Group exposes homicide rate in Brazil's deadliest city

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Associated Press Writer

RECIFE, Brazil (AP) -- Ines Maria da Silva stares blankly outside her shack as she describes how she lost all five of her sons to the violence that makes Recife the deadliest major city in Brazil.

The first son died 15 years ago, in a fight over a girl, another after telling a mob he didn't want a pedophile lynched on his doorstep. The third was stabbed while arguing with a friend and the fourth was shot dead, mistaken for a thief.

Her last remaining son was felled by a stray bullet as he joined Recife's famed carnival celebrations a year ago.

"I just want to understand, how come no one is punished?" said the diminutive, 68-year-old widow, who now cares for six grandchildren and three unemployed daughters and collects cans, bottles and garbage to feed her pigs in Recife's squalid Coque shantytown.

"There are people here who just kill for fun," da Silva explained. "Two of the men who killed my sons are my neighbors. If I had somewhere to go I would have moved out a long time ago."

This seaside city, a favorite of European tourists, gets much more attention for the shark attacks that have killed 18 people since 1992 than for its human killings -- at least 2,617 in the metropolitan area last year. While tourists are warned not to take valuables to the beaches, as in most Brazilian cities, little is said about the murder rate mostly because the violence largely stays in the poor areas.

While Rio de Janeiro's bloody drug war makes international headlines, this balmy city of 1.5 million has a homicide rate of 90.9 per 100,000 -- more than twice as deadly as Rio, according to the Latin American Technological Network's Map of Violence.

Now, a group of local crime reporters is working to show the human cost of the death toll.

"For 10 years we've been writing the same story, all that changes are the names of victims and the killers and the authorities giving the excuse of the moment," explains Joao Valadares. "It's only going to change when people become aware of the situation, not just when it arrives at their door, but when they realize these are people who are dying."

Valadares and three colleagues have launched, featuring a death-toll counter updated daily with details of murders across Pernambuco state. As of April 21, this year's count stood at 1,403 and rising. They are working with another Web site that uses Google Map technology to mark the location of each murder with a little red flag.

The group also used red paint to mark the bodies at a month's worth of crime scenes -- 80 in October alone. And on April 30, the group plans to inaugurate a body count clock on one of Recife's busiest avenues -- Rua Joaquim Nabuco.

"What's going on here is effectively social cleansing," explains Eduardo Machado, one the group's founders. "The vast majority of victims share the same profile: poor, black men between 15 and 30 living in the outskirts and killed by a .38 revolver."

More than 40 percent of the murders are committed by death squads -- clandestine groups of off-duty and former police officers who are dedicated to executing undesirable elements -- according to Jose Luiz Ratton, a sociologist who advises the governor on violence.

Other motivations include rural machismo -- a culture of honor and revenge killings, Ratton says.

"In Rio de Janeiro the problem is organized crime," he explains. "Here the problem is disorganized crime."

Ratton has compiled a plan on how the state government might begin to combat the violence, but little of it has been implemented so far.

The killings are front-page news only on the rare occasions when middle- or upper-class people are killed. But each night's carnage is fodder for the city's three wildly popular TV crime shows, whose announcers compete to narrate the details with a mixture of indignant bombast and gory glee.

The TV crews won't go to the scenes until police have arrived, for fear of being attacked. And shantytown dwellers don't volunteer many details to outsiders.

"Here if you know too much, you die," explains a man who would only provide his nickname "Biscoito," or biscuit, as he watched the journalists refreshing a faded red silhouette.

This "law of silence" is a frustrating reality for police inspector Cleonice Bezerra de Araujo, a 24-year veteran who deals with between three and 11 murders a night as she runs the city's homicide task force.

"Sometimes if it's a child who's killed or a woman, a mother, it will still shake me up. But the sad thing is you get used to it," she explains after a mostly fruitless half hour trying to discover how 35-year-old Aldivan Joaquim dos Santos ended up dead on the sidewalk.

Crowds of onlookers gather and kids on bicycles swerve to avoid dos Santos' body, spread-eagled on the sidewalk. But even the victim's wife claims she saw nothing.

An hour earlier, Araujo was investigating the killing of a man hacked to death with a machete in a mud hut on the outskirts of town. Neighbors there claimed they didn't know the victim, and couldn't even say how many people lived in the hut with him.

The only lead came as a rumor -- that the man had been arrested days earlier for stealing some fruit, casting suspicion on local vigilantes known informally as the "whistle squad."

But like 90 percent of the murders in Recife, Araujo says the case won't get more than the most cursory investigation. The killers will probably never be found, much less punished.

State security secretariat spokesman Joaquim Neto acknowledges the murder rate is high but points out that murders so far this year are down 6 percent, which he attributes to his department's success in dismantling 13 death squads.

He also argues that Recife's murder rate is high compared to other cities only because his department counts them more accurately. "Other states don't count police killings as murders or sometimes they count seven people murdered in a single incident as just one killing," Neto said. "We don't do that."

That's cold comfort for Ines Maria da Silva.

"The police don't do anything about the violence -- maybe they throw people in jail but when those people get out of jail they have no right to work, so they rob," she said, wearily eyeing her neighbors and kids playing in the muddy street.


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