In Brazilian city, homeless face ‘extermination’

Attempts to turn the investigation of at least 50 deaths over to federal authorities have stalled

The graves of homeless murder victims are among the thousands of newly dug plots in the Vale da Paz (Valley of Peace) cemetery a few miles outside Goiânia, Brazil, October, 2014.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

GOIÂNIA, Brazil — Marcos Aurélio Nunes da Cruz, the boy who was like a little bird, died in his sleep. His cardboard deathbed sat under the concrete awning of a discount supermarket.

His killer had approached at 3 a.m. The man, who wore a black helmet, glanced around, paused for a few seconds, pulled out a handgun and shot Cruz once in the left side of his forehead.

In a sense, Cruz was lucky. Dozens of others who, like him, slept on the streets of Goiânia, a disregarded city of 1.3 million in Brazil’s agricultural heartland, have been stoned, stabbed, clubbed or burned alive. Others have simply disappeared.

The memory of the 57 killed since August 2012 is preserved with a list kept by human-rights campaigners — some by full name, others by their street monikers: Hummingbird, Woodpecker, Cinnamon. The youngest was 13, the oldest 52.

The deaths have equaled about one in 20 of the city's homeless population. In the two-year period, homeless people in Goiânia were murdered at a rate roughly ten times higher than in the rest of Brazil, although experts warned of the difficulty of gathering complete data.

After midnight on the streets of the city’s industrial core, outside its ubiquitous rodeo bars and shopping malls, the homeless stumble down the sidewalks with ripped clothes, bruised skin and panic in their eyes.

Many who live on the streets sleep during the day and walk at night. It is safer that way. In Goiânia, a city where, as one drifter put it, “no one sees and no one knows,” only the bravest dare to ask who is doing the killing and why.

An encampment of homeless people who live under a bridge in Goiânia, Brazil, includes mattresses and a stove, September, 2014.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

Newspaper headlines last week seemed to have a partial answer: a serial killer who gunned down victims as he cruised the streets on his motorbike. On Oct. 15, police said Tiago Henrique Gomes da Rocha, a 26-year-old hospital security guard, had confessed to 39 murders in Goiânia.

The victims included 15 young women and eight homeless people, police said. Less than two weeks before the second round of gubernatorial elections in the state of Goiás on Sunday, Gov. Marconi Perillo’s investigators said they had found their man.

Except, far from Brazil’s coastal metropolises, in this backwater where political corruption and police violence are endemic, religious leaders and federal human-rights officials said they worry that the state’s military-police officers may be to blame for some of the 57 killings.

A federal human-rights commission first suggested this after a visit to the city in April 2013. But the commission’s attempt to get the police investigation federalized has stalled, and in the meantime, the killings have continued. Local police, meanwhile, have attributed the deaths to violence among the homeless and drug gangs. So far, one police officer has been arrested for three murders, but not convicted. The campaigners, who say they are themselves targets of death threats, fear the murders are another chapter in a long story of extrajudicial killings, violence against homeless and police impunity in Brazil.

The site next to the Madri supermarket in Goiânia, Brazil, where Marcos Aurélio Nunes da Cruz was murdered in 2012.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

The police say the killings began on Aug. 12, 2012, nearly three months before Cruz died. On that humid night, Bianca, a 22-year-old who had been on the streets for nine years, says she witnessed a murder that police later said was the first. (Her name has been changed for her protection). It was Zinca who did it, she says, the thug who controlled the drug market in a square called the Praça do Trabalhador.

Zinca was not homeless, but sometimes, when he turned up to collect his dirty money, he would wear old clothes and feign a limp. He’d been arrested a few years before, accused of killing as many as 10 people, newspapers wrote. But he was allowed to return to the streets as the investigation of him continued. Sometimes he wouldn’t bother with the disguise and would just turn up in his khaki uniform: In addition to his work with drug gangs, Zinca is a member of the military police force, which is tasked with maintaining order and preventing crimes.

A dreaded presence on the streets of Goiânia, Zinca is said to carry two handguns — his official police-issue weapon on his left hip, one for extrajudicial killings on his right. This August night, Mateus Stefany Rodrigues Carvalho Souza, 22, did not have the money Zinca wanted. A crack addict, Souza had taken the drugs he was supposed to sell. So Zinca shot him six times, at close range, Bianca later said.

Souza’s name became the first on the human-rights campaigners’ macabre list, which would soon swell to 47, according to the civil police, or 57, according to Goiânia’s leading human-rights institute. Another homeless man, Eduardo Alves Gouveia, 29, was the second name on the list, stabbed to death in a different part of the city on the same night.

