To emphasize the problems of police brutality in Brazil, Amnesty International had stated in a report published just before the incident:
"From prison cells in Brazil and Peru to police stations in Mexico and the United States, scores of men, women and children are tortured every day, in spite of national and international laws, and their torturers continue to walk free. Amnesty International's new report highlights the countries where torture inflicted by state officials is widespread or persistent. Brazil is one such country, and the case of fifteen-year-old José is an example: arrested in June 1999 and held for two days. During that time he was beaten so severely by civil police officers that he has needed psychiatric treatment ever since. Latest reports indicate that José still receives treatment for damage to his testicles as a result of the beatings."
Like a scene out of some spine-chilling movie, the following setting faced me on the dirt track that leads up to my organisation’s recuperation centre for Street Children in São Paulo, Brazil at 01.30 a.m.
Our minibus, easily recognised by the large circular Children At Risk Foundation Emblems on all sides, slowly trundled up the 800 meters of darkened dirt track winding through lush green undergrowth eerily highlighted on either side only by the cars dusty headlamps, eventually leading us to our small holding and recuperation centre for street kids in Diadema, on the urban outskirts of São Paulo.
I was on my way back with some of our former street kids who had been to a friend’s birthday celebration during the night and whom I had politely pleaded to leave the party as I needed to get some sleep and was not really willing to wait any longer to take them back home. As our minibus swung round the darkest curve on the track, only 400 meters from home, our headlights hit the scene:
The police "Blazer", a common patrol car used by the Policia Militar here in São Paulo, was parked near the middle of the track, it's headlights turned off. Five male youths, aged between 16 and 20 years old were huddled together in a tight group on the roadside surrounded by three armed policemen. The thought immediately entered my mind; something horrible was about to happen. My kids knew it and I knew it! Lightening flashbacks went through my mind, showing dreadful scenes of the last murdered adolescent who I myself had photographed only months before in exactly this very same spot (see photo), only minutes after having received a bullet to his eye and throat (and shimmers of 26 more young people who had been laid to rest against their will during the past few years in this same region).
Some uncontrollable force caused me to halt our car.
My kids were very nervous about the whole situation; they knew the meaning of police brutality here in this gigantic city after having spent years on the streets themselves in the city centre. The police were more surprised than we were and they became quite nervous about our being there.
I slowly wound down my window. At the same time my kids kept quickly repeating to me that I had to say that I knew who the youngsters were otherwise they were in danger from the very policemen whom slowly approached our car window.
I calmly asked the police if there was a problem. They in turn asked if I knew any of the youngsters that were being held by the third policeman alongside our car. As I rolled down my opposite window, one of the lined-up kids with their backs turned and hands behind their necks, suddenly called out my name. The policeman immediately reacted by ordering the five to keep their backs to the car and their mouths shut. At the same time one of my boys commented that he had studied together with the boy who just called out my name. I decided to play along with them and told the police that I knew who the boys were.
Recognizing the NGO emblem on our car and the fact that we seemed to know the youths, the policemen became rather uneasy about the whole situation, explaining that they had just stopped the boys on the road and were checking them out. They mentioned that the youngsters were carrying tools used to break into cars and that they were only trying to get information from them about where they had hidden a stolen car. They then demanded that we passed on by so that they could get on with their business.
I decided it was best to leave, but was still worried about the young men’s safety. Under constant pressure from my kids, I decided to stop about fifty metres up the road and eventually turned the car around. In the meantime the police had already bundled the youngsters into the back of the Blazer and were coming in our direction. They flashed their searchlights on our faces as though to tell us that we were also being observed. They obviously didn’t appreciate that we were on our way back to the scene. The fact of the matter is that they knew we were observing their every move. We slowly drove in the direction from where we had only minutes before come from, turned the car back round and waited by the side of the main road, at the turn off to our dirt track.
The police soon came back down the dirt track and brought their car to a halt, face to face with ours. They then waited a few moments in the dark to see what our next move would be, we also waited before they suddenly and hurriedly turned away onto the main road and speeded off in the direction of yet another blackened dirt track in the neighbouring municipality. We all knew that their next stop would probably be the most frightening place on earth at this time of night and we instantly became even more worried for the safety of the five boys.
Cat and mouse...
My kids were divided in their opinion about the whole situation. Some pleaded for me to go after the police and do something, demanding from the others, who were worried stiff about even the thought, to imagine how they would have felt if they had been in place of the boys in such a situation. We were their only chance. The others wanted to just go home to the safety of their own beds. I for one was pretty uncomfortable about the entire situation, but quickly remembered that only a few months before, five youngsters had been murdered in cold blood only a few hundred metres from where we were still waiting with our car. On this occasion the press had reported suspicion of “police brutality”. I knew that this was more than just suspicion, as I myself had actually encountered three police patrol cars doing reconnaissance in exactly the same spot only two hours before the killings took place in the early hours of that morning.
