Vol. 18 No. 16 · 22 August 1996

Mean Streets of Salvador

Martha Gellhorn writes about the murder of children in Brazil

7029 words

The crime reporter said: ‘They don’t kill as many children here in Salvador as they do in Rio and São Paolo.’ Salvador has a population of two and a quarter million, Rio de Janeiro ten million, São Paolo 17 million. He was a nice man, middle-aged, overweight, with a beat-up face and friendly eyes. We sat around his metal desk in the big bare city office of his newspaper, among other empty metal desks. As the top specialist on the leading local paper, he should have had all the facts and figures, but he knew no more than anyone could know. The murder of a homeless child or a child from a poor family who was on the streets for much of the time was not news: children had been killed at random on the streets of Brazil’s cities since 1985.

Given the immensity of Brazil – two and a half times the size of Western Europe – a reporter in Salvador would not know what was happening throughout the country. The yearly increase of casual child murders and their spread from the cities into the smaller towns of the interior was not his business. He did not see these crimes, unsolved, unpunished, motives trivial if known, as different in kind from any others.

A month or so before, four minors had been killed in some outlying slum district: the police said it was a drugs thing. As usual, there were no clues, no witnesses, no police action; this event was worth a small item in his paper because four murders at once in the same place was a variation. I had heard another account passed along the neighbourhood grapevine. A family of three orphans lived together after their mother died. The oldest, a girl of 19, was a prostitute, the breadwinner; her brother, aged 17, hated her doing this work. No word about the youngest brother, aged 12. On the night of the murders, a friend, aged 18, went to their house to cool off after a row with his girlfriend. Around 2 a.m., three hooded men broke in and shot them all. The neighbours were sure the culprits were off-duty policemen who lived in the same area and objected to the kind of people the sister brought home, or the noise or whatever. None of the neighbours talked to the police about this. The way to handle a local nuisance was to kill the nuisance and the witnesses.

The crime reporter was reading his own newspaper when we arrived. ‘Here,’ he said and tore out a paragraph from an inside page. ‘This may interest you.’

A man accused of child murders, held on remand, had written to the governor of the state of Bahia and to the President of Brazil demanding a trial to prove his innocence.

‘But this happened years ago,’ I said. ‘What’s so special about this case?’

‘Nothing really,’ he said. ‘But it happened soon after that Candelaria scandal in Rio and they arrested three policemen there for that, so the authorities here didn’t want to look less efficient.’

He could not remember any arrests in Salvador for child murder before this case, and none after.

The Candelaria scandal became briefly famous and caused an outcry from Amnesty International, America Human Rights Watch, other foreign organisations and the gallant Brazilian human rights groups. In July 1993, some fifty street kids, sleeping in the porch of the fashionable Candelaria Church, were attacked by three armed men who shot into the huddle of bodies, killing eight and wounding many more. Foreign condemnation forced the Brazilian authorities to act and the Rio police to perform as police should; they quickly arrested and charged three policemen. This proved that political will could produce results, but there have been no further arrests in Rio, even though, as the crime reporter said, more street children were still murdered there than in Salvador.

It would be absurd to suggest that Brazil has a monopoly on wrong-doing against children. Nor is it alone in street-cleaning by murder; Guatemala and Colombia, for instance, are also guilty. But it seems that Brazil is the country where this horror began.

Nothing as dramatic as the Candelaria massacre happened in Salvador. On 23 August 1993 four adolescents were killed by four men at the Lobato railway station and two men have been accused, arrested, remanded in custody and held for two and a half years awaiting trial. They denied knowing each other and both protested their innocence. Two other suspects had escaped, which was not an exceptional event. What was exceptional was the arrest of suspects at all. Without the uproar over Candelaria, this case also would have been recorded in the register of crimes as a drugs affair and forgotten. Only the bodies of murdered children are recorded as statistics, when such statistics can be found and trusted: disappeared children remain off the record, known only to their families and friends; they never warrant a police enquiry, though among children the meaning of ‘missing presumed dead’ is no secret.

