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Human Rights Developments

Despite weathering one of the most serious political crises in the country's recent history and successfully beginning impeachment proceedings against President Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazil remained a nation in which gross violations of human rights by police, unofficial death squads and hired gunmen persist on a large scale. In 1992, the most serious human rights problems were: police violence against suspected criminals; grossly substandard prison conditions; the killing of street children by death squads that include former and off-duty police officers; state tolerance of forced prostitution of young girls; inadequate investigation and prosecution of crimes against women; an increase in the registered incidents of forced labor; and impunity for those responsible for grave violations of human rights.

For a country that only recently emerged from a quarter century of military rule, the impeachment proceedings provided a powerful example of how a mobilized public and a free press can enforce popular demands for integrity and accountability in government. Unfortunately, this impressive demonstration of the strength of Brazil's democratic institutions has not coincided with an improvement in the country's dismal human rights record. Illustrative was October 2, the day both that Vice President Itamar Franco temporarily assumed the presidency, and that the São Paulo state military police committed the largest massacre of prisoners ever recorded in the country's history, killing at least 111 inmates at the Casa de Detenção prison.

According to witnesses interviewed by Americas Watch during a visit to the prison shortly after the massacre, the state military police fired randomly into cells in Pavilion Nine of the prison after a disturbance in that section. Although Americas Watch found no evidence that the prisoners posed a threat to the lives of themselves or others, the police responded with grossly excessive force, killing prisoners who were offering no resistance, including prisoners who had complied with orders to strip naked. Afterretaking the prison, the police forced several inmates to walk, run or crawl through a gauntlet of armed police officers who struck the inmates with sticks. Some prisoners were forced to carry the bodies of the dead, and some of these inmates were in turn executed.

Typical of the impunity that prevails in Brazil, the authorities have shown no willingness to conduct a serious investigation or to take steps to preclude future killings. No one had been arrested for the slaughter through early December.

Although the Casa de Detenção massacre is unique in its magnitude, it was not the only time in 1992 that the police responded to prison uprisings with deadly force. In July, the military police in Rio de Janeiro responded to a rebellion at a jail in São João de Meriti, in which inmates had taken two guards hostage, by killing 12 inmates. One guard was also killed in the incident.

These prison killings demonstrate the dangers posed by the degrading conditions that persist in most Brazilian prisons and jails. At the time of the Casa de Detenção massacre, 7000 prisoners were crowded into a facility designed to house half that number. The overcrowding creates a volatile atmosphere conducive to revolts, and fuels the callous indifference that characterizes official attitudes toward prisoners.

Official contempt for criminal suspects is not limited to detention centers. In the state and city of São Paulo, in particular, police violence has assumed staggering proportions. In 1991, according to official statistics, the São Paulo military police killed 1,140 criminal suspects, while 78 military policemen were killed. As of October 2, 1,264 suspected criminals had been killed in 1992; the number of police deaths in that time was unavailable.

A closer look at the statistics helps reveal the nature of the killings. According to statistics from the military police, in the first half of 1992, the São Paulo military police's Tropa de Choque (Shock Troop), which includes the infamous Rondas Ostensivas Tobias de Aguiar (rota) battalion, killed 170 civilians and wounded only six. During the same six-month period, no policemen from these battalions were killed and only eight were wounded. The pattern repeats itself in the same period in the greater São Paulo area. At least 660 suspects were killed and 89 wounded in this six-month interval, while only one police officer was killed and 38 wounded.

The extraordinarily high ratios of civilians killed to civilians injured, and of civilians killed to police killed are evidence that the São Paulo police are deliberately assassinating suspects. If shoot-outs were the cause of the deaths, the number of suspects wounded would ordinarily exceed those killed, while a less substantial discrepancy would exist between suspects and police killed. This pattern of deliberate assassination of criminal suspects is reinforced by the impunity enjoyed by the police. In the vast majority of cases of homicide committed by the military police, the cases are dismissed, the officers are found innocent, or the matter is so protracted that the case is effectively buried in the military justice system, which is the only court responsible for trying military police officers.

The torture of criminal suspects in police stations alsocontinues to be a problem. Although deaths in pre-trial detention in police precincts appear to have diminished and extensive torture-such as the use of the "parrot's perch"-is less common than in prior years, beatings and other forms of torture continue. Several human rights observers believe that beatings, especially of poor suspects or those with prior criminal records, are so common that the victims themselves do not bother to file complaints.