Ondina Gonzaga Coelho, 58, the mother of Marcos Aurélio Nunes da Cruz, stands next to his photograph in her home.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

Two more people were killed before the Day of the Dead, Nov. 2, when Cruz spoke to his mother, Ondina Gonzaga Coelho, for the last time. “Marcos was like a little bird: He just wanted to be free,” she says of her son, who’d left home 20 years earlier, at age 16.

When they spoke that evening, his mother says Cruz only had enough phone credit for two minutes. He had almost lost hope, was aggressive and clearly on drugs.

“I cannot live without crack,” Cruz told her. “Please send me 150 reals.”

“I will not send you money,” she replied. “I have already given you too much.”

“You will send me money,” he said. “My life is worth nothing. You do not like me.”

“It’s because I love you that I will not send money,” she said.

Then, the line went dead. Zinca was accused of her son’s murder as well.

Two others were killed on the same night, Nov. 5, all within a radius of one mile. By early April 2013, when 13-year-old Natanael Moura da Silva was clubbed to death, the number had reached 29.

A homeless man and his possessions in Goiânia.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

Even in a country as nonchalant about violence as Brazil, the case started to attract notice. Brazil’s federal human-rights secretariat sent a team to Goiânia to investigate. Court documents obtained by Al Jazeera America show that the secretariat identified a culture of “institutional violence” within the military police and suspicion over a series of cases that included deaths dating from 2005.

“The situation in Goiás has been alarming for years,” says Marcelo Murteira de Salles, a spokesman for the secretariat. “With the apparent involvement of military police and the delay in an effective response, it could be concluded that the state has not fulfilled its role.”

Citing the “extermination of the homeless population in Goiânia,” Brazil’s then general prosecutor, Roberto Gurgel, petitioned the Superior Court of Justice to have the investigation taken from the local detectives of the civil police, who concentrate on criminal investigations, and given to the federal police, whose officers fulfill a role similar to the FBI’s.

But 17 months later, a decision by the judge in the case, Jorge Mussi, is still pending. In the meantime, more people were killed, including four in April of last year. Then, according to records kept by the civil police, the number of murders sharply declined to 11 the rest of that year and four so far in 2014.

“The authorities began to say that some of the people who were dying, who did not have identity documents and appeared to be homeless, were in fact not homeless,” says Eduardo Mota, director of the João Bosco Burnier Center for the Defense of Human Rights, in Goiânia, which is named after a local priest who was murdered by the military police in 1976. “They were crack addicts who, by chance, died on the streets. So they solved the problem of the high numbers of homeless people being murdered, statistically. They stopped counting.”

But Mota and his group have continued to keep track. Although his official tabulation, which now includes information from media reports as well as the police, is 57, he believes the truth to be closer to 70. Others who work with the homeless in the city estimate that once those who simply disappear without a trace are included, the true number may be as high as 100.

The grave of a murdered homeless person in the Vale da Paz (Valley of Peace) cemetery.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

Of those killed, the lucky ones are identified and given a private burial by their families. Cruz is buried in a cemetery in the city of Jaraguá, amid the soybean fields of central Goiás, where their parents and three siblings live.

Unidentified bodies are held for 45 days at the city’s forensic institute before being given a pauper’s burial in hand-dug graves in the Valley of Peace municipal cemetery in the countryside five miles outside Goiânia.

Here, the bodies of the poor arrive 5 or 10 at a time and are lowered into graves as heavy trucks roar past on the nearby freeway. It is rare for any family to be present, says Osmar Lacerda Xavier, a gravedigger. “There is no ceremony, no one says any words.”

Reginaldo, a 51-year-old man who was beaten the night before by an unknown assailant.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

Of more than a dozen homeless people interviewed by Al Jazeera America in Goiânia last month, nearly all had a story to tell about police violence. On the streets, ROTAM, the black-clothed special-ops unit of the Goiás military police, is especially feared.

Reginaldo, 51, nursed a head wound on the steps of a church after being beaten with a stick the previous night. It is unknown whether the attacker was a civilian or a police offer. But Reginaldo said he once saw a friend die after police kicked him repeatedly in the stomach.

“Most of my friends from the street are now dead,” he added. “Nobody knows for sure why all of the killings are happening. But we know they are. Someone is coming to kill people as they sleep.”

Said Reginaldo, who now helps church volunteers distribute food, “It seems that there are people in Goiânia who take pleasure in violence.”

