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SALVADOR DA BAHIA, Brazil – As Salvador was kicking off Carnival, Brazil’s biggest party, earlier this month, a somber event was taking place in a poor neighborhood far from the gaudy music-blaring floats and drunken revelers.
Witnesses said they last saw the 12 Cabula residents at around 3 a.m. on Feb. 6 of last year being led by a military police officers down a hill toward an empty dirt field surrounded by trees. Gunshots were heard, and shortly after the police were seen putting bodies in a truck and leaving the neighborhood. All of them were young, black and lived in the community.
The media reaction was swift and unapologetically one-sided. Salvador television news programs glorified the killings and praised the police involved as “heroes.” The state of Bahia’s most widely circulated newspaper and most popular television stations, all owned by influential right-wing politicians, demonized the dead as criminals.
Hours after the shooting, Rui Costa, the state governor of the ruling Workers Party, praised the actions taken in Cabula, likening the police officers involved to soccer stars.
“It's like a striker in front of the goal trying to decide, in seconds, how he is going to make the goal," Costa told journalists and hundreds of police officers in an event unveiling the state government’s plans to provide security for Carnival. “If it was a great goal, all the fans from the stands will clap and the scene will be repeated several times on television. If the goal is lost, the scorer will be condemned.”
The Brazilian police force is one of the deadliest in the world. Brazil’s population is 50 percent smaller than that of the United States, but the Brazilian police has killed more people in a recent five-year span than U.S. police killed in the last 30 years. According to Amnesty International, 80 percent of those killed by police in Brazil are young, black and poor. Salvador da Bahia, the state capitol of Bahia and the third-largest city in Brazil, has the largest concentration of black Brazilians in the country.
“The numbers are equivalent to a country at war,” said Hamilton Borges, a black liberation leader and founder of the anti-police violence movement Reaja ou Sera Morta, meaning “React or Die.” “In Brazil, and especially in Bahia, it is dangerous to be black.”
Mass police killings, like the one in Cabula, happen almost daily in Bahia, the predominately Afro-Brazilian state. But the activism that followed set the case apart from the rest.
“There were tons of testimonies and eyewitness accounts, very much due to the efforts of the Reaja ou Sera Morta movement, which painted a very different and obvious picture from the police propaganda,” said Christen Smith, an anthropologist from the University of Texas who has documented countless police murders over the last 15 years.
While working on her dissertation, which looked at black cultural resistance in Bahia, Smith discovered a long pattern of police homicides and impunity. But what happened in Cabula took that behavior to a new extreme.
“The police straight out lied, invented lies to go along with their media campaign,” Smith said. “We know from the autopsies [that] the boys were executed on their knees with their hands over their heads. The police said they were robbing a bank…We know that was a lie, according to eyewitness accounts. The police case fell apart at the abhorrent evidence of a massacre and their cover-up.”
The military police claimed the Cabula 12 were involved in an elaborate plot to rob a local back and were killed in the midst of a fierce gunfight. But the autopsies reported no gunpowder was traced on the hands of the victims.
Days after the massacre, protests erupted in slums throughout Salvador. Family members broke their silence and spoke to the media. During the carnival, a popular Afro-bloco group staged a die-in honoring Cabula and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. Countless murals dot the city with the words: “We will never forget those killed in Cabula.” And last August, Reaja ou Sera Morte organized an emotional rally at the site of the killings. Reaja labels the rate at which police kill Afro-Brazilians a black genocide.
But the calls for justice have so far gone unanswered. In Brazil, only 2 percent of all criminal cases involving police officers reach trial, and just 1 percent end in convictions. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the Cabula 12 were executed, a judge known to be sympathetic to the military police exonerated all nine of the officers involved.
Despite the court’s decision, Reaja continues to fight for Cabula, even as death threats against the leadership and Reaja members intensify.
“This is a white government, made for white people to control the majority black. For them when their police kill us, they consider it cleaning the city of its black population,” Borges said. “But as long as we far outnumber them, we will continue to fight for our liberation and justice. For us, it’s either we react, or be killed.”