Though authorities appear to be making some progress in eliminating torture, sos Criança, a branch of the São Paulo government that deals with children, registered 21 complaints of torture involving minors between June and September 1992. In Rio de Janeiro, the director of the human rights branch of the state Attorney General's office told Americas Watch that he receives as many as thirty torture complaints a month, most of which he believes are true. In a recent positive development, the Rio state government established a special police station to investigate torture complaints.

The killings of children and adolescents, often committed by private death squads, is also a major problem in many of Brazil's cities. Although accurate statistics are impossible to compile, between 7 and 10 million children are estimated to live permanently on the streets of Brazil's largest cities. They survive by various means: selling candy and newspapers, "guarding" parked cars, begging, engaging in prostitution and petty theft, and serving as lookouts and messengers for drug dealers.

Because of Brazil's soaring crime rate (fueled by economic recession, severe unemployment, poverty, and drastic inequalities in wealth) shop-owners and other citizens who feel threatened by crime have arranged to "take the law into their own hands" by hiring private security firms-death squads-to "clean up" their neighborhoods.

Children and adolescents are often the victims of these death squads, whose ostensible purpose is to "eliminate" criminals, although the groups themselves are often also involved in criminal activity. Many children and adolescents who live and work on the streets of Brazil's cities are automatically perceived as real or potential criminals, and thus become subject to these efforts to eliminate criminals. Children and adolescents are also often the victims of fights between drug gangs, or are killed by organized criminals who perceive the children as "nuisances" that might draw attention to their actions.

Although the total number of deaths of minors is difficult to calculate, a variety of studies give an idea of the scope and nature of the killings. A federal congressional commission that concluded a nine-month investigation into the killings in March 1992 found that 4,611 children, mostly males between ages 15 and 17, were murdered between 1988 and 1990, an average of four killings a day. The investigation also found a racial bias in the figures, noting that 82 percent of the victims were black. The Rio de Janeiro state government has stated that 306 children were killed in the state in 1991. In the state of São Paulo, according to official statistics, 674 minors were killed in 1991, and 306 children and adolescents were killed in the first half of 1992 alone.

The same pattern of impunity can be found in the official response to the death squads. Investigations are wholly inadequate, in part because of the active participation of off-duty policemen and also because witnesses fear reprisals for testifying against death squad members. An investigation conducted by a Rio de Janeiro state congressional commission characterized as "rare" the death squad that "does not include members of the police in its formation." According to a report by the Brazil Network, of 118 individuals identified by name by the federal congressional commission as having been involved in the murder of street children, fewer than 30 have been apprehended or tried.

In the most serious attempt to combat the problem, the Rio de Janeiro state government has set up a special telephone "hot line" to receive anonymous denunciations of death squad activities and to mount special criminal investigations. Representatives of the Rio government claim that this hot line has led to a significant decrease in the number of death squad killings, but one Brazilian human rights organization has disputed the official statistics.

A lack of criminal prosecution is also a critical factor in the persistence of acts of violence directed against landless peasants, leaders of rural unions and those who campaign for agrarian reform. Large landowners often come into conflict with peasant farmers who occupy unused land claimed by the landowners, or with the rural landless and their supporters who press for the expropriation of unused land. Conflicts often end in violence, committed largely by private gunmen (known as pistoleiros) hired by landowners. Peasant farmers and settlers are also frequently victims of violence when they are evicted from land that they are farming; evictions are often carried out with excessive force by pistoleiros acting without a court order, or by the military police.

According to the Catholic Church-linked Comissão Pastoral da Terra (cpt, or Pastoral Land Commission), from January 1, 1964 to January 31, 1992, there were 1,681 murders. Only 26 of these killings yielded criminal trials, and only 15 ended in convictions of the assailants. Despite repeated attention to this problem by Americas Watch and other human rights organizations, violent acts against peasants and rural activists continue. As of September, 20 landless peasants, rural activists and small farmers had been assassinated in 1992. These rural killings continue to be characterized by unsatisfactory investigations and prosecutions, and the failure of government authorities to take death threats seriously or to provide adequate protection to those threatened for political reasons.