Ananias, 55, has a better home than most. Living under the supports of a bridge, he can wash, drink and clean his teeth with the passing water and maintain a home of sorts for himself, his friends and his six cats. But when the river floods, he sees bodies floating past. ROTAM has a favorite spot nearby for beating its victims, he said.

He has lost three or four friends in the past couple of years due to police beatings, he said. “Where are the missing?” he asked. “No one sees and no one knows. You say nothing; otherwise you’ll be the next victim.”

Maria Madalena, 56, a longtime campaigner for the rights of the homeless who has recently become scared for her safety.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

No one knows the homeless here better than Maria Madalena, 56. She has helped those living on the city’s streets for 33 years with the Pastoral dos Povos da Rua, a Catholic outreach program.

When two boys believed the police were about to execute them, she is the one they called. “Auntie, we don’t think you’ll see us alive again,” they said. That night, she said, they died.

And when up to 60 homeless people spent a night deep in the city’s sewer system, surrounded by rats, to hide from a police operation, she was with them. But lately, some strange things have been happening to her.

First, there were the phone calls, she said. “Are you still alive?” a male voice would ask. “Where are you right now?” Then the call would cut off. A few months ago, early in the morning, she noticed a black car outside her house. It was the same day, she said, that federal judges were in Goiânia to investigate the deaths of the homeless.

As she stepped into the street, the car accelerated toward her, she said, but she managed to escape. Now she is scared. She refuses to meet at her own home. When the homeless reach out to her for help, she returns the calls using a different phone. She believes she is being targeted, as she was the first to call for the investigation of the killings to be taken over by federal police.

The registry of bodies at the Vale da Paz (Valley of Peace) cemetery, where many of the homeless victims are buried.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

She is not the only one to have been threatened. A priest, Geraldo Marcos Labarrère, 73, who denounced police violence against street children several years ago, received a call at his office in 2011 from someone who asked for his height. “I’m making a coffin for him and I need to know the size of it,” the caller said.

Others, including key witnesses, have just disappeared. Bianca, the girl who saw the first killing, gave a statement against Zinca, whose real name is Rogério Moreira da Silva. In it, she said she and her boyfriend, Rodrigo, were dragged off the street soon afterward the first killing and taken to GT3, the elite paramilitary unit of the civil police.

They were handcuffed, gagged and tied to a post, where they continued to hug each other while they were stunned with a Taser gun, she said. Then a policeman shot Rodrigo in the head, with the bullet only missing her by inches, she added.

Bianca recalled being bundled into the trunk of a black car and subsequently dragged into a building and raped by the same officer who had killed her boyfriend. “If you say anything to anyone, we will kill your family,” she said she was told before being dumped at the side of the road.

The civil police did not respond to a request to comment on the allegations.

Testimony from Bianca and several others led to three murder charges against Zinca. However, his trial for the first murder has collapsed three times — the first because a key witness could not be found; the second because the trial was arranged for a day Brazil was playing in the World Cup; the third because of a missing expert report. No other police were arrested or are sought over the other killings. Zinca, who is in jail awaiting trial, has denied wrongdoing.

After becoming one of very few to dare to testify against the police, Bianca was accepted into a witness-protection program. But she fled, and has since disappeared.

“She is a strong candidate to die,” Madalena said. “Goiás is a state without law and without respect for human rights. … Jesus would not have been born in Goiânia, but he would die here. Such is the rate of violence against the homeless.”

Murilo Polati, head of the homicide squad of the civil police in Goiânia.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

Until the arrest of Rocha last week, police were adamant that there was no serial killer or death squad behind the killings of the homeless or of the 15 young women shot by an assassin over the past year. (Those cases had previously been treated as unrelated.) “It was not the military police,” said civil-police homicide chief, Murilo Polati, about the Zinca case. “It was a military-police officer.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the military police denied any role of its officers in the killings. “There is no formal proof of the involvement of military police officers of Goiás in death squads,” the spokesman wrote. “The military police does not condone illegal behavior and is strict when it catches officers in breach of professional ethics. It is not in our interests to maintain officers who do not respect dignity or human rights.”

The vast majority of the deaths are due to drug gangs or fights between the homeless, according to the civil police. “As many as 80 percent,” Polati said. “A dead drug addict. Another dead drug addict. The motivation: the use and trafficking of narcotics.”

Polati said he had identified 18 other suspects; one, Maria de Lourdes Medeiros Lira, confessed and was convicted of one of the murders. None of the 18 are police officers. Of those who have had judicial proceedings started against them, many, including Lira, were once homeless themselves.

