Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

More than a year and a half since the election of President Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazil's first directly elected president in twenty-nine years, human rights violations in Brazil remain a serious concern. As in previous years, Brazil's rural activists faced unchecked violence and extrajudicial execution by powerful economic interests, and urban criminal suspects faced similar treatment at the hands of the police. Forced labor continued to be used in rural Brazil, prison conditions remained substandard, and violence against women met substantial indifference by the criminal justice system. The atmosphere of lawlessness spread to the general public, which increasingly took the law into its own hands to lynch suspected criminals.

Brazil's ongoing economic crisis, spurred by spiraling unemployment, unequal land distribution and large-scale migration from rural to urban areas, has produced a high rate of violent crime in Brazil's cities. All too often, the police have responded with violence, including torture, extrajudicial executions of suspected criminals and homeless children, and a failure to investigate and prosecute so-called "extermination teams," or justiceiros, often composed of retired or off-duty police officers, which also commit extrajudicial executions.

Statistics on violent death, whether attributed to extermination teams or the police force, are overwhelming. According to a report prepared by the Rio de Janeiro secretary for public security, Dr. Nilo Batista, death squads in the Baixada Fluminese slum of metropolitan Rio de Janeiro were responsible for 1,230 killings between December 1990 and May 1991.3 In São Paulo, the state government requested the advice of Amnesty International in an attempt to curb violence by military police, which caused the deaths of 585 people in 1990, and 560 in the first eight months of 1991 (or a 1991 average of 2.33 murders a day and seventy deaths a month).4

In the state of Espirito Santo, a commission of congressmen, mayors and union representatives reported that over one hundred people "linked to criminal activities" were killed in 1990 by an "extermination group" calling itself "Operation Death Penalty." (There is no death penalty under Brazilian law.) The Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported that the death squad is made up of policemen and operates with virtual impunity. According to the newspaper, the chair of the state police association said that it was not possible to confirm the participation of any policemen in the death squad because no investigation had been carried out into any of the killings.5

Among those killed by death squads and by uniformed police are children who live or work on the streets of Brazil's major cities. According to a report released in 1991 by three Brazilian human rights and social research organizations, at least 2,288 street children were killed in sixteen states between 1984 and 1989.6 Another study, quoting statistics from the Federal Police Department, reported that 4,611 children between the ages of five and seventeen were victims of violence between 1988 and 1990, with 2,150 children killed in the state of São Paulo alone.7 More recently, statistics presented to a congressional commission investigating violence against children showed that 411 children were murdered during the first six months of 1991, mostly in the cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Recife. According to the national coordinator of the National Movement for Street Children (MNMMR), an average of three children a day die in Brazil due to violence.8

This horrendous slaughter is in part the result of death squads or extermination teams that, according to local human rights organizations and media reports, in some cases have been financed by local business people eager to keep their streets "clean" and to lower the rate of crime. In many cases, these death squads have also been closely linked to the police, who either allow them to operate with impunity, or actively participate in their operations. Clashes between groups of drug traffickers and others involved in organized crime also account for a significant portion of the killings.

The majority of the victims are between the ages of seventeen and twenty-four, and many are younger – often minors who have been abandoned by their families. In the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, serious efforts are underway to protect these minors in particular. In Rio, the vice governor has established a hotline for citizens to call to denounce groups of hired gunmen and police engaged in "extermination" activities. Between April, when the line was installed, and November, thirty-three civilians and twenty-three military police have been arrested and charged with participation in the killings as a result of evidence gathered through the hotline. While in São Paulo the killings are reportedly increasing, in the state of Rio the number of minors murdered dropped from 450 in 1990 to what experts believe will be about 300 by the end of 1991.

