Human Rights Developments
Three notorious massacres in Brazil in 1993 exemplified the serious human rights problems that continued to plague the nation. On July 23, a group of men shot and killed eight teenagers who were sleeping on the streets of downtown Rio de Janeiro, near the well-known Candelária church. Several weeks later, in early August, sixteen Yanomami Indians were murdered near Brazil's remote and forested border with Venezuela. Then, on August 29, a group of hooded gunmen killed twenty-one people in the Rio de Janeiro favela (shantytown) of Vigário Geral.
The three incidents were not aberrations but the most dramatic examples of violence against street children, violence against Brazil's indigenous population, and killings by off-duty police. Subsequent investigations revealed that off-duty police were involved in the Candelária and Vigário Geral killings; the Yanomami Indians were killed by Brazilian garimpeiros (gold miners). But these examples did not exhaust the forms of abuse against Brazil's civilian population, including rural violence often targeting the leaders of rural unions, the use of forced labor in agriculture, miserable prison conditions, inadequate investigations and prosecutions of violence against women, and torture and killings of suspected criminals by the police. Despite attempts by federal and state authorities to remedy Brazil's poor human rights record, many cases were characterized by official impunity.
Behind the phenomenon of violence against street children lay the extreme poverty of the majority of Brazil's population, domestic violence, and substance abuse. Although precise figures did not exist, estimates were that between seven and ten million children and adolescents were living and working on the streets of Brazilian cities. These children did what they could to supplement their families' incomes or ensure their own survival: sell candy and food, wash and "guard" cars, shine shoes, beg, steal, deal drugs, and engage in prostitution.
Because they were sometimes involved in crime-usually petty assaults and robbery-shopkeepers, the police, and at times the general public viewed these children as a threat to public safety. The perception overlapped with a general feeling that the justice system was corrupt and inefficient and that juvenile offenders, who could not be tried as adults, were never punished for their crimes. As a result, small businessmen sometimes hired private "security firms" to deal with children who stole from them or inconvenienced their clients. These groups, which engaged in death-squad activities, were frequently composed of off-duty policemen, who often became involved in organized crime themselves.
The majority of victims of the killing of street children were male teenagers, and a disproportionate share were black. According to statistics from the federal Procurador Geral (Attorney General), 5,644 children between the ages of five and seventeen were victims of violent deaths in the period between 1988 and 1991. Though more recent statistics were incomplete, it appeared that in 1992 and 1993, at least in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the killing of minors was increasing. In 1992, 424 children under the age of eighteen were victims of homicide in the state. In the first sixmonths of 1993, 298 children were killed, a significant increase from the same period the previous year.
Investigations into the killing of children and adolescents were frequently inadequate, most often because of the involvement of off-duty policemen and because of witnesses' fear. Those fears were warranted; witnesses were frequently intimidated and sometimes killed.
Prosecutions of those engaged in the killing of street children were extremely rare, as the victims usually did not have family members who could maintain pressure on the authorities. The witnesses to these homicides were often other street children, who were easily intimidated or who, because of their unstable living situation, were not able to follow the case for the length of time necessary. As a result, it was rare for the killers of minors to be arrested, and even more uncommon for them to be convicted.
The Brazilian authorities took initial steps during 1993 to put an end to impunity, though the success of their efforts could not immediately be evaluated. In the Candelária killing of eight teenagers, four men, including three military policemen, were arrested and indicted for homicide in early August. The commander of the military police battalion in which the men served was dismissed. Prior to the shooting, the Rio de Janeiro state government had already established a special hotline for anonymous denunciations of death squad activity, which it claimed had resulted in the arrest of 250 people, including many policemen.
Shortly after the Candelária killings, twenty-one residents of a Rio de Janeiro slum were killed during an organized invasion of the favela by a group of hooded men carrying heavy-caliber weapons. The massacre occurred the day after four military policemen were murdered in the same neighborhood by drug traffickers. The governor of the state quickly stated that the killing "presented characteristics of an inadmissible operation of revenge" and dismissed the commander of the Ninth Battalion of the military police, responsible for patrolling the area. A subsequent investigation into the killing revealed a network of organized crime within the police force and resulted in the arrest and indictment of thirty-three men-twenty-eight of them military policemen-accused of being part of a death squad. As of October, it appeared that several top figures in the civil police would be indicted on charges of corruption and organized crime.
