Mateus' body was found near Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue
Police death squads have long been a black mark against Brazilian security enforcement.
Emerging under the military dictatorship of the 1960s, policemen and military personnel were paid by politicians and the business community to carry out extra-judicial killings of criminals, rivals or whiste-blowers.
Mostly the victims were gang members or their associates, and often innocent bystanders would be collateral damage or even targeted for being witnesses.
‘Esquadrao de Morte’ became less common in the 1990s as Brazil transitioned to democracy, but a version of them made a comeback in the 2000s as the state fought drug-related crime in the favelas.
Dropping crime rates and a (relatively) fairer social system saw them almost disappear entirely as Brazil’s economic boom took effect. All in keeping with the nation’s motto ‘Ordem e Progresso’ – or ‘Order and Progress’.
However, worrying claims were made that Death Squads were back in fashion, as police reacted to a pre-World Cup spike in crime by ‘cleaning up’ the favelas. The full figures are not known, but thousands of Brazilians ‘disappeared’ over the last 12 months, with Amnesty International suspecting police involvement.
So far at this World Cup, the favelas have been surprisingly welcoming, although much of that can be put down to an increased presence by the BOPE police, and of course good-natured locals seeking to exploit the tourism boom through legitimate business, renting out rooms, selling food and drink, offering basic services and generally being, well, normal. Because, and the films don’t tell you this, the vast majority of favela dwellers are ordinary, working Brazilians, the kind who serve you in restaurants and direct you on public transport.
During the World Cup, reports of violent incidents have been scarce. But a story has emerged, shocking both for its details, location and timing – in the hills just above Rio de Janeiro, the day before the finals started.
Two teenage boys, Mateus Alves dos Santos (14) and his friend, who can only be known as ‘M’ for reasons I will detail, were found with gunshot wounds in the woods not far from the peaceful city village of Santa Teresa, which lies at the top of the famous Selaron Steps.
Mateus was dead, ‘executed’ (words of the police, not mine), but ‘M’ incredibly managed to survive - shot in the back and leg - play dead, and escape.
And who are the alleged murderers? Two Rio policemen, Fábio Magalhães Ferreira, 35, and Vinicius Vieira Lima, 32, who reportedly work for a department specialising in young offenders, and have since been placed under arrest.
While 'M' cannot be identified, Mateus - deceased - has his family campaigning for justice.
As with many of these cases, the families insist their sons were not criminals and this time it appears to be the case - Mateus, certainly, had no record, no dealings with the police, and was a good student.
It took weeks for the story to come out, because the survivor – who does not want to be named and says he was picked up separately from the deceased – was so terrified he dared not go to the police, only seeking medical treatment. It was only after the family of Mateus reported him missing that ‘M’ came forward.
‘M’ found out who Mateus and his family were via Facebook: he saw the page and recognised the ‘missing’ boy as the youth shot alongside him. ‘M’ was then able to lead the homicide department to the body on the Sumare Hill, close to the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. Charges were then brought, and police are seeking a third, unidentified youth, who was also in the car but managed to escape before the shooting.
‘M’ does not wish to be named because that would require him seeking police protection. Despite the homicide force’s leadership formally investigating Mateus' murder and their son's assault, the surviving boy and his family understandably do not trust its foot-soldiers, particularly given there are several different police forces operating in Rio, some civil, some military, some local, some federal, some state. They do not always share motives and ideals.
Instead his family are focusing on specialist trauma care for the boy, returning him to physical and mental health so he can resume his education.
One man who will not let this lie is the father of poor Mateus, Virginio Thiago dos Santos.
The 35-year-old is determined to seek justice for his son, and doesn’t care who comes after him.
“What they did to my boy was pure evil,” he told Brazilian reporters, showing them his good school grades as evidence that this was an ordinary, hard-working youth and not a street criminal.
Homicide chief Barbosa insist his department will do all it can to bring his son’s killers to justice; ‘M’, as a witness, will testify in anonymity. The search for the third boy goes on.
It's a saga that has captivated locals, but has barely made a dent on the international press; it is hardly news outside of Rio. Such is life in a country where the police are believed to be responsible for at least 2,000 deaths per year.
So if you are in Brazil, and you indulge in a spot of carefree favela tourism, be wary of its cost.
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