A horrific crime prompts a quest for justice–and stories that resonate

In this moving blog entry, Maria Helena Moreira Alves recounts the inspiration for Living in the Crossfire , her book (co-authored by Philip Evanson)  about favela residents in Rio de Janeiro and the violence they encounter every day of their lives.

We dedicated our book, Living in the Crossfire to the “Mothers of Acari” in recognition these women’s untiring search for their disappeared children and their tenacity in seeking justice and due punishment to those responsible for this horrific crime. This crime occurred July 26, 1990, near the town of Acari, in Rio de Janeiro. Eleven young people were kidnapped by military police, tortured, raped, and their bodies were disappeared. According to many accounts, the dismembered bodies were fed to crocodiles and black panthers that were kept by a member of the local militia. Because of their fight for justice, the mothers themselves were persecuted and threatened. 

One of the mothers, Edméia da Silva, was murdered on July 20, 1993, after she visited a state prison to interrogate a key witness. More than 20 years have passed and none of the guilty were brought to justice. The case was clearly abandoned until the crime described.  Because of this, Marilene Lima de Souza, mother of Rosana de Souza Santos—who was only 18 at the time of her disappearance—has asked for international solidarity. Amnesty International has taken the case by asking the Brazilian judicial system to re-open and carry out the investigation.

In 2000, we began to work with NGOs of Rio de Janeiro dedicated to social and educational projects in different favelas.  Through this connection we became personally acquainted with community leaders and residents of the favelas that worked with these NGOs. We were struck by the accounts of violence by drug dealers, who acted as “owners of the areas”—the hills where they reigned to enforce their law. What was most shocking, however, was to learn that members of the security forces—particularly the military police and their elite troop, the BOPE—were the chief allies of the drug lords. In many cases, the drug lords were replaced by militia under the command of military police who took over the job of terrorizing the population; sold favors as “security guarantees;” received payment from drug dealers to allow them to continue their business; and also monopolized services to the residents—such as gas distribution, cable television, electricity, radio transmission and even mail delivery and transportation.  Much like the Mafia, these groups enforced their power by the use of extreme violence both against the drug dealers and against residents. 

The reaction of the governments of Rio varied from non-involvement to repeated but ineffective raids into the favelas that resulted in the deaths of more innocent people than arrest of the guilty. In 2007, the government decided on a policy of all out war and moved into areas heavily inhabited with the full force of armored vehicles similar to tanks, machine guns and even helicopters firing directly against residential areas without definite targets.  At that point many people we had known in the favelas asked for solidarity.  They stated that they no longer could trust or believe in the government’s actions and only solidarity from the international community could make their voices heard—heard so loud that the local government would be forced to listen to them and change their policies. In this regard, they agreed to provide us with the stories of their lives.  We heard so many heartbreaking stories—particularly of mothers and of children— that we were unable to publish all of them. However, the stories contained in Living in the Crossfire were chosen because each represents many others and hence their voice is multiplied a thousand times. 

We hope that our book, and the speaking tour we are undertaking in prestigious universities in the United States, will help develop the international support that can make the dreams of the residents living in the crossfire come true: A dream that justice can be achieved in Brazil; a dream that democracy will become a true fact for all people; that the Brazilian Constitution will be valid and enforced by those in government; and that the human rights of all citizens, particularly the most vulnerable citizens residents in the favelas, will be indeed respected.

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