Police participation in public lynchings caught national attention in Brazil when television stations broadcast an amateur videotape of the killing of three alleged criminals in the town of Matupá, in Mato Grosso, in November 1990. The videotape, which was delivered to the minster of justice in late January 1991, showed the military police in Matupá arresting three criminal suspects and handing them over to a crowd of enraged local citizens, who poured gasoline on them and burned them alive.9 The videotape received widespread coverage, and a special commission was appointed by the minister of justice to investigate the incident. Following the investigation, eighteen people were charged with involvement in the crime and ten of these were held in preventive detention.10 However, other less publicized lynchings rarely yield prosecution of those involved, so the perception remains that one can commit such lynchings with impunity. According to police statistics, 313 lynchings were reported in the state of Bahia in the past three years, including thirty-seven during the first four months of 1991.11

The Brazilian government, and President Collor personally, have repeatedly pledged to take steps to halt the killings, particularly of children. On April 5, President Collor reportedly expressed his disgust with the killing of children and announced the formation of a special National Plan to Fight Violence Against Children and Adolescents. The plan, subject to approval by Congress, would establish the National Council of Children and Adolescents' Rights, which would investigate the causes of violence and propose solutions.12 In the view of Americas Watch, an immediate and effective solution would be to end the impunity for death-squad members, investigate all killings, and vigorously prosecute any person indicted for such extrajudicial executions, with particular attention to members of the police force.

Of equal and persistent concern are ongoing assassinations and intimidation in rural Brazil, and the lack of an effective and consistent official response. This violence is usually the result of conflict over land ownership, and is most often directed at rural squatters (posseiros), leaders of rural unions, indigenous people, and lawyers, clergy and activists who support the rural poor. In reaction to the unequal distribution of land in Brazil, with 1.88 percent of the farms occupying 54 percent of the land while as many as seven million peasants have no land at all, rural activists and their supporters have attempted to pressure the government to implement a comprehensive land-reform program by squatting or homesteading on unused land. These actions are often met by violence on the part of the police and private gunmen (pistoleiros) hired by large landowners. Violence sometimes takes the form of assassination of rural union leaders and their supporters. Other times it is the result of excessive force used against squatters who are defending themselves from eviction without court order, which is illegal, or eviction on the basis of a court order issued without notice to the settlers, which is permissible under Brazilian law.

The assassination of rural leaders was brought to international attention in late 1990 by the trial and conviction of the murderers of the rubber tapper and rural unionist Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, better known as Chico Mendes. In that case, the triggerman, Darly Alves da Silva, and the "intellectual author" of the crime, his father Darci Alves Pereira, were apprehended and sentenced to lengthy jail terms. More often, rural assassinations do not attract international attention and are met with a wholly inadequate official response.

On September 17, Gumercindo Rodrigues, one of Chico Mendes's closest collaborators in the National Rubber Tappers Council and the Xapuri Rural Workers Union, barely survived an assassination attempt; he received two gunshot wounds and was seriously injured. Due to his work as an adviser to the rubber tappers' union, Rodrigues had received repeated death threats, and prior to the assassination attempt Americas Watch had called for his protection. Two other leaders of the rubber tappers in the state of Acre, Antonio Luis Macedo and Pedro Ramos de Souza, were also attacked in 1991.13

In February 1991, shortly after the publication of an Americas Watch report, Rural Violence in Brazil, local and international attention was focused on the assassination of another rural activist, Expedito Ribeiro de Souza, in the violence-plagued town of Rio Maria in the southern part of the state of Pará. Expedito Ribeiro de Souza was the president of the Rio Maria Rural Worker's Union (STR) and a founding member of the local Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). Because of the STR's support for posseiros involved in several ongoing land disputes in the area, Ribeiro de Souza had been repeatedly threatened with death.

The remote town of Rio Maria has long been the site of protracted violence, and an Americas Watch mission to the area in 1990 revealed a pattern of inaction by the local police which allowed gunmen to operate freely. In April 1990, a local member of the PCB, Bras Antonio de Oliveira, and his assistant, Ronan Rafael Ventura, were kidnapped and killed by men driving a grey Volkswagen. Despite eyewitness testimony, the local police chief's investigation into the killings brought no results. Three weeks after these killings, three brothers – one of them a prominent activist with the local PCB and the treasurer of the STR – were kidnapped by people driving an identical car. The local police chief, after being alerted to the kidnapping by the brothers' family, failed to notify the police stationed at roadblocks. Two of the brothers were later killed while one, Orlando Canuto, was injured but managed to escape. Canuto revealed that the kidnappers had said Expedito Ribeiro de Souza and Carlos Cabral Pereira, Orlando Canuto's brother-in-law, were next on their list. The kidnapping of the Canuto brothers, coming on the heels of an inadequate investigation into the deaths of de Oliveira and Ventura, created such outrage that the Rio Maria police chief was dismissed by the state governor, and several suspects in the killings were arrested.