Impunity for those behind this rural violence persists even when there has been a high degree of national and international attention, as in the case of multiple killings in the violence-plagued town of Rio Maria, in the southern part of the state of Pará. Despite continued attention to these murders by Americas Watch, the cpt and the Comitê Rio Maria (Rio Maria Committee), there has been little progress in bringing to trial those responsible for a series of murders of leaders of the Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Rurais (str, or the Rural Workers' Union), some of which occurred as long as 12 years ago. In the case of the murderof Expedito Ribeiro de Sousa, which occurred on February 2, 1991, one day after the release of an Americas Watch report urging his protection, the scheduled trial of those accused of the crime has been moved from Rio Maria to the state capital at Belém, where it is hoped that pressure against witnesses will be less intense. In the case of a March 1991 assassination attempt against Carlos Cabral Pereira, Ribeiro de Sousa's successor as the str's president, the judge has yet to take the case to trial despite the confession of the gunman. In two other related cases from 1990, including the killing of two sons of murdered str president João Canuto, trials have yet to occur and some of the gunmen responsible have escaped from prison in suspicious circumstances. In fact, only one defendant remains in custody in all of these cases. Nevertheless, in late October 1992 it was announced that the Federal Police were considering dropping police protection for Carlos Cabral and several other rural activists in Rio Maria.

The year 1992 also saw a reversal of the conviction of the man responsible for ordering the assassination of Chico Mendes, the internationally recognized union and environmental leader. On February 28, 1992, an appeals court, claiming lack of sufficient proof, reversed the conviction of Darly Alves da Silva, who had been found guilty of ordering the 1990 assassination. This case was previously held up as an example of how international attention can yield criminal convictions of the killers of rural activists. Lawyers for Mendes's family are appealing the decision.

There has also been little progress in curtailing the use of forced labor. Offending enterprises typically send labor contractors to poverty-stricken towns where they offer workers good wages for work on far-away fazendas (ranches or plantations). Once the workers arrive at the site, they are told that they owe money for their transportation, tools, shelter and food, and are threatened with death if they attempt to leave before paying their "debt." Uncompliant workers are often beaten by gunmen hired by the fazenda owners, and in some cases are killed.

According to figures compiled by the cpt, there has been a dramatic increase in reported cases of forced labor. In 1990, the cpt registered 12 cases affecting 1599 workers. In 1991, the number of victims rose to 4,883. As of September, the cpt has recorded 10,736 workers on seven fazendas who have been subjected to forced labor in 1992. Dr. José de Sousa Martins, a prominent sociologist at the University of São Paulo, estimates that there may be as many as 60,000 workers who annually become victims of forced labor practices. Despite considerable public attention to the problem, including a complaint filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States and a report by the International Labor Office, there has yet to be a single conviction of a fazenda owner, labor contractor, or gunman for involvement in the use of forced labor.

A series of investigative reports in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper and a subsequent book by journalist Gilberto Dimenstein brought to Brazil's attention another gruesome facet of the forced labor problem: the forced prostitution of young girls. After investigating for six months, Dimenstein determined that hundreds of young girls, some as young as nine years old, are enticed intoprostitution and kept in virtual slavery by promises of well-paying jobs in restaurants or bars in remote locations surrounding gold-mines in the Amazon. Once they arrive at the work site, often hundreds of miles from their homes, the girls are told that they owe money for transportation and that they have to pay off their debt by working as prostitutes in local bars. Girls who refuse are beaten and threatened with death.

Dimenstein not only detailed the extensive practice of forced prostitution, but also documented the collaboration of local police. At the gold-mining town of Cuiú-Cuiú, in the state of Pará, Dimenstein found that local bars and brothels each paid the police four thousand cruzeiros a week (roughly one or two dollars) to keep quiet. The chief of police confirmed that he knew that there were at least 65 prostitutes in the town, many of them girls held involuntarily, but stated that they could not leave until they had paid their debts. Although Dimenstein's revelations eventually led to a raid by the Federal Police who freed 22 girls and arrested 10 bar owners, no police were arrested.

Americas Watch also continues to be concerned about inadequate investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for other forms of violence against women. Few instances of violence are investigated by the police, and even when prosecutions and convictions occur, sentences are light. However, there has been some increased training for police forces on how to respond to violence against women.

In a move that could potentially protect Brazil's indigenous communities against violence, on May 25, 1992, President Collor signed a decree ratifying the demarcation of 9.6 million hectares inhabited by the Yanomami. This action, which came after much delay and strong opposition from the military and logging and mining interests, followed the earlier ratification, in October 1992, of 71 other indigenous areas. Because Brazil's Indian communities are often victims of violence committed by miners and loggers who invade their traditional lands, it was hoped that the demarcation of reservations would assist in removing outsiders from indigenous areas and prevent further violence. Unfortunately, despite the ratification of the demarcation of the reservations, the actual demarcation process has been hampered by a lack of funding. According to the official Indian agency, only 16 percent of indigenous lands are free of outsiders. Indigenous rights organizations report that large numbers of gold miners have once again entered the Yanomami area.