Most of the inhabitants of Salvador, Brazil’s first capital and its main port of entry for the slave trade, are black – all shades of black. Salvador is the capital of the state of Bahia, which is roughly the size of the United Kingdom, with a population of only 12.6 million. Salvador is built in two tiers, the upper and lower town, encircling a great bay, a natural harbour. The lower town is a scruffy concentration of shops and offices. Ferries, fishing boats and yachts use the harbour as anchorage. The town straggles north to slum areas, its main street lined with market stalls. Remnants of the colonial past, now restored, stand in the upper town, especially the section known as the Pelourinho (the Pillory), named after the whipping-post for slaves. Here the poor have been evicted and the delightful small colonial houses painted and prettified; there are restaurants, cafés and boutiques. Salvador is regarded as Brazil’s cultural centre, the gathering place of writers, poets, musicians, artists.

The wealthier middle class live in fortress congeries of apartment blocks with underground garages, swimming-pools and private security guards: being robbed is a national fixation and everywhere strangers warn you to be careful. I never met any of the ultra-rich. Diamond-shiny high-rises dot the business sector of the upper town.

One class of the citizenry is entirely apart: the police. The Polícia Civil, armed plainclothes cops, are the investigative branch. The Polícia Militar are the arresting force, those who seek out criminals, and general opinion has it that, in or out of uniform, they are the child killers. In Salvador I did not see any white Polícia Militar. The PM are unusually tall, height being one requirement for the job. They dress like unkempt paratroopers in dirty dark green shirts and trousers, boots, black berets and pistols.

After cursory training, a member of the PM receives £178.60 a month, plus free transport and lunch vouchers. Nobody can support a family on that salary and they all take other employment as private security guards or, it is universally believed, as piece-workers in death squads. They are known to be in the drugs business as well. They are generally mistrusted and feared; they talk only to each other: no one buddies up to them – not even the investigative Polícia Civil, whose inability to provide proof of crimes is legendary. This is more than ordinary incompetence. Witnesses have too often been mysteriously killed before they can testify; as a rule civilians avoid all contact with the police.

Article 227 of the Brazilian Constitution is exemplary in its detailed rules for the care and protection of minors. Nothing is left out, beginning with the right to life and proceeding through rights to shelter, clothing, education, medical care and so on. None of this admirable law is operational. Brazil has the worst record in Latin America for providing schooling through the first five grades; only 41 per cent of its children get that much education. Poor parents cannot afford to buy the schoolbooks or the uniforms. Free medical care amounts to emergency treatment at underfunded public hospitals – a last resort for the very poor.

Poor children around the age of six are sent onto the streets by their mothers, to try to earn money for the family. They sell cheap strips of coloured ribbon, guaranteed by voodoo to make wishes come true; they sell fruit and candles; they beg; growing older, they watch cars – protection against idle vandal scratches; they steal, though this can hardly be high-grade theft as no one would allow a dirty little black child into any good shop. They are used as runners by drug dealers, including the police – the penalties for minors caught with drugs are lighter than those for adult traffickers. These undersized, underfed, undaunted black kids seem to operate in a circle of friends in a fixed territory. They do not pester, they do not clutch at your clothes or arms: they do not throw back insults to the careless adult world.

The Lobata railway station murders have resulted in the only case in the whole state of Bahia in which men have been charged with killing minors. Franco was an armed train guard – a civilian paid by the railroad company. Galo, the other accused, is a PM, black and unavailable, as he is held in a military police prison. But Franco could be found, after a lot of irritating misinformation, in the remand prison on the outskirts of Salvador.

In his office the director of the prison slouched on a sofa, a middle-aged man in a crumpled blue suit, the image of someone with nothing whatever to do. He talked about Franco. ‘We all like Franco very much. He is very popular here. He is the only prisoner who makes money. He has a concession to sell soft drinks and candy and things in the canteen so he makes a profit every week. And he has a cell to himself.’ The others live eight in a cell, with bunks and a toilet. Wasn’t two and a half years a terribly long time to live on remand, waiting for his trial?