At the national level, the federal government instituted several important reforms, including establishing commissions to follow the most important cases and calling upon the federal police to set up a special unit to investigate police involvement in death squads. In one extreme case, the army assumed control over the military police in the state of Alagoas, after it was widely reported that the force was involved in political assassinations and organized crime.
The involvement of police in off-duty death squads was intimately related to another major human rights problem in Brazil, violence committed by on-duty policemen. Executions of civilians by the military police (responsible for patrolling and responding to crimes in progress) and torture by the civil police (responsible for investigating crimes) were the worst manifestations of policeviolence. In 1992, for example, the São Paulo military police killed 1470 civilians, including 111 inmates at the Casa de Detenção prison. While the authorities claimed that many of the killings occurred in shoot-outs, the high number of civilians killed compared to the relatively low number wounded, and the low number of police deaths, undermined that assertion.
In the aftermath of the 1992 Casa de Detenção killings it appeared that killings by on-duty military police in São Paulo had decreased. In the first eight months of 1993, the São Paulo authorities stated that the military police killed 257 civilians, a significant decrease from 1992 though still an exceedingly high figure. The decrease in the number of killings showed that the military police could, however, curb their abusive practices when sufficiently pressured.
Despite the notable decrease in the number of killings by on-duty military police in São Paulo, the underlying situation which allowed this practice to continue remained unchanged: military policemen who committed crimes against civilians were judged in special military courts, which rarely convicted policemen for violent crimes. In numerous cases reviewed by Americas Watch, the military justice system either failed to convict abusive policemen, accepting their argument that violent acts occurred as a result of legitimate self-defense, or was so lethargic that it did not serve as an adequate curb on abusive behavior.
In February 1993, for example, state prosecutors with the military justice system recommended the indictment of 120 policemen for the Casa de Detenção killings, including ninety-eight for homicide. Those indicted included the commander of the operation, Col. Ubiratan Guimarães, and several other high-ranking officers. No one has been arrested or fired from the force, however. And in June 1993, three police officers who had participated in the attack on the prison were actually promoted, two of them for "merit." In a ground-breaking decision, on the other hand, a civil policeman was found guilty of participating in a notorious prison massacre in February 1989 in which eighteen inmates were killed in a jail in São Paulo. This was the first time that a policeman had been found guilty in a prison killing.
A positive step in 1993 to redress the problem of impunity for violent military policemen was the introduction of legislation to extend civil court jurisdiction in cases involving crimes against civilians committed by the military police. The legislation was passed by the lower house, the Câmara dos Deputados, in diluted form and as of November was now pending before the Senate.
Though there were no prison killings in 1993 comparable to those the previous year, prison conditions continued to be substandard and overcrowded, and beatings and mistreatment of inmates were common. In one notorious episode, as many as seventy-five boys at a São Paulo juvenile detention facility were beaten with sticks, truncheons and metal bars by prison officials and military police in the aftermath of a March 30 riot. Medical treatment was withheld and delayed. As a result of the poor conditions at the juvenile detention unit, the juvenile section of the state prosecutor's office filed a suit against the state government, asking for aninvestigation into the beatings, mistreatment, and overcrowding at the facilities.
Violence against Brazil's indigenous population also grabbed international headlines in 1993, following the killing of sixteen Yanomami Indians by Brazilian garimpeiros near the community of Hwaximëú (Haximu), some fifteen kilometers across the border into Venezuelan territory. In one of several attacks in late July, it is thought that the garimpeiros shot, hacked, and beat to death four women, a man, three adolescents, and six children. Because of the difficulties of traveling in the area and due to the Yanomami practice of cremating their dead, it was unlikely that the total number of victims and the exact circumstances of the events would ever be known.
