Sunday, July 26, 2009

Reminders of Human Rights Violations in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay

It's been a kind of busy week for the history of human rights in Latin America this week. Thursday (the 23rd) marked the 16th anniversary of the Candelária massacre in Rio de Janeiro. Candelária is a massive cathedral in the heart of Rio de Janeiro's downtown area. While home to weddings, ceremonies, masses, concerts, and tourist visits, Candelária was also a place where street children who had no home would gather at night to sleep safely and semi-sheltered. In 1993, however, one of the more gruesome crimes in recent history in Brazil occurred, when five unidentified individuals pulled up in a car, got out, and opened fire on the sleeping children, killing 8.

Survivors of the shooting reported that two cars pulled up to the front of the church entrance early on the morning of July 23, letting out at least five men, some of whom were later identified as police officers. The men opened fire on the sleeping children.
Although their apparel did not immediately indicate that they were police or military officers, one key witness, Wagner dos Santos, recognized the men as military police and later testified against them in court.
It is well known among Brazilians that the country's death squads, whose objectives are to "cleanse" the streets, are primarily comprised of off-duty officers. Lamentably, street children often, through no fault of their own, find themselves in the middle of this "cleansing" process.

The event was atrocious, and led to a heightened awareness and fight for children's rights not just in Brazil, but globally, as Unicef and Amnesty International became involved. Ultimately, some officers were convicted, while others were acquitted; one officer who had died in 1994 was accused of having masterminded the massacre, offering a convenient scapegoat unable to defend himself. Today, outside of the cathedral, the figures of the eight victims are represented in red paint on the sidewalk, a constant reminder of the horrible events of July 23rd, 1993.

Unfortunately, the events of that night continue in Brazil. One of the survivors of the Candelária massacre was Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, who in 2001 would take a bus in Rio hostage, leading to what can only be categorized as an absolute disaster as the police, crowds, and television cameras all gathered around the hostage situation. On camera, Nascimento repeatedly emphasized that he was one of the Candelária survivors, making clear the effects of that night in 1993 had not faded away from the minds of the victims. Ultimately, the hostage situation ended as horribly as one could imagine: the cops, trying to kill Nascimento (who had exited the bus with a hostage), mistakenly killed the hostage. Crowds, thinking Nascimento had killed the girl, rushed in to lynch him. The police took him to the back of a police car, where they suffocated him to death on live television. It was a horrible, horrible event that cut to many of the social, economic, and justice problems facing Brazil, and it was documented in the film Bus 174 (and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: everybody should see this film).

Nor was dos Santos the only one. Of the 62 children who survived that night, 44 were dead by 2000 (and dos Santos was added to that total a year later). And a recent study has found that 5000 youths between the ages of 12 and 18 are killed in Brazil every year, offering a depressing reminder that, while the Candelária massacre happened 16 years ago, Brazilian youths, especially the poor and homeless, continue to face appalling conditions and chances of survival in Brazil today.

For better news, alleged Argentine torturer Jorge Alberto Souza was arrested in Spain this past week. Souza "is wanted in Argentina in connection with 18 cases of kidnapping and torture between 1975 and 1977." Although Argentina's "Dirty War" only began in 1976, paramilitary and police repression existed well before that, and it's good to see Argentina going after Souza for that, as well. He's being held in Spain, but will be transferred to Argentina, where he will hopefully join others who are known torturers and killers in prison. (h/t)

And in a painful but important reminder of Paraguay's history, authorities in Asunción uncovered a common grave containing at least two of the 900 "disappeared" and killed victims of the Stroessner regime, in addition to the thousands who were tortured and the nearly one million exiles.