My body began to shake as the adrenaline of a cat chasing a mouse pressured myself to follow the police car. Now the kids became really worried and wondered what on earth I would do if I met up with the police patrol car, as they would now definitely understand that we were suspicious to their planned actions.
I really had no answer and as I am a person who is quite used to making sudden, unexpected decisions in my daily work with street children, I decided to feel the situation and take it in its stride. We met up with the police entering the other dirt track, lit up by the only light available from our headlights. They immediately stopped their car about thirty metres ahead of ours and waited. I stopped ours, opened the door and walked out onto the track but stopped a few metres from the patrol car. Their headlights were turned off and the darkness in front of me was total. The police waited... I waited.........
Then the doors of their car suddenly swung open and two policemen with enormous, shining chrome guns reflecting in our headlights as they waved them angrily in my direction came towards me and called me aside in a not too friendly manner.
I immediately took them by surprise by suggesting in a dictatorial manner, that it would be in the youngsters well-being that they delivered them to police headquarters to resolve whatever needed resolving, explaining that if these kids had been up to no good I would personally seek my friend and colleague, the Juvenile Judge (who I mentioned in full name), to make sure that rightful justice would be carried out. I quickly added that I also represented the Municipal Council for Children's and Adolescent’s Rights (which I had been a publicly elected Councillor of during the preceding 3 years). Then I demanded to speak to the boy that had called out my name earlier on (almost peeing myself out in the process!).
The policemen became quite stunned and, insecure about the situation; they went straight to their patrol car to pull out the boy. I made an attempt to speak to the boy alone but was effectively inhibited by one of the police who made it quite clear to me that the boy was under their arrest and he could not leave him alone with me.
I questioned the boy in front of the policeman, asked why the five of them had been wandering on our dirt track so late at night. The boy was shaking in utter despair about what was happening and looked very worried by what the policemen’s reactions would be if he answered me. I decided to help put some answers in his mouth and asked if they had been stopped on our road.
The boy’s head shook negatively to answer. I then suggested that the police had taken them there. His head then shook in the opposite direction; Yes!
On observing this, the policemen immediately started to create some wild story about them looking for a stolen car that they meant these boys had taken and left somewhere in the woods. I knew they were out of order and just told them I would be checking the story out with the judge the next morning and that I wanted to have the names, dates of birth and addresses of all five boys. With all the authority I could possibly mobilize, I pulled out an official looking folder from my car (which was actually nothing more than just our driver’s logbook), headed straight for the back door of the patrol car, flung open the door to reveal the other four youngsters huddled together in the back of the car, who had no idea what was going on and almost died of fright when the car door opened. They seemed very stunned by my presence, but very much relieved too. I shoved the folder in to their hands one at a time and demanded that they wrote down their names, dates of birth and addresses. I nervously told them that I would be checking them out later on and that if they were up to no good they would have to answer to the Judge. The policemen looked at me with great suspicion, through his almost flaring, devilish eyes and I felt that my whole body would soon erupt in an outburst of the shivers, knowing very well that we had just managed to evade a tragedy.
All's well that ends well...
By this time my kids were all outside of our car, on the roadside and nervously awaiting my return. I told them they could just relax and that everything would be fine. They of course knew now that there was no way anything could happen to those youngsters without the policemen having a difficult time to explain themselves. The situation had been completely identified and there was no way they could get away with any form for brutality. My kids were so relieved but jointly clear in their meaning about what had taken place.
We had probably just saved the lives of five youngsters.
After returning home at about 02.30 a.m., pretty much shaken up about the entire episode, I felt I just had to write the story there and then. Anyway, I was much too disturbed to get any sleep that night. This was after all, quite a regular part of our working situation with street children here in São Paulo.
I thought about checking out the youngsters later on, just to find out what had really been going on behind the scenes that night. I didn’t find the time before they actually found me.
The boys took contact with me later that week to thank me for my actions that frightening night. Their story coincided with the suspicions that had caused me to do what I thought necessary. The police had clearly stated their mission to them that night. They had been picked up in the suburbs and forcefully taken to that dark spot on our dirt track, where we, thanks to their guardian angels, had suddenly appeared from nowhere. By some miraculous coincidence we had turned up in the nick of time at the place where they would have surely met a dreadful destiny, like the young boy we found shot in the head a couple of months before, in that very same spot. If we had turned up just five minutes later, there would have probably been five more just like him....
Unfortunately he had not been so lucky.
On making the above incident known publicly shortly after during an open meeting about violence, including police violence in our municipality, the local police chief who was present at the time, was most sceptical to my story and mentioned that he would be checking it out at headquarters with those who had been on patrol that night. When he paid me a visit later that week, he of course rejected my version of the story, based on the information he had gathered from the policemen who were on patrol that night and stated that it would probably be wise to just forget the entire matter.
Later that month, on returning home one night, I stumbled over yet another dead body in the middle of the road, close to that very same spot. It was the twenty seventh since I had moved in to our small-holding.