The authorities could have prevented the attacks had they heeded the warnings of indigenous rights organizations that Brazilian garimpeiros were invading the Yanomami reservation and crossing into Yanomami territory in Venezuela. Following the killings, the federal police arrested two men, and twenty-three garimpeiros were indicted on charges of genocide. President Itamar Franco appointed a new minister for the Amazon and announced that a federal police station would be opened in Surucucu, inside the Yanomami reservation. The office of the Procurador Geral was also particularly energetic in pressing for additional protection for the Yanomami. Some political and military authorities, however, minimized Brazil's responsibility for the killings and called for a reduction in the size of the Yanomami reservation.
Violence against Brazil's indigenous community, most frequently committed by garimpeiros, loggers or large landowners, has long been met with impunity. In 1992, it was estimated that twenty-four Indians were murdered, with none of those cases resulting in the punishment of the aggressors. By far the largest number of deaths among Brazil's indigenous community, though, were due to disease, with 165 Indians dying from malaria, measles or cholera in 1992. Despite a constitutional deadline of October 5, 1993, the federal government failed to demarcate Indian reservations, a step urgently needed to protect indigenous communities from violence and disease. By the deadline, only 266 of 510 areas traditionally occupied by indigenous people had been officially demarcated.
Rural violence also appeared to escalate in 1993. In order to resolve conflicts over land tenure with small farmers and settlers, large landowners frequently hired gunmen to target leaders of rural unions, peasant organizers, squatters, and others who campaigned for agrarian reform. As of November 1993, at least forty-three peasants and agrarian reform activist had been killed. Very rarely were arrests made in those cases or the persons responsible brought to trial. Violence against peasants and small farmers also occurred when they were evicted from their farms, either by hired gunmen or by police sometimes acting without the necessary court orders.
The year saw a marked increase in targeted assassinations of rural activists, with at least eleven being killed by November. On March 16, the body of Mozarniel Patrício Pessoa was found on the banks of a stream in the state of Tocantins, with his skull shattered. He was the vice-president of the state Sindicato de TrabalhadoresRurais (Union or Rural Workers, or STR) in the town of Araguaina and the president of the local chapter of the Partido Comunista do Brasil (Brazilian Communist Party, or PC do B). Shortly after this murder, another rural union activist was killed in the neighboring state of Pará. Arnaldo Delcidio Ferreira, the president of the STR in Eldorado do Carajás, in southern Pará, was shot and killed on May 2. Ferreira had been repeatedly threatened with death, but local authorities had taken few steps to protect him. Then on June 29, unionist Raimundo Reis was shot and killed in the municipality of Turiaru, Maranhão. Reis had long been a leader in the struggle for agrarian reform in the area and had been living under threat for many years. The local rural union stated that after the killing neither the police chief nor the prosecutor was found in the area, and several weeks after the killing no investigation had been opened.
Killings of rural activists occurred in 1993 even in cases where the individuals had fairly high profiles. For example, on April 29, Paulo Vinha, a biologist and environmental activist, was shot and killed in the state of Espírito Santo. Vinha had been investigating environmental problems in the state and was also assisting local indigenous communities in their struggle to recover land that they claimed was taken from them by the Aracruz paper pulp company. As of November 1993, no one had been arrested for Vinha's murder, despite the fact that two suspects were quickly identified.
Impunity also prevailed in those cases which received prolonged international attention. In a major setback, the long-awaited trial of the killers of Expedito Ribeiro da Souza was indefinitely postponed in June 1993, only days before it was due to begin. Expedito, the president of the local STR and a vice- president of the PC do B, had been assassinated on February 2, 1991. At the time, he was the fifth person associated with the STR union who had been killed in the Rio Maria area of Pará in a period of ten months.
In an equally troubling case involving the murder of internationally recognized environmental activist Chico Mendes, two men found guilty of the 1988 murder escaped from prison. It was suspected that the police and prison authorities in the state of Acre were paid to allow the killers to escape. Environmental and human rights activists had long warned about the precarious security in the Rio Branco prison, where the two men were held. In the wake of the escapes, the federal police said that President Franco ordered them to make a man-hunt for the fugitives their "number one priority." However, the fruitless search was suspended after thirty days and not renewed.