In another case that did make it to court, against Ronailson Santos Costa, a homeless man accused of the second of the murders, the prosecutor requested an acquittal because of the “flimsy” nature of the evidence. “It is no use to refer to the judiciary an inquiry with frail investigation just for the statistics,” Judge Jesseir Coelho de Alcântara told the court. “This is very dangerous, because it can lead to injustice.”

Then, last week, the civil police announced they had arrested Rocha, the hospital security guard who they said had confessed to killing 39, including eight of the homeless. But his lawyer, Thiago Vidal, then told reporters his client had been coerced into the confessions, without giving further details.

Two days later, following another interrogation, Vidal changed his mind. “At first I thought the police may have coerced him into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit, but he told the story of each death with such detail,” Vidal said.

Then, on Oct. 23, the civil police announced that Rocha had withdrawn his confessions in 10 of the killings. He was still admitting to killing the 15 women, the police said, but did not respond to a request to comment on how many of the remaining confessions related to the homeless.

The implications of Rocha’s arrest for the investigation of the killings of homeless remain unclear. Whatever happens, recent history in Goiânia suggests justice may be elusive.

In 2009, prosecutors in Goiâs became so concerned over a pattern of suspicious deaths involving military police that they requested an investigation by federal police. On that occasion, the request was granted.

Wiretaps were set up that shed light on the force’s inner workings. For instance, they revealed one policeman, Ederson Trindade, talking to his sergeant. “Let me tell you something, boss!” he says. “I kill. I kill for pleasure and satisfaction.”

An election poster riddled with mock bullet holes at the headquarters of Carlos Cézar Macário, a former subcommander of the military police once accused of running a death squad.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

Another recording is of Col. Carlos Cézar Macário, then the subcommander of the military police in Goiás and a former commander of ROTAM. Talking to a colleague about a thief who had been apprehended and allegedly killed by police, he said, “If we don’t kill a guy like that, we would become demoralized.”

The investigators concluded that Macário had led a death squad that had been active for a decade and had buried dozens of victims in secret graveyards. He was among 19 officers arrested by the federal police in 2011. Nearly four years on, however, only two have been tried in court, and both of those were cleared.

The others, including Macário, are still waiting for their court dates to be set, thanks to Brazil’s notoriously laborious judicial process. Macário is accused of murder, concealment of a corpse, conspiracy, torture, dereliction of duty, procedural fraud and illegal possession of a firearm with a restricted gauge. He has denied the allegations.

Macário, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, has since retired from the military police. When Al Jazeera America visited Goiânia, he was running for a deputy position in the Goiás state government, with the support of the governor. His election poster featured two fake bullet holes and bore the slogan “Against banditry, in defense of the family.”

A homeless man who told of being attacked, stands in the Matriz de Campinas church in Goiânia. He hid his face out of fear of revealing his identity.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

On the streets of Goiânia, the homeless gathered by the Matriz de Campinas church, where, on a secluded porch, an array of candles swayed in the wind. Paulo, 38, was there. He had a long memory. Thirteen years ago, he was shot at by police in Goiânia, he said. He fled, but three of his friends died.

Killings by police have always happened, he said. “There have always been death squads. But Goiânia now feels like checkmate for the homeless. “People are scared, very scared.”

After a short service on the steps of the church, priest Welinton Silva and his volunteers headed out to distribute the food they had prepared.

Down a deserted side street, where citrine street lamps illuminated piles of debris, Márcio, 38, sat alone. On a disintegrating mattress next to walls blackened by fire, he shivered in the evening heat. “Father, you brought trousers for me?” he begged. “I am cold.”

Priest Welinton Silva consoles Marcio, 38, a homeless, paralyzed man.
Rafael Fabres / Global Assignments by Getty Images for Al Jazeera America

He had drunk cachaça and taken “a little” crack, but nothing could cloak the childlike trepidation in his eyes. Paralyzed from the waist down, he could not walk or run.

“What do you want in life?” Father Welinton asked.

“I want not to die on the street,” Márcio replied.

Kneeling, the priest reached out to touch Márcio’s bedraggled hair fondly and began to sing a song, an echo of Christian childhood, and slowly Márcio began to sing too:

“It seemed impossible
“It seemed there was no way out
“It seemed to be my death
“But Jesus changed my luck
“I am a miracle and I am here…”

As the volunteers began to drive off, Márcio continued to murmur the tune in the darkness.

Mauro Graeff Júnior contributed reporting to this story.

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