‘Oh no,’ said the director, ‘I’ve had men here for five and six years.’

‘What happens if they are found innocent at their trial? Do they get compensation for the years in jail? Do they sue the state?’

‘I have never heard of anything like that’ he replied.

We had nothing more to say and I asked whether we could see Franco. ‘Yes,’ he said, and there was Franco: he had been ready all the time we made chit-chat with the director. In remand prison the men can wear their own clothes. Franco wore a mauve sleeveless nylon undershirt and colourless cotton trousers. He was about five foot six, aged 36, lean, with good muscles in his arms and shoulders and neck. He did not have a pleasing face. It was understandably tight with nerves. His eyes were small and too close together; he had a narrow-lipped, mean mouth, a beaky nose and a close cap of black hair. His skin was sallow. In his hands, trembling slightly, he held all his documentation, newspaper clips, letters, a small, carefully amassed hoard of papers. He had finally, and as publicly as possible, demanded a trial to prove his innocence. If the co-accused policeman Galo had done so, it was not known. The PM is a separate world.

Franco was a chief of train guards with eight stations and 16 men under his control. Trains, which look as wretched and overcrowded as those we have seen in pictures of India, run between poor outlying stations around the edge of the city. Only the very poor use the trains, where a ride costs 25 cents, while buses cost 50 cents. A train guard is armed; he is supposed to prevent trouble, arrest anyone fighting or stealing and provide crowd control at stations.

Franco worked at night. He said that on the day of these murders he had been drinking with colleagues from 4.15 until 8 p.m. in a bar at Plataforma, two stops along the line. He said he had been told of the crime by a man named Magno Barcelo, another train guard, at 8.30 p.m. at their headquarters in Calçada, and went at once to Lobato station. He said the crime took place at 8 p.m.

The technical police asked for the guns of the train guards and Franco handed over four guns from the guards’ armoury. Magno said first that he had given his gun to two other men, unidentified by the police, but later changed his testimony and said he saw Franco take his gun from the HQ safe. A bullet from Magno’s gun had killed one of the four boys. No other guns were found; no gun attaches Galo to the crime. But Franco was the one who handed over Magno’s gun to the technical police.

I never heard anyone say anything about this gun, or how it returned to where it ought to be, in the train guards’ armoury. Though four armed men were alleged to have committed this crime, only Magno’s gun was recovered. Franco was not an idiot. If he had used Magno’s gun, why would he have replaced it in the armoury? There is no death penalty in Brazil, but he would surely get a life sentence if convicted.

The bar-owner says that Franco left his bar at 7.25 not 8 p.m. But when did the crime actually happen? Later, from two different sources, I learned that the crime occurred at 7.40 p.m. Agreement between two or more people on any alleged fact is so unusual in Salvador that I tend to take that seriously. The job of the civil police is to determine facts and the first fact is the time of the murders. Whenever the crime happened the police arrived after the ambulance, half an hour later, it is said. Even if the bar-owner gave the right time for Franco leaving his bar, and 7.40 p.m. is the correct time of the murders, Franco – whom nobody said owned a car – needed to get from where he definitely was to Lobato station and in position on its upper floor in 15 minutes.

Three witnesses said they had seen Franco and Galo running from the station with guns. One was a girl named Sílvia Rigueira whose lover, a known thief, had been arrested and sent to jail by Galo. The second was a taxi driver with a criminal record, collared at some point by Franco. The third witness, Nevis dos Santos, a thief, once caught by Franco, was originally arrested by the police as a murder suspect but released after he denounced Franco. Franco said that some people in the Lobato area approved of him because he was very tough on gangs, while the police were not.

About a week after the crime Franco was arrested in the public security office without a warrant. His chief protested this obvious irregularity; neither the chief nor his colleagues believed Franco was guilty. He was set free and arrested with a warrant a second time in early September. He had been unprepared for this, continuing to work and live at home with his wife and five-year-old son. Franco thought he was a scapegoat. He did not know why. He did not know who his enemies might be. ‘They had to pin this on somebody and they chose me. I have never seen Galo, I don’t know who he is.’ As he was led away, Franco said: ‘I’m no killer. I never killed anybody.’