Brazilian authorities also failed to take steps to curb the use of forced labor in rural areas. This practice was carried out by labor contractors who recruited workers from impoverished towns with false promises of high wages and good work conditions. Once the workers arrived at the job-often hundreds of miles away from their homes-they were told that the wages were lower than promised and that they owed money for transportation, food, shelter and tools. The workers were not allowed to leave until they paid their "debts," and were sometimes guarded by armed men. Noncompliant workers were often beaten and in some cases killed. In 1992, theComissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), a Catholic church-based group that monitors human rights, registered eighteen cases of forced labor involving 16,442 workers, a substantial increase in the number of victims from the previous year. As of November 1993, the organization had registered fifteen cases involving at least 5,540 workers. Despite the prevalence of this abuse, there was not a single conviction of labor recruiters, gunmen or landowners for involvement in forced labor.
Americas Watch also remained concerned about inadequate investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for violence against women. In June 1993, human rights organizations and local politicians reported that girls were being recruited and auctioned to brothels near gold mining areas in the Amazonian states of Acre and Rondônia. Many of these girls were recruited with false promises of well-paying jobs. Once they arrived at the gold mining areas, however, they were told that they must work as prostitutes. Some girls were beaten and killed if they refused to have sex. In prior cases local police authorities had refused to intervene and had even collaborated with brothel owners, and the federal police had to intervene to free the girls.
In a positive development, the federal Congress created a special investigation commission to look into child prostitution throughout the country. An initial report stated that there were approximately 500,000 girl prostitutes in Brazil.
The Right to Monitor
The Brazilian government imposed no formal obstacles to human rights monitoring, and there were many local organizations that actively promoted the rights of the rural and urban poor, street children, women, indigenous communities, prison inmates and other victims of human rights abuse. Many international organizations, including Americas Watch, conducted investigatory missions to Brazil without interference or obstruction by the government.
However, local organizations and individual human rights activists were sometimes threatened and harassed. Most frequently these threats could not be directly linked to the government. However, activists who worked with children on the streets of Brazil's cities reported to Americas Watch that they were frequently harassed and sometimes physically assaulted by the police. In one of the more prominent cases, on April 13, Pedro Horácio Caballero, a Catholic priest working with street children in downtown São Paulo, was beaten and harassed by military policemen after he tried to get the police to stop beating two twelve-year-old boys. Others who criticized the police or investigated crimes involving police were threatened. Federal congressman Hélio Bicudo, who proposed legislation seeking to change the military justice system, was also threatened with death.
In some cases the courts also were used in an attempt to silence human rights activists. São Paulo authorities filed a suit for slander against Frei Betto, a Dominican priest, theologian and writer, after he published an article in the Estado de São Paulo newspaper referring to police violence and the impunity that the São Paulo military police enjoyed. The charges against Frei Betto were later dropped. In a similar case, Darci Frigo, an activistwith the CPT in the state of Paraná, had been convicted in 1992 on charges of slander resulting from statements that the CPT made linking a local politician to the practice of forced labor; in an important decision in April 1993, the state appeals court voted to reverse Frigo's conviction.
Lawyers who work with the human rights organization Gabinete de Apoio Juridico às Organizações Populares (Legal Suppport Group for Popular Organizations, or GAJOP) were threatened with death several times. On July 23, unknown men shot at Jayme Benvenuto de Lima Júnior as he was driving home; he escaped injury. GAJOP was threatened because the organization had made public denunciations concerning corruption in the Pernambuco state judiciary. After the son of a local judge publicly stated that if he encountered any human rights lawyers he would shoot them, two GAJOP lawyers, Valdênia Brito and Kátia Costa Pereira, requested protection.
Activists who worked with indigenous people were also threatened in 1993. Sister Elsa Rosa Zotti, a Franciscan nun working with indigenous people in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul was threatened with death. According to the Conselho Indigenista Missionario (CIMI), Sister Zotti and several other nuns were threatened because they worked with the Rikbaktsa Indians, who were trying to secure the demarcation of their territory. The Catholic bishop of the state of Roraima, Dom Aldo Mongiano, also received a public death threat in February. On a live radio show, a man who identified himself as a "professional" offered to kill the bishop and leave his head in the town's main square. Dom Aldo had attracted the hostility of some of the state's population after farmers were expelled from land that was part of a Wapixana Indian reservation. Some accused Dom Aldo of helping the Wapixana to secure assistance from the federal police.
