“Piled Like Dead Dogs On the Floor of the Coroner’s Office”

American police are among the most homicidal in the world, killing an average of about a thousand people a year-far more than any other developed country. But Brazil’s militarized police forces put the Americans to shame, killing twice as many people in a country with a much smaller population. As in America they are, in general black and poor. Here, a neighborhood in Brazil’s third largest city reels under the impact of a February massacre of a dozen lower class youths-and the local government’s nochalant reaction to it:

The city of Salvador is actually less wet than usual on this late April afternoon. With the sun coming and going, it had been raining since noon, more of a worry than a relief for Marina de Oliveira. “Let me go check if the water got into my house”, she says, waving to those present and disappearing amidst the houses of Vila Moisés, in the Cabula neighborhood of Salvador’s capital.

When she returns, the 57 year old seamstress explains that the rain hasn’t affected her home, and that her 10 and 13 year old grandchildren are ok. The safety of Nailson and Naiara has become De Oliveira’s obsession since her other grandson, Natanael, age 17, was killed during a controversial police operation that left a dozen dead and 5 wounded back in February. The dead ranged in age from 16 to 26; all had been shot by police.

“What kind of policeman would be capable of breaking someone’s arm to the point of leaving an open fracture?”, De Oliveira asks, with her prescription glasses on and her hair tied back in a messy bun. She suddenly becomes disconcerted and stands up. Only after she permits herself to sob for a moment she is able to slow down her speaking to a normal pace. Marina says that on the night of February 5th, her grandson left their home to get a pizza and meet with his girlfriend Simone. He never came back. She would only see her grandson again in a photo taken by the coroner’s office that an acquaintance showed her on her cell phone.

“He was wearing blue shorts I had sewed for him,” she says. “That’s how I was able to recognize him, through the label I had sewn onto the shorts. She states that she saw Natanael “lying on the ground like a dog”, with an open fracture on his arm, surrounded by other corpses in the coroner’s office.“After that my vision became blurry. I went crazy and started to scream…”.

It has now been three months since Natanael and eleven other youths were killed in Cabula. Their case quickly seized national media attention, first because of the large number of people killed and severely wounded right before the start of Carnival. Equally important, though, were the immediate demonstrations organized by the relatives of the victims in protest of the way the state’s governor, Rui Costa [of the governing Workers’ Party]publicly characterized the event, and against the police inquiry, which at first claimed that there had been a “confrontation” with alleged bank robbers.

Only hours after the deaths, Costa compared the policemen to “soccer strikers” who, when they are “in front of the goal” have only seconds to decide how to react. The governor’s use of a soccer metaphor in this context was shocking to activists and relatives of the dead youths, though the killings took place in a state where police violence is often on the headlines of newspapers.

According to the Brazilian Yearbook of Public Safety, 11,197 people were killed by the Brazilian police over the past five years. Police in Bahia rank third in the country in killings; according to the Yearbook, there were 234 deaths here due to “confrontations” in 2013, though the State Public Security Department lists only 13.

Amnesty International issued a statement based on interviews with those involved, which spoke of “signs of execution.” The black citizens’ rights organization Reaja Ou Será Morto [React Or Be Killed] also organized demonstrations against the governor. They have demanded protection for witnesses to the crime, and helped organize demonstrations for the Cabula Twelve, who they say were simply executed. “It’s the banality of evil, ” says Hamilton Borges, a member of the organization. “The lives of black people have no value because nobody complains about their deaths.”

A week after the murders, a member of Amnesty International monitored a demonstration that took place in Vila Moisés. “The event was surrounded by the police, which at various moments threatened and intimidated the demonstrators, including our representative”, says Amnesty’s Renata Neder. “According to the information we’ve received, since then the police have made frequent rounds in the neighborhood with the intent of intimidating the residents, so they’ll feel threatened.”

The fact that the policemen involved in the case are still working, and in the same neighborhood, as if nothing had happened, is a source of severe anguish for the victims’ relatives. “Those policemen now have psychological assistance, but they keep working because the investigations are still going on and nothing has been proved against them” the Bahia State Public Security Department told El PAÍS.

The biggest issue with this, according to Amnesty International, is that it contaminates the investigations. Since the death of the Cabula Twelve, three investigative procedures have been opened: a military police inquiry, an investigation by the civil police, and a criminal investigative procedure opened by the Bahia prosecutor’s office.

