Bullet to Brazil

Luke McLeod-Roberts
11 September 2009

José Luiz Faria da Silva lays them out in rows on the table before himself - like dominoes. Their copper and zinc cases glisten in the bright midday sun. "Objects that are made to destroy lives," he says sullenly as he reaches inside a box for another 7.62mm bullet cartridge.

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The "headstamp marking", a code indicating place of manufacture on the base of a cartridge case, indicates that this one was produced in Argentina. This casual labourer and father of two collected these cartridges and bullets from the street outside his home. Produced in Europe, North and South America, they are the refuse of shoot-outs between police and local drug trafficking gangs in Conjunto Amarelinho, Acarí - the Rio de Janeiro favela, or shanty-town, in which he lives. The bullet which killed this man's two-and-a-half year old son, Maicão, as he played outside his home thirteen years ago might have been encased in a cartridge much like this one he handles. In a bid to mark the fact that nobody has been brought to justice for the boy's murder, he will use this material to construct a 1m high sculpture to Maicão's memory, naming it the "Statue of Impunity".

José Luiz Faria da Silva. Photo: Luke McLeod-Roberts. All rights reserved.

"It was 15th April 1996, 4.45 in the afternoon, school home time," he recalls in language resembling a police report. "Five military police from the Rocha Miranda police battalion entered the community. At a crossroads with an alley-way they stumbled upon five or six drug traffickers and in this encounter one of the traffickers protected the other four or five, entered the alley-way and fired at the police, who returned fire. [One police officer] put just his machine gun inside the alley-way and fired in a fan movement and spilled out [bullets] where Maicão, hat in hand, was three metres away from the door to the yard. He died instantly with a shot to the face." The justice system claim there was insufficient evidence to make a case for the police officer's conviction. But Da Silva contradicts this. He says that there had been bullet holes in a wall close to the crime scene - but that so much time has passed that the wall has now been bulldozed. He also imagines that there were witnesses but that fear prevents them from coming forward. He claims to have personally received two death threats from the police for demanding the killer be brought to justice - the most recent last year. "The third time they will kill me," he says stoically.

Since the 1970s gangs have become increasingly pervasive in Rio's shanty-towns - home today to around 2 million people or 20 per cent of Greater Rio. They provide "quick money" and social status for some of the city's poorest inhabitants and lock the communities in which they operate in a cycle of dependence and violence. Because of the confrontational attitude favoured by successive governments to deal with the city's chronic public security problem, 13 years after Maicão's death Rio's communities continue to be caught in the crossfire between gangs and police.

The total number of people shot dead nationwide fell by 12 per cent from around 39,400 in 2003 to 34,648 in 2006 as a result of a gun amnesty, stricter controls on the possession of arms and improved police intelligence. But guns are still responsible for massive numbers of deaths in Rio - Brazil's former capital and its second largest city. The Legal Medical Institute (IML), whose duty it is to perform autopsies on all murder victims, estimates that its branch in downtown Rio examined 9,000 corpses in 2007 - the majority of them being gunshot victims.

The IML liaises closely with the Carlos Ebolí Criminal Institute (ICCE), which is charged with analysing all material covered from crime scenes. However, this analysis doesn't always happen for two reasons, says Alexandre Giovanelli, one of its forensic experts. "Firstly in cases of the [police] invasion of a favela it is not [always] possible to isolate the scene of the crime - people who live there pick up vestiges as a souvenir. Secondly, we lack equipment in Rio - we have no autonomy from the police, there's no separate budget," he says. "We're more behind [the rest of Brazil] although Rio is one of the states that most needs this assistance."

In developed economies that have suffered significant gun-related gang violence, such as the US, bullets and cartridge cases recovered from a crime scene can be automatically cross-matched against those on file via an Integrated Ballistic Identification System (IBIS) database. This allows investigators to quickly determine the origin of the armaments used and hence help trace the killer. The ICCE had an IBIS machine but it broke several years ago and so this technology is unavailable. At least in theory that's the case. "The ideal would be to do the same procedure for everyone, but we don't," laments Giovanelli. Exemplifying the unequal access to justice in death as well as life, he adds that when there are "political repercussions" the Governor's office will use its power to ensure access to the appropriate technology.

So while official data points to a drop in the number of firearms-related murders, this must be understood in the context of data produced from an under-resourced public sector reflecting a deeply unequal society. And this investigation has shown through interviews with forensic experts, police, NGOs, doctors, grassroots organisations, former gang members and favela residents, that those arms available to gangs may be increasingly destructive, relatively easy to obtain and often sourced from abroad - flouting both Brazilian laws and international agreements.

Heavy arms

Round in hand. Photo: Luke McLeod-Roberts. All rights reserved

Around the time that Maicão was killed Chinaider Pinheiro, a tall, athletically-built man with a goatee and a charming laugh, started a career as a drug baron. A former member of the Red Command (CV) - Rio's oldest narco-trafficking gang - he ran a boca de fumo, or drug den, armed with the infamous 7.62mm calibre assault rifle known as the AK-47. He remembers his first one of these well. It was a Korean model. "I used every arm but I always liked the AK-47 because it's a war arm and drug trafficking is a war in which you have to survive. To protect yourself you have to have the most potent arm so I had an AK-47 in which I deposited all of my strength. There are a lot of them around - there's always a way of getting hold of them," he adds.