I could see inside the prison as far as the steel gates leading to the cells. I wanted a view of the interior and my interpreter and the director argued about this. Then a black man, perhaps a guard, but nobody wore uniforms, led us on a long hot walk that I could not understand. ‘He will show you a map of the prison,’ my interpreter said. ‘What do you mean “map”?’ I said testily. We arrived at a long very high blank cement wall. We climbed steep stairs and came out on the roof of the prison near a wooden guard tower. The prison lay below: three storeys high, three sides of a great open cement rectangle which now, in the heat of the afternoon, was empty. Behind the arcades that lined each storey I could see the dark shapes of doors but could not tell if there were any windows in the cells. Men moved along in the shade of the arcades, some with bath towels. They were locked up from 4 p.m. until 6.30 p.m. The rest of the time they had no occupation whatever, except to roam about and talk to each other. Here hundreds of men waited for the Polícia Civil to complete their work and for judges to preside at their trials. Franco waited because there are only two judges who can conduct jury trials and they are well booked up.

My interpreter passed on her lucrative assignment to a fellow law student named Alec. Alec was 20, six feet tall and made of soft lard. (‘I’m not fat, I’m chubby.’) He was studying law because lawyers make the most money. He also taught English at a private language school. He was physically lazy, complaining when he had to walk. He insisted on taxis (which cost me on average $55 a day), saying I would not be comfortable on buses. He expected to be waited on: he needed glasses of water at every stop. His family owned a summer home on the island of Itaparica in the Bay, a sign of high middle-class prosperity. I though him a perfect example of what the Salvador middle class must be at its worst. He was an excellent translator, keeping up a running commentary as we listened to many people, learning mainly how Little anyone actually knew.

Franco had a special friend among his colleagues and had given me his telephone number. Alec made an appointment with him. We met outside a big supermarket to the north of the city. Unlike Franco, his friend had an open, cheerful face. He said Franco was liked by all his fellow workers. We were going to call on Claudia, Franco’s wife. She was living with her mother in a small brick house. This was a poor area, but not a slum. The front room was furnished with a big table, a sideboard, chairs, a sofa (where Alec immediately sat and received water). Claudia, aged 27, mother of Franco’s five-year-old, was pretty, fair-skinned, with short brown hair and a slim body.

She said she had separated from Franco after he had been in prison for a year and a half. I don’t know what that meant, unless legal separation is a preliminary step to divorce. She often went to see him with their son, ‘but it upsets the child very much.’ She knew nothing about Franco’s work. They had lived in a house near the airport and ‘he gave me everything I needed.’ At home ‘he was always tranquil and gentle.’ When asked by Alec, not me, if she believed Franco had committed any of these four murders, she said mildly: ‘I don’t think so.’ Franco managed to give her money each month for their son. She wanted to get a job but had not yet stirred herself. A very small thin boy, with blond hair, rushed through the room. ‘My son,’ said Claudia and I could see Franco in the small, tense, hard little face.

Franco had said he had two boys. The other, six years old, lived with his mother and grandmother in Lobato, not far from the railroad station. This, too, was a decent house, by which I mean it was built of brick, not a home-made shanty like the slum homes of Lobato. The mother had taken Franco’s child to see the doctor. But the grandmother was vehement in her praise of Franco. ‘He is a good man, a fine man. He has always been good to my daughter, good to his son. Yes, they visit him. He is a fine man.’ This liaison with her daughter preceded Claudia. Why hadn’t they married? ‘I don’t know. My daughter didn’t want to marry.’

It was hard to imagine that tight-wound, lean man unwinding, cosy with his separate kids, pleasant enough as a lover and husband, and financially responsible before and after his arrest. I could see him as a bullying train guard, but not as the cold murderer of teenage boys.

