Human Rights Developments
Violence continued in Brazil in 1990 at the same rate as in the past several years, despite the inauguration of the first president elected by direct popular participation in more than a generation.2 While imprisonment for political reasons has subsided since the transition to civilian rule in 1985, the incidence of torture and killing remains high. Much of the violence is related to the distribution of land in Brazil, with ownership restricted to a small privileged class, leaving millions of Brazilians without the means to subsist. Those who cannot find land or work flee to overcrowded cities or to remote rural areas.
In the cities, high unemployment contributes to a staggering rate of violent crime, which has met a lawless police response -- extrajudicial executions of suspected criminals, including children, and torture. In general, the military police, a uniformed patrol force, are responsible for summary executions, while the civil police, in charge of investigations, are responsible for torture. Summary executions are also committed by off-duty policemen organized as death squads.
The estimated seven million children who live and work on Brazilian streets3 comprise a significant precentage of the victims. Driven to criminal activities to survive, many children are regularly detained and tortured by the police and hundreds have been assassinated by police death squads.
The Rio de Janeiro police department has admitted that half the city's identified death squad members are policemen. Nonetheless, Brazilian officials have failed to take action to stop these death squads and punish those responsible for such abuses.
Americas Watch also remains concerned about the appalling prison conditions in Brazil. In many prisons, detainees are crammed into small, dark, filthy, damp and smelly cells, intended for half, a third, or even fewer occupants than are confined there. Violence by both guards and inmates is rampant. Inmates assault and rape other inmates, and as a form of protest against prison conditions, sometimes murder them. Torture to obtain confessions is common, and corruption and other abuses are also reported. Because of inaccurate record-keeping, some inmates are imprisoned beyond their sentences.
Human rights abuses in rural Brazil are related to the struggle for land. Many landless Brazilians have organized themselves into rural unions and taken to squatting or homesteading on unused land. Their goals are to pressure the government to fulfill its promise of agrarian reform and to claim unproductive land. Prominent rural activists and their supporters have met violent opposition from both the police and private gunmen hired by landowners. The police, with or without a court order of eviction, have used excessive force on numerous occasions, shooting into crowds of farm families, beating them and burning their homes to force them off the land. Sometimes the police are accompanied by gunmen hired by landowners.
This situation is exacerbated by problems of judicial procedure. Court orders of eviction are issued at hearings for which squatters are often given no notice, a practice which is legal in Brazil but fraught with the possibility of injustice.
Private gunmen hired by landowners commit targeted acts of violence and assassinations. Operating anonymously in hit-and-run fashion, they are rarely caught, although they are frequently identified by the local population or the press. This death-squad style violence regularly goes uninvestigated by police or judges. In fact, almost none of the violence directed at the rural workers' movement is investigated or punished. Of the 1,566 assassinations of rural workers, Indians, lawyers and other professionals involved in the struggle for land between 1964 and 1989, as tabulated by the Pastoral Land Commission, only 17 trials and eight convictions resulted through 1989. The convictions occurred when the victims were members of the professional classes (lawyers or priests) or had special international connections (Indians).
Such impunity only encourages those who are guilty of violence. In the northern state of Pará, four men associated with the rural workers union's struggle for land in Rio Maria were assassinated in two separate incidents in April 1990. The same assailants who killed the first pair of activists, feeling no heat from the police, committed the second pair of murders only a few weeks later.
The principal cause of this impunity is a lack of will on the part of the government to pursue these cases. Police investigations are often grossly negligent. Many times there is no investigation at all.
In similar fashion, the police routinely fail to provide protection for rural activists who have been threatened. The December 1988 murder of activist Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, known as Chico Mendes, brought international attention to the plight of the rubber tappers' movement in Brazil. Despite countless reports of death threats and appeals to authorities for protection -- including a petition to the President -- his pleas were largely ignored. 4
On December 15, Darly Alves da Silva and his son, Darcy Alves Pereira, were convicted for Mendes's murder after a four-day jury trial. Both men received 19-year sentences. However, given the enormous pressure generated by the international environmental movement, the conviction is not indicative of an improvement in Brazil's justice system. Rubber tappers continue to receive frequent death threats, and violence against lesser known activists is still not investigated or prosecuted.
Government failure to halt the use of forced labor by large landowners presents another serious human rights problem in Brazil. The practice is found primarily in the inaccessible forests of the northern and western frontier states, where large landowners cut and burn enormous tracts of land to turn the forest into cattle pasture, a practice actively opposed by environmentalists. Poor laborers are brought to estates by deceptive means, held against their will through threats and acts of violence, and compelled to live and work in deplorable conditions. Uncooperative workers are beaten or threatened with death by small private armies of gunmen hired to enforce the appalling wages and working conditions. In several cases, workers have been killed for trying to escape or for protesting their treatment. Although forced labor is used most commonly in the most remote parts of the country, cases have also been reported in the more developed and accessible states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Despite Brazilian law forbiding maintenance of private jails and reduction of a person to a "condition analogous to slavery," the police appear almost never to prosecute cases of forced labor, even after the state police have raided offending estates to free workers. Such raids are infrequent, however; most complaints yield no police action.
The Bush administration has been conspicuously silent on human rights abuses in Brazil throughout 1990. The President squandered an important opportunity to raise human rights concerns during his visit to Brazil in early December. Instead, he lauded the consolidation of democracy and promoted his plan to create a hemispheric free-trade zone.
State Department officials in Washington claimed that human rights concerns are raised as part of the "regular dialogue" with Brazilian officials, but could not provide a single example of when that had occurred in 1990.
The United States is Brazil's largest trading partner, investor and creditor. But the Bush administration has made no use of this tremendous economic clout to ensure that commercial relations are not built on a foundation of human rights abuse.
The Work of Americas Watch
An Americas Watch delegation spent several weeks in Brazil in June and July. It visited states in the north (Pará), northeast (Maranhão and Paraíba), west (Acre), south (Río Grande do Sul) and southeast (São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) to investigate government complicity in rural violence, forced labor and related human rights violations. In December, Americas Watch issued two newsletters: one on the status of the Chico Mendes case prior to the trial, and another on forced labor practices. A full report on rural violence in Brazil is scheduled for publication in early 1991.
In conjunction with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Americas Watch organized a mid-October 1990 mission to the municipality of Perus on the outskirts of São Paulo where a team of Brazilian scientists exhumed a mass grave in the Don Bosco Cemetery. Among the 1,500 remains uncovered, at least 25 were those of persons disappeared during the 1970s. In an effort to facilitate determination of responsibility for past human rights abuses in Brazil, the Americas Watch group lent both visibility and technical support to efforts to identify the remains. The delegation was hosted by Brazilian human rights organizations and the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo. A report on their findings will be published jointly with PHR and AAAS, again in early 1991.