Unfortunately, persistent pleas to federal and state authorities to protect Expedito Ribeiro de Souza – including a letter to the government by Americas Watch in December 1990 – went unheeded. In April 1990, the local representative of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), a national human rights and rural advocacy organization sponsored by the National Council of Brazilian Bishops, met with the minister of justice and asked for police protection for Ribeiro de Souza, Carlos Cabral and others. However, when Ribeiro de Souza later went to the state capital to seek protection, the federal police said that they had an order to help him but did not have the officers to spare. Ribeiro de Souza eventually secured protection from the civil police, but even this guard left after several days in Rio Maria. At the time of his death, on February 2, 1991, Ribeiro de Souza was unprotected.

Unlike most cases of rural assassinations, a specially appointed federal police investigator apprehended José Serafim Sales, who confessed that he had been hired to murder Ribeiro de Souza. Several days later, a warrant was also issued for Jeronimo Alves de Amorim, a local landowner who was accused of hiring Sales to commit the murder. However, the case against the accused killers remains stalled. In addition, Carlos Cabral, who received death threats along with Ribeiro de Souza and later succeeded him as president of the local STR, was shot in the left thigh during an assassination attempt in Rio Maria on March 4, 1991. Despite this attempt and the long history of violence against the STR in Rio Maria, the Federal Police withdrew protection from Cabral and one of his trade-union colleagues in October 1991, once again placing their lives at risk.14 In late November, police protection was reinstated.

Most killers of rural workers and activists enjoy almost total impunity. According to statistics compiled by the CPT, trials took place in only seventeen of the 1,566 murders of rural workers, Indians, lawyers, church workers and others linked to land conflict from 1964 to 1989, and only eight of these trials ended with convictions. The convictions tended to occur in the few cases that attracted special national or international attention. Between 1990 and 1991, the CPT estimates that 112 people associated with rural conflict over land were killed. Only two of these cases have ended with the conviction of the killer.

Another point of serious concern is the use of forced labor, usually on remote rural ranches in the northern and western frontier states. In these areas, some large landowners, taking advantage of Brazil's unemployment rate, promise well-paying jobs to lure rural workers to remote ranches, often hundreds of miles from their homes. Once on the ranches, workers are held against their will by threats and acts of violence, and are compelled to work and live in deplorable conditions. Workers are forced to use their paltry wages to pay for food, housing and transportation, frequently leaving them with little or no profit, and often in debt. Uncooperative workers are beaten, threatened with death, and sometimes killed by small private armies of hired gunmen.

Similar to the killings of rural leaders, those responsible for using forced labor enjoy virtual immunity from prosecution. The CPT has identified 1,559 cases of forced labor in 1990, with the majority occurring on eighteen ranches (or fazendas) located in the southern part of the state of Pará and the northern part of the state of Mato Grosso.15

In one case, on July 2, 1991, after several complaints, the military police traveled to the fazenda of Santo Antônio de Indaiá in the interior of Pará state and freed sixteen rural workers who had been held at the ranch against their will by armed gunmen.16 However, the gunmen had been forewarned of the impending raid and fled, so the police arrested only the fazenda's supervisor, or gato. An official investigation was launched by the federal police on July 4 into this and another case of forced labor at the nearby fazenda Santana do Indaiá. Statements were taken from the gato, a local labor contractor, and six of the workers. However, by October 1991, the investigators had failed to take statements from, let alone arrest, the owners of the two ranches, the overseer of the ranches, or the four gunmen, who the workers stated had repeatedly threatened them with death. The local delegate of the federal police stated that the investigation was stalled due to lack of funds.17

Americas Watch is also concerned by the Brazilian government's nonenforcement of laws against violence, particularly when the victims are women. In the most glaring example, on August 29, 1991, João Lopes was acquitted of having stabbed to death his unfaithful wife and her lover. Despite the premeditated nature of the crime, Lopes was found innocent of the double homicide on the grounds that he was acting in defense of his personal honor. This judgement was passed even though, on March 11, the Superior Tribunal of Justice – Brazil's highest court of law – had ruled, in the same case, that the honor defense has no basis in law. One prosecutor, referring to the interior of his state, estimated that the honor defense is successfully invoked eighty percent of the time.

