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|San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, June 24, 2005 Page A16
BRAZIL SHOWS SIGNS OF CRACKING DOWN ON FRONTIER
By Shawn Blore | The San Francisco Chroniclel
BTacit approval of urban death squads may
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Nova Iguacu, Brazil --
As if it were yesterday, Nilmo, a pizza
recalls the first person he shot to
nine years ago.
"I had my gun, and covered it
newspaper," he said. "When
by on a bicycle, I shot him.
"The Bible says the one to take
is God. I'm not God, but sometimes,
guys like these, you have to (kill
I'm God's lieutenant."
Nilmo, who refused to give his last
says he has since killed seven more
as a member of a death squad, known
as grupo de exterminio.
Such death squad-style groups, made
police officers or civilians, exist
least 14 of Brazil's 26 states, according
to a 2003 report by the federal Human
Ministry. Many of them charge protection
fees from local businesses and sometimes
even individual households. Nilmo says
are two other death squads in his neighborhood
in Nova Iguacu, a suburb city northwest
Rio de Janeiro in a region known as
Nilmo's claims could not be independently
verified, but law enforcement officials
acknowledge that such individuals and
exist. They also admit -- and media
in Brazil appear to support -- that
urban dwellers fed up with rampant
plaguing Brazilian cities, killing
-- even children -- is justified.
When seven street children were shot
police near the Candelaria church in
Rio in 1993, the state government set
a telephone number to solicit information
about the killers from anonymous sources.
Some callers were hardly sympathetic
slain children: "They should have
them all" and "Not enough
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
avenge the killing of four of their
in the same shantytown, apparently
traffickers. Again, many Rio residents
with the police.
Urban residents -- even in poor neighborhoods
-- tacitly support these groups, not
because they take on regular street
but because they also target drug trafficking
gangs that control many slums.
In Rio, "you have problems with
drug traffickers, drug dens,"
Henrique Barbosa, a Baixada Fluminense
"We don't have that here because
have death squads."
In the Baixada, such groups have doled
frontier justice for years to alleged
giving the area's 3.5 million inhabitants
one of the highest homicide rates in
world -- 76 per 100,000 per year. In
the annual homicide rate in San Francisco
is 7.3 per 100,000, according to FBI
Sociologist Ignacio Cano, who studies
at the State University of Rio, says
death squads are a product of a weak
"These are areas that have traditionally
been considered marginal, where the
doesn't offer even the minimal conditions
of security," he said.
But tacit approval may be changing
29 mostly law-abiding people were killed
March 31 in Nova Iguacu by a group
police officers. The killings were
vigilante massacre ever recorded in
Janeiro state, and generated national
and a full-press official murder investigation.
Police officials say the victims were
innocent women, children and employed
men with no criminal records. Four
were adolescents playing pinball in
Two were transvestites, lounging outside
"How could these cowards kill
and children?" asked Sandra de
Santos, whose 15-year-old brother,
was one of the victims. "They
Their only crime was being poor."
Even Nilmo, the self-appointed neighborhood
assassin, seemed outraged.
"They killed 29 people, not one
a rapist, a delinquent or anything,"
he said. "That's why we have nothing
to do with cops."
Police Chief Alvaro Lins gave reporters
possible motives for the murders: a
of force to a rival death squad or
to a crackdown on corrupt police officers,
with the aim of causing a change in
command in the area.
But for residents such as Barbosa,
of innocents is a price they can live
"I leave my car out front of my
at night, with the keys in the ignition.
No one touches it," he said. "Try
that in Copacabana," he said,
to the upscale Rio beach neighborhood
car theft is common.
Nilmo says his 10-member vigilante
operates in a neighborhood called Austin
and includes firemen, shop owners,
and blue-collar workers. He says they
only criminals singled out by residents
thoroughly evaluate each case before
a death sentence.
"When this neighborhood began,
couldn't go out on the street after
night," said Nilmo. "After
business of killing rapists, killing
killing delinquents began, all that
So it was a way that we found of making
area more peaceful, more habitable."
Nilmo says the group's most recent
were three young marijuana sellers,
an 18-year-old ex-convict who had returned
from prison to live with his mother.
don't want criminals in our community,"
said Nilmo. Another victim was a would-be
entrepreneur who had illegally siphoned
water from city pipes to a newly built
so he could charge a monthly fee of
was too much money." Nilmo said.
community was outraged."
But Rosa Lima da Silva, a Baixada Fluminense
resident whose 19-year-old son, Jonas,
one of the March 31 victims, says she
seen many young men vanish for no apparent
reason. "People disappear all
here," she said. "They're
to be only the bad ones, the criminals
vagrants, but you never really know
Meanwhile, there are signs of an upcoming
crackdown on death squads.
Last month, 11 police officers were
in the March 31 killings with aggravated
homicide, attempted homicide, accessory
homicide and formation of a gang. Just
week, the accused faced eight eye-witnesses
in a preliminary hearing. The judge
the case has four months to decide
enough evidence exists for a trial.
the courtroom, prosecutor Marcel Muniz
he had "more than sufficient evidence"
to convict them.
In Nova Iguacu, newly elected Mayor
Farias was voted in on a platform that
ending the death squads.
A new national anti-crime force has
created, part of whose job is to clean
the Rio police force's reputation for
and excessive violence. Some 600 members
will be trained specifically to work
Nilmo, however, says none of these
will stop him from killing neighborhood
When asked whether he has any moral
problem with taking the lives of human
Nilmo looked confused. "What do
mean?" he asked. "Can you
Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent
based in Rio de Janeiro