Violent attacks against indigenous communities have long been met with official indifference and impunity. According to the Catholic Church-based Conselho Indigenista Missionário (cimi), which monitors indigenous rights, 166 Indians were assassinated between 1988 and 1991; of these 27 were killed in 1991. Of the killings in 1991, cimi knew of only eleven cases in which any investigation was conducted, and suspects were arrested in only two of the killings. According to cimi, at least 26 Indians have been assassinated in 1992.

In November, a former sergeant with the army's intelligence service became the first military officer publicly to reveal details of human rights abuses committed during the 1960s and1970s. In a lengthy magazine interview, Marival Dias Chaves do Canto provided detailed testimony about the torture, killing and dismemberment of political prisoners, particularly the torture and killing of eight members of the Brazilian Communist Party. Chaves stated that their bodies were tied to concrete blocks and dumped in a river on the outskirts of São Paulo.

The Brazilian government quickly opened an investigation into Chaves's allegations, promised him police protection, and stated that if the allegations were true it would pay reparations to the relatives of the victims. However, spokesmen for the military and the government have stated that they anticipate no prosecutions due to an amnesty law enacted in August 1979.

The Right to Monitor

The Brazilian government imposes no formal obstacles to human rights monitoring, and many local and national organizations actively seek to defend the rights of rural workers, the urban poor, women, children, indigenous communities, and other victims of human rights abuses. International human rights organizations, including Americas Watch, have conducted missions to the country without interference or obstruction by the government.

However, local groups that defend the rights of disadvantaged populations, especially the rural and urban poor, are sometimes intimidated and harassed. Rural activists, in particular, are frequently threatened with death by privately hired gunmen. For example, Father Ricardo Rezende, an outspoken champion of human rights with the cpt in Pará, has been repeatedly threatened and has had his house shot at. In 1992, human rights activists received telephone and in-person threats, were fired on, beaten, and arbitrarily arrested.

Several incidents implicated the police, not only in their failure adequately to investigate private attacks on human rights monitors, but also in the outright mistreatment of monitors. For example, on September 24, two workers with the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in the city of Manaus were beaten and arrested after they protested the police beating of a fellow bus passenger. In another case, writer and journalist Caco Barcellos was repeatedly threatened and harassed by members of the São Paulo military police after he published a book detailing the history of the abusive rota police battalion.

Illustrative of private attacks was the case of Nivaldo Vieira do Nascimento, a cpt activist in Conceição do Araguaia in the state of Pará, who was shot at twice in his backyard. According to Vieira, two bullets barely missed him, one of them lodging in a wall several centimeters above his head. The day before the assassination attempt, Vieira had been threatened by a local fazenda owner, Francisco da Silva Rabelo. During a phone conversation Rabelo told Vieira three times, "I'm going to kill you, boy." Although Rabelo was arrested on August 16, the local judge released him from custody less than two weeks later, despite a request for his continued detention by the police officer who oversaw the investigation.

A particularly troubling infringement of the right to monitor was the slander prosecution of a rural human rights activist thisyear. On September 3, 1992, the coordinator of the Paraná state branch of cpt, Darci Frigo, was convicted of slander. The conviction arose from statements made by cpt accusing a local politician, Lucianno Pizzatto, of using forced labor in 1984. A group of boys had been taken without their knowledge or consent to a piece of land owned by a company that Pizzatto owned and managed, where they were forced to work against their will under threat of death by armed guards. The boys were eventually found by a local human rights group which reported their treatment to the local police. However, no investigation was ever completed. In 1986, Pizzatto ran for election as a state deputy, and Frigo, on behalf of the cpt, held a press conference to publicize Pizzatto's use of forced labor. Pizzatto responded by bringing a slander suit against Frigo. Frigo's lawyers plan to appeal the conviction, on the grounds that the boys' allegations were never disproved. Frigo's conviction for denouncing forced labor is particularly disturbing in light of the lack of any convictions for those responsible for subjecting over 10,000 workers to forced labor in 1992.