In other ways as well, Americas Watch found that Brazilian courts generally treat defendants in wife-murder cases more leniently than others arrested for murder. The notion of "provocation by the victim" continues to result in unduly short prison terms for wife-murder, even in cases involving premeditation. In the 1989 wife-murder case of Anibal Maciel Abreu Silva, the court granted the defendant a severely reduced sentence even though there was ample evidence that the murder was deliberate and premeditated and there was no evidence to support the defense's claim of provocation by the victim.

The 1990 case of the murder of Daisy Carreiro by her husband Ricardo Simonetti initially fit this same pattern. Simonetti killed his wife after luring her to an apartment under false pretenses. He then claimed that he had committed the crime in a moment of violent emotion provoked by the victim. After national and international protest, Simonetti was charged with premeditated murder. The prosecution has yet to be completed.

Americas Watch found that discriminatory treatment by the courts is not exclusive to crimes of wife-murder but extends to other acts of violence against women as well. Although reported rates of wife abuse and rape have steadily increased since 1985, female victims have little reason to expect that their abusers will ever be punished. Of over two thousand cases of violence other than homicide against women reported to a Rio police station in 1990, not a single one ended in punishment of the accused.

The terrible conditions of Brazil's prisons once again gained national and international attention when a fire killed twenty-four inmates in the Ary Franco penitentiary in the Agua Santa district of Rio de Janeiro. The fire was reportedly caused by an explosive bomb that was thrown into a crowded cell, and the prison's head of security and a guard were later arrested.18 Inmates claimed that the firebomb was thrown into the cell in retaliation for a foiled escape attempt discovered earlier that day. The Ary Franco penitentiary had previously been criticized by Americas Watch as an understaffed, overcrowded and particularly brutal prison.19

The Right to Monitor

Brazil officially allows human rights monitoring, and several local human rights organizations continue actively to monitor abuse against the urban and rural poor, suspected criminals and homeless children. In addition, Americas Watch and other international human rights organizations have freely conducted investigative missions.

In practice, local human rights activists – especially those monitoring rural violence and abuses against the urban poor – are often targets of intimidation and harassment. For example, of the 108 people which the CPT documented as having received death threats over land disputes, one of those receiving the most frequent and serious threats is Father Ricardo Rezende, a former coordinator of the CPT who lives in the violence-plagued town of Rio Maria, Pará. Father Rezende is currently under police protection.

Human rights workers in urban areas have also suffered intimidation and, in one case, assassination. On August 13, 1991, lawyer Fausto Ribeiro da Silva Filho, who represented the urban homeless and was active with the Urban Squatters Movement, was murdered in São Miguel Paulista, a neighborhood in eastern São Paulo.20 It was not known whether Ribeiro's death was specifically related to his work on behalf of the urban poor. In another case, Dr. Tania Maria Salles Moreira, the public prosecutor of the city of Duque de Caxias in the state of Rio de Janeiro and a campaigner for an end to impunity for urban "extermination groups," also received repeated telephone death threats.21

U.S. Policy

Despite strong and friendly relations with Brazil, the United States has consistently failed to use its considerable leverage to make public statements regarding Brazilian human rights violations. State Department officials in Washington assured Americas Watch that human rights concerns are brought up periodically on a private level, but could recall no public statements of concern.

