Archive for the ‘Violence’ Category

Violence and Tragedy

October 18, 2009

Violence:  a theme I have avoided writing about—until now.  At the risk of scaring my wife and daughters, and maybe a few others, I will finally turn to this key feature of contemporary Brazilian society.  More than a decade ago, I wrote a book that I hoped would serve as a general introduction to Brazil for the uninitiated (Brazil:  The Once and Future Country, 1997).  I made a very conscious decision not to overplay violence in Brazilian society, even though it is part of the fabric of everyday life.  I also did not want to take the approach another, similar book had taken (a better selling one, unfortunately).  The first third of that (other) introduction to Brazil is filled with tales of violence, not exactly the first impression I want others to take away when they first discover Brazil!

In a society that has been constructed and maintained for centuries by elites who control most of the wealth, and with historically huge numbers of people with very little, violence as a part of everyday life should not be surprising.  For centuries, the primary focus of this violence was against slaves and the poor peasants in the countryside.  With the massive shift of millions of people from the countryside to the cities in the decades after World War II, that violence is primarily urban today.  About 85% of all Brazilians live in urban areas, and roughly a third of them live in slums (favelas).  The long running violence in the countryside—of powerful landowners against poor peasants—continues, but affects an increasingly smaller percentage of Brazilians.  With millions of city dwellers living in abject poverty, massive unemployment and underemployment, it is not surprising many turn to crime.  The rise of cocaine trafficking over the last generation, especially in Rio, has fueled much of the violence.  (I would still like someone to explain to me why the cocaine and crime problem is so much worse in Rio than anywhere else in Brazil.)  Like many major U.S. cities, most of this violence is poor people hurting other poor people.  In Brazil, as in the U.S., those who are not poor, tend not to pay much attention to this violence—until it affects them.

October 5 issue

October 5 issue

Although urban violence characterizes all major world cities, the levels in Brazil are very high.  In Rio de Janeiro the levels of violence are probably only matched by Colombia.  As in most modern societies, the most visible and measurable indicator is homicides.  As in the case of Colombia, much of the violence and homicides is drug related.  Rio’s police counted close to 5,000 homicides last year, half of those drug related.  Complicating matters, the Brazilian police have long been known to shoot first and ask questions later—if they ask at all.  In a country where few have faith in the court system, police have often become the purveyors of summary judgments.  The Rio police killed nearly 1200 people last year who were “resisting arrest”, more than 3 deaths per day.  For a sense of comparison, all the police forces in the United States in 2008, killed 371 people.  If you are a glutton for punishment, read Jon Lee Anderson’s recent article, “Gangland,” in the New Yorker (October 5).  Anderson, a brilliant reporter with long experience in Latin America (read his outstanding biography of Che Guevara) researched this story months ago, and it appeared in the week of the final selection of Rio as the host of the 2016 Olympic Games.  The Brazilian press, in general, reacted furiously claiming some sort of conspiracy to scare the International Olympic Committee away from Rio.  Anderson even wrote a long op-ed piece in Rio’s major paper, O Globo, explaining that he had nothing to do with the timing of the publication—but that what he wrote remains true, crime in Rio is out of control and something must be done to contain it.

In the latest episode, this week rival gangs are battling for control of one favela (with the wonderful name of Morro dos Macacos, Monkey Hill) on the west side of the city.  So far, 15 people have died, including 2 police officers killed when the gangs managed to shoot down the police helicopter they were flying over the battle zone!

What brought these statistics home to me was a recent botched robbery-kidnapping in Rio that ended with the killing of the robber-kidnapper.  Sérgio Ferreira Nunes Junior, 24, and three other men tried to hold up a postal service van.  The van sped off, the police converged on the neighborhood, Sérgio fled the scene, was spotted by police, and he ducked into a pharmacy, grabbed a woman, and then dragged her out into the street threatening to kill her if the police did not let him get away.  Sérgio quickly found himself surrounded by 50 police officers and the elite Special Operations Battalion (Bope) with trained snipers, and . . . local television crews carrying the drama live (ao vivo as it says on the television screen in Portuguese).  While two police officers stood within a few feet of Sérgio and his hostage (Ana Cristina Garcia, 48), Major João Jacques Soares Busnello stood some 40 meters away with his rifle trained on Sérgio’s head.  On a signal from his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Fernando Príncipe, Major Busnello pulled the trigger, Sérgio’s head snapped back, his baseball cap flew off, and he fell dead to the pavement.

(The video is not for the faint of heart.  It is in very clear tv announcer Portuguese.)

The incident immediately reminded Brazilians of another, even more tragic episode on October 22, 2000.   On that afternoon, the 21-year-old Sandro Nascimento tried to hold up passengers on a bus and ended up surrounded by the same Special Operations Battalion.   Gradually, he allowed passengers off the bus until just ten remained.  After four hours, he stepped out of the bus with a female hostage as a human shield (a young school teacher, Geisa Firmo Gonçalves).  On cue, and out of the shadows, a Bope officer stepped forward to shoot Sandro in the head.  Reacting to the sudden movement, Sandro jerked back pulling Geisa down with him.  One of the officer’s bullets struck her in the face, and Sandro began firing his gun.  Three of his bullets struck Geisa in the back.  She died on the scene.  Sandro died on the way to the police station in the back of police van of “asphyxiation”.  Televised live for hours across Brazil (indeed, I watched the crisis unfold on television from my apartment 250 miles away in Belo Horizonte), this was something equivalent to the infamous O.J. Simpson police chase in Los Angeles in 1994.

Bus 174

Bus 174

This tragic incident became the basis of a brilliant documentary film by director José Padilha with the title “Bus 174”.  Padilha tracked down everyone involved in the incident, and the film became the story of how Sandro arrived at this deadly denouement.  As it turns out, Sandro had witnessed one of the most infamous episodes of police violence against children in Brazil.  Late on the night of July 23, 1993, policemen killed eight street children on the steps of the Candelária Church in the heart of downtown Rio.  (Reportedly, the young men had been harassing local merchants and defying the police earlier that day.)  There are no winners in this film.  Everyone comes out badly.  Young people like Sandro turn to drugs and crime, social service agencies are ineffective at best, and elite police botch their hostage operation.

What is striking for an outsider in this episode is not the violence, but how intimately it is woven within the fabric of life in Rio.  Another day, another hostage situation, more dead.  This time, at least, the hostage escaped unscathed.  As it turns out, Lt. Col. Príncipe who gave Major Busnello the signal to fire, was one of the police negotiators with Sandro Nascimento as he stepped down from Bus 174 nine years ago.  Major Busnello, a highly trained and expert marksman, was interviewed after the shooting.  In discussing his successful shot, he also analyzed the failed attempt on Sandro by referring to one of the most infamous misses in Brazilian World Cup history.  “Sandro,” he said, “ended up shooting and killing his hostage.  Didn’t Brazil lose the World Cup because Zico shot and missed the penalty kick?  The police shot and missed [in the Bus 174 incident].  We lost.”