U.S. Policy

Despite close economic and political ties with Brazil, the U.S. government has failed to use its significant influence to pressure Brazilian leaders on human rights issues. As of November, the State Department was unable to inform Americas Watch of any public protests issued about human rights violations in Brazil, with the exception of the State Department's annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices. Although direct U.S. aid to Brazil is low compared with other countries in the region, the United States is Brazil's largest trading partner, purchasing $13 billion in Brazilian exports. Direct U.S. investment in Brazil reportedly totaled $15.5 billion in 1990. Direct U.S. aid has consisted almost entirely of anti-narcotics assistance, which totaled an estimated $3.5 million in fiscal year 1992.

Unfortunately the United States has missed several opportunities to publicly criticize Brazil's human rights record. In February 1992, U.S. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney met with President Collor during the Secretary's ten-day tour through Latin America. In a meeting described by the Brazilian government as "very cordial," Cheney praised the Collor government's promise not to develop nuclear weapons or export advanced missile technology. The State Department was unable to inform Americas Watch whether human rights concerns were discussed at the meeting. Similarly, when President George Bush visited Rio de Janeiro during the 1992 United Nations conference on the environment, he made no public mention of the human rights situation in Brazil.

Although the State Department could not cite any public criticism of Brazil's human rights record, officials told Americas Watch that human rights are frequently brought up in private meetings with Brazilian officials. In addition, in March 1992, a political officer from the U.S. embassy in Brasília traveled to the violence-plagued area of southern Pará, where he met with human rights monitors, trade unionists and victims of assassination attempts, and local officials. Similarly, after the October prison massacre in São Paulo, an official at the U.S. consulate in thatcity interviewed relatives of the victims. Americas Watch believes that while private pressure is important, the failure to make unequivocal public statements, especially in the wake of dramatic abuses such as the October prison massacre, limits the effectiveness of U.S. pressure and signals to Brazilian officials that human right concerns are not a priority for the United States.

The Work of Americas Watch

In May 1992, on the eve of the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (unced), held in Rio de Janeiro, Americas Watch released The Struggle for Land in Brazil: Rural Violence Continues. The report, based on a mission to Brazil in November and December 1991, updated Americas Watch's 1991 report, Rural Violence in Brazil, and focused on forced labor and violent abuses in the states of Pará, Paraná, Maranhão, and Mato Grosso do Sul. The report also discusses how unchecked violence at the hands of wealthy landowners contributes to both human rights abuses and environmental devastation.

In August 1992, in São Paulo, Americas Watch and the Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch released Injustiça Criminal: Violência Contra a Mulher no Brasil, the Portuguese translation of the 1991 report Criminal Injustice: Violence Against Women in Brazil. The release was accompanied by a round-table discussion at the São Paulo offices of the Brazilian Bar Association and yielded widespread newspaper and television coverage.

For ten days during August and September, Americas Watch investigators traveled to Rio de Janeiro to investigate police abuses. The information gathered during the trip, together with extensive information collected during two months spent in São Paulo, will form the basis of a report to be issued jointly with the Núcleo de Estudos da Violência of the University of São Paulo, comparing police violence in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

On September 23, Americas Watch, together with Father Ricardo Rezende of the cpt, and the Center for Justice and International Law (cejil), appeared at a hearing and filed two complaints before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. The complaints charged Brazilian authorities with failing to investigate adequately and punish those responsible for the killing of rural activist João Canuto in 1985, and with failing to investigate forced labor at two fazendas in the southern part of Pará. In a positive development, two days after the petitions were filed, Brazil became a party to the American Convention on Human Rights, thus enhancing the role of the Inter-American Commission in the oversight of Brazilian human rights practices.

In October 1992, just days after the massacre of at least 111 inmates at the Casa de Detenção Prison in São Paulo, Americas Watch, together with the Prison Project of Human Rights Watch, sent an investigator to São Paulo. The investigator met with local human rights organizations and representatives of the state government, and spent four hours interviewing inmates and observing conditions at the Casa de Detenção.

On October 21, Americas Watch issued a newsletter, in English and Portuguese, condemning the São Paulo authorities for the use ofexcessive and brutal force at the prison, as well as for its failure to investigate adequately those responsible for the massacre. Americas Watch, along with the Comissão Teotônio Vilela and cejil, also filed a petition regarding the massacre with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on October 21. Both the petition and the newsletter garnered significant media attention in Brazil's major daily newspapers and main television networks.

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