Although direct U.S. aid to Brazil is small, the United States is Brazil's largest trading partner, investor and creditor. In June 1991, President Collor paid a high-profile visit to Washington, and in August, Vice President Dan Quayle visited Brasília. Upon President Collor's arrival in Washington on June 18, President Bush lauded him as "Latin America's most dynamic statesman," and stated:

The U.S.-Brazilian friendship has spanned nearly two centuries. Now an alliance built on fidelity – to democracy, healthy mutual respect, and firm collective will – [our] relationship has never been better. The most basic roots of our friendship lie in our dedication to democracy, our allegiance to the power of individuals, and the rule of law.22

During President Collor's visit, President Bush emphasized his enthusiasm for the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, and announced that the United States would sign a trade and investment agreement with Brazil and its three partners in the planned Southern Cone Common Market: Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Because of President Bush's stated admiration for Brazil's respect for the rule of law, the persistent problem of impunity for the perpetrators of serious violence was never publicly discussed.

Similarly, there was no public criticism of Brazil's human rights record during Vice President Quayle's visit to Brazil in August. Quayle, traveling with U.S. Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher and eight prominent U.S. businessmen, reportedly limited discussions to the issues of intellectual property rights, the possibility of increased U.S. investment in Brazil, and U.S. concern over Brazil's failure to negotiate a debt agreement with the International Monetary Fund. The absence of public statements on human rights was particularly disappointing because during other stops on his Latin American trip, Vice President Quayle criticized Cuba's human rights record and expressed his support for what at the time was progress in democratization in Haiti.23

U.S. military aid to Brazil, which was suspended in 1977 following disputes over Brazil's human rights practices, recommenced in 1988, yet remains at a modest level. In fiscal year 1991, Brazil received $150,000 for military education and training. Brazil also received $2.5 million in police aid for counter-narcotics activities and training. The anti-narcotics assistance was designated for use in drug eradication, chemical control, and drug-awareness education programs. Anti-narcotics assistance was also used to purchase "fast boats" and other transport vehicles for drug interdiction.24 In August, U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics Matters Melvyn Levitsky met in Brasília with high ranking Brazilian officials to discuss cooperation between the two nations on counter-narcotics activities.

The Work of Americas Watch

In February 1991, Americas Watch released Rural Violence in Brazil, which was the result of research in Brazil in June and July 1990. The report focused on violence in five states – Pará, Maranhão, Acre, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Sul – and concerned itself with the problem of impunity for those who assassinate and harass rural workers, unionists and their supporters. It also addressed the government's failure to enforce its own laws prohibiting forced labor. The report concluded that, despite the prosecution of those responsible for the Chico Mendes murder, impunity for the perpetrators of assassinations in rural Brazil continues to be the rule.

Americas Watch recommended that to remedy this situation the Brazilian government take steps to: alter the process by which settlers are evicted from their land, specifically increasing due process and trying to avoid the use of force; increase the priority, funding and staffing given to the investigation and prosecution of those accused of crimes of rural violence; and create a special commission, with paid staff, to investigate and prosecute cases of forced labor.

In August 1991, an Americas Watch representative traveled to Brazil to release the Portuguese version of Rural Violence in Brazil, at a meeting of the São Paulo section of the Brazilian Bar Association. The representative also traveled to the capital, Brasília, where he met with Minister of Justice Jarbas Passarinho and Foreign Minister Francisco Rezek. In Brasília, the rural violence report was presented to the public under the auspices of a highly respected citizen's organization, Ação Pela Cidadania (Action for Citizens). The Center for the Study of Violence of São Paulo University assisted Americas Watch with the publication and distribution of the Portuguese version of the rural violence report.

On March 13, 1991, in a joint project with Physicians for Human Rights and the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Americas Watch released "The Search for Brazil's Disappeared: The Mass Grave at Dom Bosco Cemetery." The newsletter described the findings of an October 1990 mission to the municipality of Perus, on the outskirts of São Paulo, where a team of Brazilian experts exhumed a mass grave at the Dom Bosco cemetery. By early December 1990, when the Brazilian authorities completed the exhumation of all 1,048 skeletons, human rights investigator had identified the names of six "disappeared" people who were buried in the mass grave. Americas Watch, the Physicians for Human Rights, and the AAAS urged the Brazilian government to investigate the fate of all individuals who disappeared during the years of military rule, and recommended specific steps to improve Brazil's medicolegal system.