Despite close economic ties, the United States failed to use its considerable leverage to press for improvements in Brazil's human rights record during 1993. With the exception of the generally accurate chapter on Brazil in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1992, the U.S. government issued few public statement on human rights violations in Brazil. The State Department assured Americas Watch that human rights issues were frequently brought up in private conversations with Brazilian officials. However, in light of the high-profile massacres in 1993, the absence of public U.S. comment was particularly glaring.
Direct U.S. assistance to Brazil was low, compared with other countries in the region. In 1993 Brazil received approximately $1.3 million in anti-narcotics assistance, $250,000 for the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET) and some $13.8 million in development assistance. In its request for 1994 anti-narcotics and IMET assistance, the Defense Department emphasized Brazil's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.
According to the State Department, anti-narcotics funding went to assist the federal police with law enforcement programs, and was used for training and non-lethal technical equipment.
Despite the lack of public statements, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Brasília actively followed human rights issues. Shortly after the news broke concerning the killing of the Yanomami, the embassy's political officer attempted to visit the Yanomami reservation but, along with several other diplomats, was turned back by military officials who claimed that she did not have the proper authorization to visit the area.
The private and cautious nature of U.S. policy stands in contrast to the public activism shown by the European Community. On September 16, the European Parliament approved a resolution condemning human rights violations by the Brazilian military police and the impunity that they enjoy. The resolution called for the punishment of those responsible.
Echoing world-wide concern about the Yanomami, the U.S. Congress also held hearings on indigenous rights in Brazil, on July 7, 1993. The hearing before the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee included representatives of the Brazilian Congress and of the Kayapó Indian nation, and discussed the demarcation of reservations as well as steps to protect Brazil's indigenous population from violence.
Another new development in 1993 was the granting of political asylum to Marcelo Tenório, a gay Brazilian, by U.S. immigration authorities. Tenório claimed, and in a precedent-setting decision judge Philip Leadbetter agreed, that as a gay person he was a member of a persecuted social group in Brazil. Tenório stated that in 1989 he was beaten in front of a gay disco in Rio de Janeiro, and that in a different incident he was taunted and attacked by the police.
The Work of Americas Watch
In a press conference in São Paulo on May 31, Americas Watch released "Urban Police Violence in Brazil: Torture and Police Killings in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro After Five Years," a newsletter issued jointly with the Núcleo de Estudos da Violência (NEV) of the University of São Paulo. After the release, Americas Watch participated in a roundtable discussion with representatives of the São Paulo section of the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil (Brazilian Bar Association) and local human rights groups. On June 2, Americas Watch and the NEV also held a press conference and roundtable discussion on this newsletter at the federal Congress in Brasília, hosted by deputy Hélio Bicudo. These press conferences yielded widespread television, newspaper and radio coverage.
In June and July, Americas Watch conducted two missions to Brazil, investigating homicides of minors in the states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Pernambuco, and Espírito Santo, and forced labor in the states of Pará and Paraná. An Americas Watch representative was present during a raid on a forced labor site in the state of Mato Grosso. Along with the CPT, Americas Watch participated in a press conference in Pará, to protest the postponement of the trial of those accused of murdering Expedito Ribeiro de Souza, resulting in front-page news in state capital's major newspaper. A newsletter about the forced labor investigations and a report about homicides of minors were scheduled for publication near the end of the year.
In September, after the killing of twenty-one people in the Rio de Janeiro slum of Vigário Geral, the vice-chair of Americas Watch met with state and federal authorities in Brazil and voiced Americas Watch's concerns about police violence. A newsletter about this mission, titled "The Killings at Candelária and Vigário Geral: The Urgent Need to Police the Brazilian Police," was issued in October. The newsletter called for urgent reforms at the state and federal level, including joint federal and state investigations into police violence, improved administrative discipline, greater attention to the protection of witnesses, and expansion of the civilian courts to try crimes committed by the military police. The newsletter also proposed that the Brazilian government create a federal crime to punish police abuses, thereby allowing for federal prosecution should state efforts prove ineffective.