Mean Streets of Salvador
Martha Gellhorn writes about the murder of children in Brazil
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.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.