drug-house, we have to go with four or five. If it’s a more peaceful place, we only need two to do the job. Because we already have someone in the area that points out the place to find the element. Then just need to put on our shields and go in.
CB – Do you earn money from this?
Jack – No. I’m against making money from it. I think we taking justice into your own hands is not something to be paid for it. We are good people, without malice and without perversity. We do what the police cannot do by law. We are people who want to leave a better world for our children.
CB – Who are your victims?
Jack – A few vagabonds who wanted to increase their control in the area. One had broken into two houses and one did a bakery and a pharmacy. These are people who have already been picked up by the police and go to the police station laughing because they know they will be released.
CB – Do you think it’s right to take justice into your own hands?
Jack – If someone asks me to pull the iron, I have to use. If I’m soft, my house falls down. I could kill someone to protect myself or to protect another person. You ask in the street about the guys who fell and everyone will say good riddance, all crackheads. Better them than a father of a family, don’t you think?
CB – What do you think of violence?
Jack – Violence is the worst problem today. Violence and political corruption.
The alarming rates of murders of black youth must be labeled what they are: genocide. There are certain Brazilian states where the numbers make this alarmingly apparent. For example, in the state of Espírito Santo, in the years 2002, 2005 and 2008, 1,264 young black were killed in comparison to 236 white youth. In other words, the murder of black youth in that state was 535% higher than the murder of white youth in those three years. In the northeastern states of Paraíba and Alagoas, the rates of homicide amongst Afro-Brazilians are 1,083% and 974% higher than whites. And in Bahia in 2008, 99% of victims in the northeastern state of Bahia were black (699 to 7). In 1999, 85% of victims of police or death squad assassinations were Afro-Brazilian.
Although police in Brazil will routinely proclaim that they are simply wiping out the country’s criminal element, various studies show otherwise. Between May 6th and 12th of 2006, after a string of murders by extermination groups and police took the lives of countless black youth, it was discovered that only 6% of the victims had prior criminal records. 126 cases were registered as having resisted arrest although there was no proof of this. In fact, the vast majority were victims of summary executions having been shot from close range, with bullets in the head and sometimes with their hands tied. In 2008, the Associação de Parentes e Amigos de Presos da Bahia (Association of Families and Friends of Prison Inmates in Bahia or Asfap-BA) investigated 1,450 police murders in the state of Bahia, also finding that the majority didn’t have previous criminal records. In 2006, a report by the Laboratório de Violência Policial da UERJ (Laboratory of Police Violence of the State University of Rio de Janeiro) found that only 6% of civilians murdered by the police had previous records.
When discussing the topic of racism and anti-black vigilante groups, most Brazilians will immediately mention the US and the history of the Ku Klux Klan and mention how this type of group never existed in Brazil. The very definition of a vigilante is “One who takes or advocates the taking of law enforcement into one’s own hands”. Thus, as the interview with “Jack” and the reports show, death squads, off duty police and extermination groups that are active in the country today ARE the Brazilian KKK. You might say, “Well, Jack never said anything about black people specifically.” In Brazil, police, on duty and off, as well death squads define Afro-Brazilian suspects with the code term “suspect of the standard color”*. And that “standard color” is black. But how many Afro-Brazilian youth must die before people face this fact?
* – In Portuguese, Google the words: suspeitos da cor padrão negra polícia