Cedeca (Centre for the Defence of Children and Adolescents) is a volunteer group that operates from four little upstairs rooms on the harbour front. The poor come to this place, knowing that the police are useless to them. The families of the dead boys were represented by Maurizio Ribeiro, a very young, very self-important lawyer, never on time. He was suspicious of me because I asked about the evidence against Franco. He assumed I was on Franco’s side and was wary of my meeting the dead boy’s parents. Finally he agreed, but the meeting had to take place in the Cedeca office in his presence. He set a date two days later. I wanted to know the total number of murdered children in Salvador in 1995: ‘125 bodies were counted in the morgue,’ he said. He did not say he had personally counted them. A senior retired police chief said later that on average a hundred children a month were killed throughout the country. He also remarked that 98 per cent of all crimes were unsolved. No official published record of murdered street children exists in Brazil.

Maurizio took grim pleasure in the fact that four Polícia Militar had been arrested for child murder, two convicted and two – one of them Galo – awaiting trial. He did not doubt Franco’s guilt. But I had learned more disturbing information from franco’s devoted and open-faced friend. The other train guard, Magno, who said first that he gave his gun to two other men, changed his testimony after nine days in a public security cell. As for the time that Franco left the bar, it was his word against the owner’s, and nobody had checked with Franco’s drinking pals. Sílvia Rigueira – one of those who said they’d seen Franco and Galo carrying guns and running from the station – was given a job in the public security office after her testimony against Franco and Galo. It looked as if Magno had been threatened with a prison sentence, and Sílvia, who was unemployed at the time she testified, bribed with a job to give the evidence desired by the Polícia Civil.

I asked Maurizio about disappeared children ‘Hundreds,’ he said. ‘Do the parents come here?’ ‘Of course. They come and ask for our help in tracing these children.’ When I telephoned Polinter, that branch of the police that deals with missing persons, I was told: ‘There are no missing minors at all here.’

The juvenile court is a converted house in a pretty street, with lovely trees beside it. Inside it is white and airy with light-coloured wooden stairs and doors. One judge deals with all cases involving minors. They must be brought before this judge within three to five days of their arrest. Maurizio had said that this procedure was generally observed. But it was already clear that the law was too pesky and slow and the police, uniformed or off-duty, and anyone else drafted in for the job, had their own methods for handling troublesome minors.

Alec and I were kept waiting and offered glasses of water. After half an hour we were admitted to the director’s office, where gales of laughter greeted us. The director was a pretty woman, in her early forties, wearing a frilly white cotton lace blouse. She was joking with a nice-looking younger man, her assistant, and an older, dowdy woman, possibly her secretary. The director said her name was Marta, like mine, a pleasant bond, not that it got us anywhere. She knew nothing at all about murdered street children but sent her assistant away for some information. She did not know how many minors were in CAM (Central Reception for Minors), the juvenile prison. She was wonderfully jolly and useless.

The assistant returned with a piece of paper. In 1995, five minors had killed adults. Maurizio had given me the same figure. No information was available about the adults, the character of the crime, the place, the motive. Nothing except that bare fact. When I asked what sorts of crime brought children here, she said ‘All sorts’ airily and shrugged. I thought it possible that she really didn’t know anything or care.

Though I learned little or nothing of value, I was still amazed at the readiness to talk, the openness of everyone you wanted to see. The name of one police chief in Salvador was notorious, everybody I met knew of this man. His fame had to do with death squads. He was assumed to use them at will. Salvador is divided into districts, each has its own police station police chief, police force – the PM. These fiefdoms are not under the central control of one city police chief. The state police chief with headquarters in Salvador, the capital, has authority over all PM in Bahia. In effect, each police chief in Salvador is a little king.

My notorious police chief had decided to run for election as a deputy in the state assembly. He was pleased to see me, booting two people out of his office. He looked like a 19th-century river-boat gambler. He had thick black hair, oiled and parted in the middle. On the left side of his head two strands, like thin black snakes, looped free from the plastered-down mass. He had brilliant, ferocious, almost black eyes and a bushy, long, straggly moustache. He wore a red tie loosened at the neck and a white shirt. He adored talking.

He announced that he had won his seat with the largest majority of any candidate. The others bought votes. By law everyone over 18 must vote. The poor who will receive nothing else from an election are glad to sell their votes. None of the other deputies would speak to him. But his upper-class – he insisted on the term – voters whom he had protected so well, loved him. ‘I might have a reputation for violence but not dishonesty. When I was police chief I could make decisions. Here I have to sit in meetings with dishonest men and just talk.’ He was here to protect the rights of all the people and especially minors.

‘What is wrong with Brazil?’ he asked in a fine rhetorical voice. Alec said, ‘Education,’ and he had a point.

‘No!’ thundered the deputy and banged his desk. ‘Corruption.’

He said the new President, replacing the previous incumbent impeached for fraud, was a good man, ‘but he can do nothing, not with the men he has around him.’

I brought up the case of the Lobato murders. ‘It was a horrible crime,’ he said. He was unsurprised by Franco’s long detention in remand prison. ‘There are serious clues.’ How many street children in total did he think were killed? He said sweepingly, ‘Two thousand a month,’ which cannot be true, but may indicate his own sense of the freedom to kill street children in Brazil. As to death squads he was silent and I lacked the nerve for a direct question.

He had been talking for an hour or more with great enjoyment. He shrugged on his blue jacket and walked me to the door. ‘Brazil is going nowhere,’ he said.

I felt that I had been collecting fog. If the state of Bahia or the federal government keeps any statistics on the social conditions of the poor, they are not made public. You pick up bits and pieces of information, all from non-government sources, and there is no way to decide whether such information is correct or guesswork. I take the following jumble of facts and figures as an indication of what might be true. There are eight million street children in Brazil from a population of 153 million. Each year 3.6 million children are born in Brazil. In 1993 in Salvador there were 15,743 street children – an increase of 31 per cent over 1990. Of these 85.9 per cent were male and 14.1 per cent were female. From 1991 to 1994 there was one conviction in seven cases of child murder brought to trial in Bahia. From 1998 to 1991 one street child was killed every four hours in Brazil (which works out at 2190 per year). There are 27 high court judges, of whom 16 hear the first stage of criminal cases (as in English magistrates’ courts). The delay between arrest and first court hearing can be two years and upwards. Five years ago, 90 per cent of street children had homes to go to at night. Five out of eight Street children are black; blacks form 12 per cent of the national population. Street children are most vulnerable to police brutality or murder between the ages of 11 and 15.

The one certainty was the murder of four teenagers at Lobato station in Salvador on the night of 23 August 1993. The parents of three of the boys sat waiting around a table in the cramped reception room of Cedeca, summoned by Maurizio. Maurizio had not arrived and I saw no reason to wait. Mrs Conceição, mother of Luís Fernando, age 15, the youngest boy, is a big strong black woman. She had before her newspapers from two and a half years ago but did not refer to them. She spoke little. All four boys had been born in Lobato and grown up there, but Mrs Conceição moved away after the killing. Her son had worked with his father fixing cars. From 7.30 to 9.30 p.m. he attended school in another suburb a few stations further along the train line from Lobato. He was studying in the fifth grade. She had three children left. She harboured a solid, bitter need for vengeance. ‘Franco knew all the boys,’ she said. ‘Franco was the killer.’

Next to her was a small stocky man, dressed in jacket and tie, the father of Edmilson da Silva, aged 17. His skin would have passed for white. He was the most certain and talkative of the parents. There had been a teachers’ strike and two boys went ahead by train to find out if classes were being taught and returned to Lobato station to tell their two friends that their night school was shut. Edmilson was studying in the fifth grade, too. He worked as a cleaner in the bank where his father worked. ‘He was a good boy, they all were.’ Franco, he said, had told Edmilson on the day of the murders that he was going to kill him that night; Edmilson repeated this to his family but did not believe it. ‘They ordered the boys to come upstairs, then they told them to lie down on the floor and they shot them.’ Since there were no eye-witnesses and since 20 bullet casings were found on the floor, it does not sound plausible. More likely it was a question of moving targets: four terror-stricken boys, trapped, running helplessly in an enclosed space, while four armed men shot directly at them.

Edmilson’s father had four sons. ‘His mother is sad every day when she sets the table for three.’ None of the parents cared about Galo: Franco was the murderer to them. Galo is an invisible party to this crime. The parents had attended the judicial hearing when Franco was charged and sent to remand prison, but the PM appear in a separate closed court and they knew nothing of the testimony against Galo. Franco, said Edmilson’s father, had a reputation for brutality in the neighbourhood. ‘There have never been any other murders in Lobato.’ Surely he meant murders of minors, none before and none since. ‘The people know each other.’

Mrs Conceição and Edmilson’s father appeared to be in their mid-forties. Mrs Hereira, the mother of Gilmar, aged 17, said she was 42. She had coal-black skin, long straight black hair, a thin sharp nose and high cheek-bones. She was lined and wrinkled, her body scrawny in a shapeless dusty black dress. But she had a five-month-old baby and had brought her 13-year-old daughter along to help her. Mrs Hereira said: ‘I had eight children and now I have eight again.’ Gilmar was studying in the fourth grade. He sold popsicles, apparently on the train. ‘Franco stole his tray and beat him. The second time, I told him to stop working and stay home. After the hearing, a woman from another district said Franco had killed an 11-year-old boy there.’

These three poor people had no belief in the processes of law. They trusted Maurizio to win for them: to bury Franco in prison for life. Maurizio the tardy was annoyed to see that we had got on so well without him and that now, with their cordial agreement, I was to visit the two homes in Lobato. I must have asked something about Franco’s trial. Maurizio said: ‘He will wait another year and a half in prison before his case comes up.’ Then he said: ‘The police are the problem.’

The police and the entire administration of justice are the problem. Unless there are different penalties for police and civilian criminals, Franco will not go to prison for life and the parents will not feel avenged. One of the three policemen charged with the famous Candelaria murders was convicted in a jury trial of multiple and attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to 309 years in jail. The maximum sentence is 30 years, automatically reduced for a first offender to 20. He had already spent three years on remand and would be liable for parole after four years. If Franco, also a first offender, got the same treatment he would lose a total of seven years of his life. I thought Franco would be convicted, guilty or not, since that was the easiest, quickest way to dispose of this case. It had only been important because of its relation in time to the Candelaria killings and was now of no interest.

We piled into a taxi, Alec taking up most of the rear space with stocky Mr da Silva and skinny Mrs Hereira, and the little girl and the baby distributed on laps. As the oldest and the money-bags I sat in front. We drove for miles. We passed the fateful Lobato railway station, a dingy black building on a slight rise, with waste ground around it. I could not see why this should have been a favoured meeting place for kids. Slanting steps, hidden by a high black wall, led up to a roofed area, also hidden by a high parapet wall. The taxi stopped in a sort of bay. After this there were no streets, only narrow dirt paths between the shacks. I told the taxi driver he could go: there was a bus stop within walking distance. ‘No,’ Alec shouted in a high frantic voice. ‘I am not walking through here. I am not going to. I want a car.’ ‘In broad daylight,’ I said. ‘You’re afraid to walk here in broad daylight?’ The taxi driver said he’d like to come along, he was interested. Alec calmed down.

Crossroads, the worst black township outside Cape Town, was luxurious compared to this. There the shacks had plenty of space between them, room to plant and build little patios. A wide main street ran between the shacks. In Lobato only footpaths led between the rows of hovels that leaned against each other. An open sewer lined part of the path and there was a large stagnant puddle, covered by half-submerged planks. The sun must have absorbed the stench of all this dark watery sludge. We passed a faded blue-painted shack, made of irregular bits of board with rusty screening instead of windows. Thin rag curtains were drawn behind the screens. It seemed unsteady, about to collapse. This was the home of José Jorge da Silva, aged 19, the oldest of the murdered boys, whose father had not come to the meeting at Cedeca.