According to this newspaper’s investigation, the military police inquiry’s findings will state that there was a confrontation between those policemen and the Cabula Twelve. The police and the State Public Security Department have previously claimed that they seized weapons and explosive liquids, supporting their hypothesis that the group, comprised of 30 individuals according to the police, offered armed resistance once they realized that their plans to rob a bank had failed.

Contradicting this story, activists and the relatives of the deceased say, are that the macabre results of the police operation – which left twelve civilians dead and five wounded, while only one policeman was grazed by a bullet–and the autopsy reports published by Correio da Bahia newspaper. According to the newspaper, most of the victims were shot more than five times each, with the trajectory of the bullets indicating some of them were fired from above, which is a clear sign of execution.

Furthermore, some of the victims had bullet holes on the palm of their hands, arms and forearms, and only four of them had traces of gunpowder on their hands. The autopsy reports indicate that most of them were shot at least five times – and some of those shots were fired at very close range, less than a meter and a half away from the victims.A source connected to the investigation told Correio da Bahia that shots like this indicate that the victims were killed while in defense positions, “a further sign that what happened here was an execution.”

“They will keep defending the thesis of confrontation, just like every police force does in cases like this”, says congressman Jean Wyllys of the Solidarity Party of Rio de Janeiro (PSOL-RJ), “despite the fact that the autopsy and eye-witness reports, as well as the victims biographies say otherwise.” Wyllys believes the Cabula deaths highlight an urgent need to “take the focus away” from a fixation on human rights violations in Rio and São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest cities.

Activists and relatives of the victims have hope that the prosecutor’s office will contradict the police inquiry and properly charge the policemen who were involved. “You can be sure that society will get an answer for this”, says Davi Gallo, coordinator of the team that is investigating the case for the prosecutor’s office. The conclusions reached by the group, amassed in a 200-page volume, were sent this week to state chief prosecutor Márcio Fahel.

“The Public Prosecutor’s Office will have the last word in this case, and society can be sure it will be given sufficient answers”, Gallo says. “It is presumed that most of them were there dealing drugs”, says the prosecutor, apparently in shock over the police’s first version that the group was preparing to rob a bank.Gallo says he has “begged” unsuccessfully to have access to the witnesses’ statements, and affirms that this is due to pressure from the region’s drug lords. “Crime, with or without a uniform, is plaguing our society”, he concludes.

“If the police say my son was a drug dealer, I’m going to file complaints to everyone, from president Dilma [Roussef] down to my councilman. I will demand evidence”, cries in rejection Marina, Natanael’s grandmother, who raised him as her son. “I won’t stop even if I get shot. Even if those kids were doing something wrong, the police had no right to do what they did”, she says.

Unlike Marina, Adelaide, a 54 year old retired woman, can barely speak, and doesn’t move much. She cries slowly as she talks about her 26 year old son killed by the police in Cabula. She prefers using a pseudonym and fears for her oldest son. “I’ve spent the day with a headache from thinking that they’ve changed the locations of the bus stops here after what happened”, she says with anguish, But like Marina, she hopes that the police version of the fact won’t prevail over the truth.

“The way they’ve put it, saying those kids were dealing drugs…”, she comments about the police accusations. “I consider that they’ve killed my son twice because of the slander.”

To Adelaide, living in this part of Cabula means to constantly wait for the next police raid. “They arrive here calling people names and shooting their guns to the air. One day my brother-in-law was in his balcony while my sister was sewing some purses someone had ordered. He had to lie on the ground for cover because of a [police]shooting.” She seems unable to forget the image of her son’s corpse. Right before the murder, she says, he had gotten off work with a delivery company.

Marina says the only time she can get her dead grandson out of her mind is when she is focusing on making forms for her sewing: “The cruelty is what hurts the most. I can’t sleep anymore. During the day I don’t think of him much because and I don’t have time for it. I spend my days cutting fabrics, making molds and sewing, so I don’t have time to keep reminiscing. But come noon, and I’ll remember his favorite lunches… It hurts so much that I can’t bring myself to cook his favorite foods anymore.Nothing.I’ll do the opposite of what he liked, so I won’t remember the fact. And then, suddenly, a thought pops into my head: Has he eaten already?”

Flavia Marreiro Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard