Shawn Blore
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Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, May 31, 2005 Page A14



By Shawn Blore | The Globe and Mail

But vigilantes provoke Brazil's outrage after recent massacre of innocents

RIO DE JANEIRO -- The first man he killed was riding a bicycle. "I had been warned, so I had my gun, with a newspaper over top, like this." The man demonstrates a nonchalant squat on the concrete stoop of his modest house in the Baixada Fluminense, the ring of poor industrial cities surrounding Rio de Janeiro. "When the guy rode up, I shot him."

The killer, who gives his name only as Nilmo, says he has since killed another seven men, a tally he considers minuscule.

"My role in the group is more support. There are other guys who do most of the killing," he says.

The lead executioner of his group, a death squad that metes out vigilante justice in the city of Novo Iguacu on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, has dispatched at least 75 victims. All told, their death squad has killed hundreds.

"I'm God's lieutenant," Nilmo says. "The Bible says, the one to take life is God. I'm not God, but sometimes, with guys like these, you have to take them and send them on their way to God."

Twenty-nine was the number sent heavenward on the last night of March by another Novo Iguacu death squad. The rampage generated national outrage. The kind of homicide investigation rarely seen in Brazil amassed substantial evidence that off-duty police officers perpetrated the massacre.

On May 19, 11 state police officers were charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder and taking part in gang activity.

The widespread revulsion stemmed not from the fact that the killings were perpetrated by a death squad, but because the victims were demonstrably innocents, for the most part women, children and gainfully employed young men.

Even Nilmo was outraged. "They killed 29 people, not one of them a rapist or delinquent or anything," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "That's why we have nothing to do with cops."

No one in his 10-member death squad is a police officer, Nilmo says. Nor does his group kill the innocent. Instead, he says, it targets only what he calls delinquents: thieves, rapists and vagrants.

According to Nilmo, some of the delinquents they dispatched in the past year include a group of three boys who were selling soft drugs from their apartment, and an 18-year-old ex-con who had returned to live with his mother. "We don't want criminals in our community."

In other parts of the Baixada, death squads have been linked to protection rackets that extort money from local businesses. According to Nilmo, his group kills strictly as a public service.

"When this neighbourhood began, women couldn't go out on the street after 9 at night. After it began, this business of killing rapists, killing thieves, killing delinquents, all that stopped."

As to how he got caught up in the death squad, that's a long story.

"This passes from generation to generation. It wasn't me that started this." Nilmo stops and gives a hard stare at a younger man hanging out at a nearby corner. "Let's go somewhere else to talk," he says, motioning to his nearby car. "Too many people getting curious here."

The mayor of Novo Iguacu, Lindberg Farias, confirms death squads are a part of the landscape in the Baixada Fluminense.

"It has always been a part of the Baixada, since the Baixada started 50 years ago. Back then, there were no services, no state, no policing, nothing," he says.

In the absence of government, death squads grew up as a rudimentary form of law and order.

Times are changing, however, Mr. Farias says. He points out people voted for him, even though he has sworn to wipe out death squads.

The mayor's message must not have penetrated as far as he had hoped. Nilmo, now serenely parked in front of a children's soccer field, says he voted for Mr. Farias.

Nilmo believes the mayor tacitly supports the death squads. "He can't say so out loud, but he does, deep down. Even Lula [Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] supports us, even if he can't say so."

Some residents like the safety that rule by death squad brings.

"I leave my car out front of my house at night, with the keys in the ignition. No one touches it. Try that in Copacabana," said Baixada resident Carlos Henrique Barbosa, referring to the swanky neighbourhood in downtown Rio de Janeiro.

Other Baixada residents, women in particular, are less convinced death-squad rule brings safety. Speaking in her tiny home, Rosa Lima da Silva says the way young men suddenly disappear for no apparent reason made her think often of leaving the area, even before her 19-year-old son, Jonas, was killed in the recent massacre.

"People disappear all the time here," she says. "They're supposed to be only the bad ones, the criminals and vagrants. But you never really know why they disappear."

Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

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