We moved in single file, now free of the ugly sewer. We stopped at the home of Gilmar. In two rooms, eight children and two adults somehow lived. Outside, to the left, was a cement-floored open space, which must have been used for cooking and washing, people and clothes. Two teenage boys were crouched on the lower mattress of a narrow two-tiered bunk bed, watching a small black and white TV. There was a table and a few straight chairs. Only the husband had work: there was nothing for the seven children to do, nowhere even to sit doing nothing. Mrs Hereira stood in the small wretched room. The two teenagers on the bunk had sullen, unhappy faces but looked healthy.

Still in single file we moved to the last house, the home of Edmilson, dead at 17. A wall faced the house across the narrow dirt track. Plants in tin cans stood on a shelf attached to this wall, a primitive garden. The house was solidly built, and had six rooms. Edmilson’s father had bought this piece of land in 1957: the others must have been squatters. He had built the house himself. The front room is a dining-room, with a sideboard and table, and a sofa and comfortable chairs and other straight chairs along one wall. His wife is a small thin silent black-haired woman, with darker skin than his. A tall, well-fed young mulatto with a child aged perhaps three in a pretty dress joined us – Edmilson’s older brother and the da Silvas’ granddaughter. ‘But why these four boys and not four others?’ I asked Edmilson’s father. Motive has never been discussed – neither the motives for killing street children, nor the motive for killing four boys who lived at home. Mr da Silva had a theory. ‘The first lawyer Cedeca sent here was a woman. She was a distant relative of the man who owns a liquor store near the station. She warned him to go away for a week or two. I found out and complained to Cedeca and they fired her; she had an interest in the case. I think the man who owns the liquor store had some thing to do with it.’ He could hardly suggest that these four good boys had ever pinched booze from the store or harassed the owner or broken windows or in any way behaved like vandals or thieves. But it is known that owners of businesses employ death squads to rid their premises of troublesome kids, maybe any kids would do, as a warning to them all. That was the only motive anyone suggested.

A tall, straight man, wearing ragged shorts, sandals and a baseball cap appeared at the door. His bare ribcage showed, he had no fat on a body that still looked wiry and strong. This was the father of José Jorge, the 19-year-old dead boy. I thought he had not come to the meeting at Cedeca because he had neither the clothes nor the bus fare. His name is also da Silva, a common name. All these descendants of slaves have Portuguese names, given by their original owners. José Jorge’s father’s face, very pale, was astonishingly aristocratic, a thin, proud face belonging to a bitter man. Behind him a girl of perhaps 16 had come along, her expression eager with curiosity. ‘José Jorge was my only son,’ said the angry distinguished-looking man. ‘This one means nothing to me. She’s not mine. He was my only son.’ The girl’s face changed into blankness and she went quickly away. Hostile stepfathers like this are a prime reason for children moving onto the streets.

José Jorge worked at night as a fisherman and by day in a scrapyard. The other three boys had the bond of their night school: José Jorge, two years older, was difficult to fit in, unless he was the leader of this little band. But now I understood why teenagers would gather on the steps of the railroad station to chat with each other and with girls. They had nowhere else to go. I did not see any cafés where they might have met if they had money, which they did not. A stall, on another dirt path, sold soft drinks and candy, but there was nowhere to sit. The idea of building a community centre for the young in this hopeless area had not occurred to the city council.

When we were walking back to the taxi, Alec said, ‘I have never been in such a place in my life.’ He seemed outraged that he had come here, not that such a slum existed. ‘Do you a power of good,’ I said grimly but doubted it. Alec had become a living symbol of everything wrong with the privileged of Brazil. He would not spend any time thinking of the social decay of his country: he would only be glad he did not have to cross another stretch of stagnant water on slippery planks. ‘I hope I don’t get bitten by one of those mosquitoes.’ ‘Are you afraid of malaria too?’ ‘No, it’s much worse than malaria, I forget the name, an uncle of mine had it. You shake with fever. It is a terrible disease.’ He was talking about dengue fever, which at that time especially afflicted Salvador though it should be endemic year round, given that open sewers and stagnant water mark every poor area of the city. When I got dengue fever on returning to London, not a bad case, I hoped Alec had got it too.

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