As the world prepares to mark the International Day against Police Brutality on 15 March, fear and outrage boil over in a community in north-eastern Brazil after police recently killed 12 men.
When 17-year-old Natanael didn’t come home after a night out with his girlfriend in the neighbourhood of Cabula, in north-eastern Brazil’s largest city, Salvador, his grandmother Marina Lima didn’t think much of it.
But the next morning when a neighbour knocked on her door to deliver the boy’s baseball cap, she realized the worst had happened.
Next, Marina was faced with her greatest nightmare: standing at the morgue, she saw Natanael’s body, riddled with bullet wounds, his neck and arm broken.
The teenager was one of 12 men killed by local police officers six weeks ago, on 6 February.
According to the official version of events, the men were planning to rob a bank and the police shot at them in self-defense.
But the lack of a proper investigation and several eye-witness accounts paint a very different picture.
“My taxes paid for the bullet that killed my grandson,” Marina said.
The tragic event should have sent shockwaves through Brazil. But it didn’t.
Instead, the Bahia state Governor, Rui Costa, sent a message to the “brave” police officers, lauding their “heroic” work:
“It’s like a striker in front of the goal trying to decide, in seconds, how he is going to put the ball into the goal. When he scores, all the fans in the stands will clap and the scene will be repeated several times on television. If the goal is lost, the top scorer will be condemned for his failure”, the Governor said after the events.
The ill-conceived comparison of a mass killing with an adrenaline-pumping football match is a sad illustration of the public security problems still experienced in Brazil – where mostly poor, young black men pay the price for the actions of a violent, militarized and poorly trained police force that has gone unchecked for far too long.
I arrived in Cabula just a few days after the fatal shooting and was faced with a strange mix of horror, fear and defiance.
The streets, lined with dozens of small shops, schools, banks and a university, bustled with activity. The place is filled with children running around, using the local wasteland as their football pitch.
The relatives of the 12 men who were killed by the police were so scared that they wouldn’t even tell me their names. They felt sad, outraged and intimidated, but also afraid of what the police could do to them if they spoke out.
Having documented and witnessed similar actions of the police all over Brazil, I was sadly not surprised by what I was hearing. The police in Brazil kill and get killed in high numbers as a direct consequence of the war on drugs which ends up criminalizing the poor while the police resort to brutality.
According to official figures from the Annual Report of Public Security at least six people are killed by police officers in Brazil every single day. As shocking as it is, this figure is probably an underestimate, as most states across the country prefer to keep these alarming figures under wraps.
Even complaining about the police’s brutal actions can be extremely risky, as I experienced when I joined a demonstration by members of the community and civil society organizations from Salvador, who were marching peacefully to demand justice.
During the demonstration, we were followed by a police officer on a motorcycle who eventually stopped next to me and asked me what I was doing there. Human rights defenders are frequently harassed and intimidated, and even when we later reported this incident to the police no one took any notice.
After the protest, I visited the site where the killings happened five days earlier. What I saw there was shocking. The crime scene had not been preserved; plastic gloves, as well as the dead men’s clothes and belongings were still lying around. There were even spent bullets on the floor.
Eventually, the relatives’ desperate calls for justice were heeded and recently the state authorities said the killings are being investigated.
But we have heard this many times before with very little action taken.
On average, the perpetrators are brought to justice in a paltry 5-8% of homicides in Brazil. This means that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, those responsible are never investigated and, if found responsible, punished, thus feeding the cycle of violence and impunity.
In the case of Cabula, the officers who pulled the trigger are still working side-by-side with a community that is living in sheer terror, wondering who will be the next victim. Authorities must promptly conduct a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the incident and suspend the police officials from duty until the investigation is concluded.
How much longer will it take for the Brazilian authorities to wake up to these horrors and take real action? The lives of thousands of people – many of them young black men – are at stake.
This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post.