Shawn Blore
Radio Newspapers Magazines
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

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

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

San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, June 24, 2005 Page A16



By Shawn Blore | The San Francisco Chroniclel

BTacit approval of urban death squads may be changing

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Nova Iguacu, Brazil -- As if it were yesterday, Nilmo, a pizza deliveryman, recalls the first person he shot to death nine years ago.

"I had my gun, and covered it with a newspaper," he said. "When he rode by on a bicycle, I shot him.

"The Bible says the one to take life is God. I'm not God, but sometimes, with guys like these, you have to (kill them). I'm God's lieutenant."

Nilmo, who refused to give his last name, says he has since killed seven more "delinquents" as a member of a death squad, known in Brazil as grupo de exterminio.

Such death squad-style groups, made up of police officers or civilians, exist in at least 14 of Brazil's 26 states, according to a 2003 report by the federal Human Rights Ministry. Many of them charge protection fees from local businesses and sometimes even individual households. Nilmo says there are two other death squads in his neighborhood in Nova Iguacu, a suburb city northwest of Rio de Janeiro in a region known as the Baixada Fluminense.

Nilmo's claims could not be independently verified, but law enforcement officials readily acknowledge that such individuals and groups exist. They also admit -- and media reports in Brazil appear to support -- that for many urban dwellers fed up with rampant crime plaguing Brazilian cities, killing criminals -- even children -- is justified.

When seven street children were shot by off-duty police near the Candelaria church in downtown Rio in 1993, the state government set up a telephone number to solicit information about the killers from anonymous sources. Some callers were hardly sympathetic to the slain children: "They should have killed them all" and "Not enough of them died" were typical responses reported by the local media at the time.

That same year, a group of police officers murdered 21 people in a Rio shantytown to avenge the killing of four of their colleagues in the same shantytown, apparently by drug traffickers. Again, many Rio residents sided with the police.

Urban residents -- even in poor neighborhoods -- tacitly support these groups, not just because they take on regular street thugs, but because they also target drug trafficking gangs that control many slums.

In Rio, "you have problems with security, drug traffickers, drug dens," said Carlos Henrique Barbosa, a Baixada Fluminense resident. "We don't have that here because we have death squads."

In the Baixada, such groups have doled out frontier justice for years to alleged criminals, giving the area's 3.5 million inhabitants one of the highest homicide rates in the world -- 76 per 100,000 per year. In contrast, the annual homicide rate in San Francisco is 7.3 per 100,000, according to FBI reports in 2003.

Sociologist Ignacio Cano, who studies violence at the State University of Rio, says Brazilian death squads are a product of a weak state. "These are areas that have traditionally been considered marginal, where the state doesn't offer even the minimal conditions of security," he said.

But tacit approval may be changing after 29 mostly law-abiding people were killed March 31 in Nova Iguacu by a group of off-duty police officers. The killings were the worst vigilante massacre ever recorded in Rio de Janeiro state, and generated national outrage and a full-press official murder investigation.

Police officials say the victims were mostly innocent women, children and employed young men with no criminal records. Four of them were adolescents playing pinball in a bar. Two were transvestites, lounging outside a hotel.

"How could these cowards kill workers and children?" asked Sandra de Paula Santos, whose 15-year-old brother, Douglas, was one of the victims. "They were innocent. Their only crime was being poor."

Even Nilmo, the self-appointed neighborhood assassin, seemed outraged.

"They killed 29 people, not one of them a rapist, a delinquent or anything," he said. "That's why we have nothing to do with cops."

Police Chief Alvaro Lins gave reporters two possible motives for the murders: a show of force to a rival death squad or a response to a crackdown on corrupt police officers, with the aim of causing a change in police command in the area.

But for residents such as Barbosa, the massacre of innocents is a price they can live with.

"I leave my car out front of my house at night, with the keys in the ignition. No one touches it," he said. "Try that in Copacabana," he said, referring to the upscale Rio beach neighborhood where car theft is common.

Nilmo says his 10-member vigilante group operates in a neighborhood called Austin and includes firemen, shop owners, taxi drivers and blue-collar workers. He says they target only criminals singled out by residents and thoroughly evaluate each case before passing a death sentence.

"When this neighborhood began, women couldn't go out on the street after 9 at night," said Nilmo. "After this business of killing rapists, killing thieves, killing delinquents began, all that stopped. So it was a way that we found of making our area more peaceful, more habitable."

Nilmo says the group's most recent targets were three young marijuana sellers, including an 18-year-old ex-convict who had returned from prison to live with his mother. "We don't want criminals in our community," said Nilmo. Another victim was a would-be entrepreneur who had illegally siphoned off water from city pipes to a newly built shantytown so he could charge a monthly fee of $3. "It was too much money." Nilmo said. "The community was outraged."

But Rosa Lima da Silva, a Baixada Fluminense resident whose 19-year-old son, Jonas, was one of the March 31 victims, says she has seen many young men vanish for no apparent reason. "People disappear all the time here," she said. "They're supposed to be only the bad ones, the criminals and vagrants, but you never really know why they disappear."

Meanwhile, there are signs of an upcoming crackdown on death squads.

Last month, 11 police officers were charged in the March 31 killings with aggravated homicide, attempted homicide, accessory to homicide and formation of a gang. Just last week, the accused faced eight eye-witnesses in a preliminary hearing. The judge hearing the case has four months to decide whether enough evidence exists for a trial. Outside the courtroom, prosecutor Marcel Muniz said he had "more than sufficient evidence" to convict them.

In Nova Iguacu, newly elected Mayor Lindberg Farias was voted in on a platform that includes ending the death squads.

A new national anti-crime force has been created, part of whose job is to clean up the Rio police force's reputation for corruption and excessive violence. Some 600 members will be trained specifically to work in Rio.

Nilmo, however, says none of these measures will stop him from killing neighborhood criminals.

When asked whether he has any moral or ethical problem with taking the lives of human beings, Nilmo looked confused. "What do you mean?" he asked. "Can you repeat the question?"

Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

<< Back