The most recent report by Americas Watch on Brazil, Criminal Injustice: Violence Against Women in Brazil, was released by the Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch on October 16, 1991. The report was the result of an investigation into domestic violence in Brazil conducted in April 1991 by the Women's Rights Project. The report focused on the discriminatory treatment of crimes of violence against women, particularly in the home.

The Women's Rights Project recommended that the Brazilian government implement the law fully and fairly and uphold the right of equal protection for all citizens regardless of gender. It also urged the public denunciation of the legitimate defense of honor, which despite rulings to the contrary, continues to be used as an excuse for the murder of allegedly unfaithful wives. The report made a number of recommendations, including: specific steps to improve the documentation of violence against women; the expansion and full support for special women's police stations; improvements in the medical examination of victims of physical and sexual abuse; the reform of Brazil's Penal and Civil Code to implement fully Brazil's constitutional obligations and those it has under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; and the expansion of legal and social services to the female victims of violence.

In November 1991, an Americas Watch researcher conducted a four-week mission to Brazil to investigate cases of rural violence and forced labor. During the same period, another Americas Watch representative traveled to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to investigate the problem of urban violence, with special attention to the killings of street children.

"Death Squad Killings in Rio de Janeiro Detailed," Folha de São Paulo, June 26, 1991, as reported in Federal Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), July 2, 1991.

"Amnesty International Assistance Sought," Madrid EFE, September 28, 1991, as reported in FBIS, September 30, 1991.

"'Operation Death Penalty' Reportedly Kills 100," Madrid EFE, March 8, 1991, as reported in FBIS, March 12, 1991.

Movimento Nacional de Meninos e Meninas da Rua (MNMMR), Instituto Brasiliero de Análises Sociais e Econômicas (IBASE), and Núcleo de Estudos da Violência da Universidade de São Paulo (NEV-USP), "Vidas em Risco: Assassinatos de Crianças e Adolescentes no Brasil," Rio de Janeiro, 1991.

Vera Saavedra Durão, "Estado de São Paulo é o lider em mortes violentas de crianças," Gazeta Mercantil, October 14, 1991; Inter Press Service, "Brazil: Over 400 Street Children Murdered This Year," June 18, 1991.

"Commission Told Number of Children Murdered," Rede Globo Television, June 18, 1991, as reported in FBIS, June 19, 1991.

"A morte no fogo: Em Matupá, Mato Grosso, três assaltantes apanham de uma multidão e são queimados vivos," Veja, February 6, 1991.

"Juiz decreta prisão de 10 pela chacina de Matupá," O Estado de São Paulo, April 25, 1991.

Sam Dillon, "Lynch-mob violence mounting in Brazil," The Miami Herald, April 21, 1991.

"Government Launches Plan to Protect Children," O Globo, April 5, 1991, as reported in FBIS, April 9, 1991.

Inter Press Service, "Brazil: Violence Continues Unabated in Chico Mendes Country," September 23, 1991.

Amnesty International Urgent Action, "Brazil: Carlos Cabral Pereira, Roberto Neto da Silva," October 8, 1991.

Abnor Gondim, "Senzala amazônica," Veja, July 24, 1991.


Appeal by the Comissão Pastoral da Terra, October 8, 1991, Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil.

Julia Preston, "2 Guards Held in Fire Killing 24 in Rio Jail: Chemical Bomb Blamed," The Washington Post, October 30, 1991.

Americas Watch, Prison Conditions in Brazil, April 1989, p. 22.

"Advogado dos sem-teto é morto em SP," Folha de São Paulo, August 15, 1991.

Amnesty International Urgent Action, "Brazil: Tania Maria Salles Moreira," Death Threats, February 26, 1991, UA 69/91.

As reported in the State Department's Dispatch, June 24, 1991.

David S. Broder, "Quayle Sees 'Increased Opportunities' For U.S. Investment in Latin America," The Washington Post, August 11, 1991.

Counter-narcotics assistance is expected to increase gradually over the next few years. The Bush Administration has requested $3.5 million for fiscal year 1992 and will reportedly request $4 million for 1993.

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