That period in the mid-1990s was a turning point in the development of Rio's informal gun market. It is believed that this is when, as domestic drug consumption grew, so did the gangs and their demand for increasingly high calibre arms like the AK-47. From 1993-2005 Dr. José Macedo ran Latin America's largest emergency ward at Souza Aguiar hospital in central Rio - an area with one of the highest murder rates of any part of the city.

"When I started working at Souza Aguiar in 1985, what you used to see in emergency wards were gunshot wounds from [lower calibre and lower speed] .22 and .38 revolvers. Surgery was like in the old western films in which the doctor would make an incision, take out there bullet and the patient would sometimes go home the same day", he recollects. "[But] since ten years ago or so, the number of gunshot victims that turned up at the emergency unit began to fall. But how can they fall, if you know that police statistics, even informal statistics, show that violence has actually increased over this timeframe?" He asks, before quickly responding himself. "Patients don't turn up alive at the hospitals any more because the use of higher calibre and higher speed arms means that they are dying in the street."

Rio's department for public security (SSP)'s crime analysis unit - the Institute for Public Security (ISP) - classifies arms according to their firepower. The most lethal types of small arms - rifles, submachine guns, machine guns and pistols - are designated "category A". Although the total number of arms seized fell from 5,799 in the first half of 2007 to 5,174 for the comparative period in 2008, category A type arms increased marginally as a proportion of total arms between these two periods. In the first six months of 2007 they were 23.4 per cent, while this had increased to 26.3 per cent during the first six months of 2008.

As a result of the relative prominence of these types of arms, Rio has become something of a "centre of excellence" in the study of the impact of these weapons on the human body. Lt. Col. Dr. Sérgio Sardinha is head of chest surgery at the military police hospital in Estácio, northern Rio, but also works at civilian hospitals like Souza Aguiar. "We've transferred war medicine to our line of medicine," he says as he gives me a computer tutorial in terminal ballistics which he uses with medical students. "There has been a massive evolution in terms of ballistic technology," Sardinha adds. "The bullet used to just be a piece of lead. But when high speed bullets [like the 7.62mm] hit the body, the bullet fragments and liberates energy over a greater area, making tissues explode. When bones are hit, they dislocate and function like a secondary projectile. Sometimes people die because of punctures caused by their own broken bones rather than the bullet itself", he says.

The potential cost of this kind of weaponry to Brazil's struggling public sector hospitals is massive. The Ministry of Health estimates that it spent R$40m (£12.8m) on in-patient treatment as a result of all gunshot wounds nationwide in 2006. That might not seem like a huge sum in itself but according to Dr.Macedo this is just the beginning of the economic and social cost of the ever-prevalent category A arms. In addition, he says, "there's the cost of rehabilitation, physiotherapy, psychological therapy and all the loss to the economy in terms of days not worked," - all costs which are much more difficult to quantify.

Again, these costs are disproportionately borne by the poor. William Alencar is a resident of the Favela do Timbau in the huge Maré complex. He is also a sociology graduate from

Rio's prestigious Catholic University (PUC), where he studied on scholarship, and now works as a teacher. He illustrates the intersection between poverty and insecurity with the following example from his own life.

"When I was an adolescent I was in a football team. Out of 15 people that were involved, 10 have since died. Out of the remaining five, I'm the only one to have studied at university. Violence itself hasn't increased [since then]," he believes. "Since the 1980s we have stories of violence. It's just that now there are heavier arms available and now violence has spread throughout the city. While the violence was within a space that wasn't affecting the Brazilian elite, that was fine. But when it started to arrive in the big streets, in the asfalto [asphalt - a synecdoche commonly used to refer to any urban areas outside the favelas], the [middle classes] started to get concerned."

Dr. Julio Noronha, another doctor who runs the emergency department at Bonsuccesso hospital that borders the Maré, says that even dead patients absorb the health sector's limited resources.

"When there's a confrontation between the police and the bandits the police remove the corpse and bring it here [to the hospital]. They don't need to do that - the bloke doesn't have a head - he's dead!" He says darkly. "They bring the body here just so we can pronounce it dead. There's already a horrible climate [here], the emergency ward is always full. Police arrive fully armed shouting "Body!" Everyone in the hospital wants to see because many hospital workers are from the [local] area, so [they gossip] and it breaks the routine of the hospital. The doctor has to stop what he's doing and fill out a form to send to the IML. The nurses unit has to get involved. On average this confusion takes up an hour and a half [from the working day]." 

Growing up with the gangs

Bicycle. Photo: Luke McLeod-Roberts. All rights reserved

Although nobody has ever been brought to justice yet for Maicão's murder, Da Silva received R$10,000 (£3,200) from the state government as a donation towards buying a plot of land. On that plot he built a simple one-up, one-down a few streets away from his current home. On the building's façade he has sketched the beginnings of a mural depicting the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. Upstairs hang mosaics he has made, in which the rounded face of Maicão peers out amid representations of negligent politicians and gun-toting police officers. Da Silva is creating a museum to the memory of his dead son and moreover a place where local children can play and educate themselves about the dangers of guns. Nursery stories and the misery of violent shoot-outs may seem like an unlikely concoction for young children. But in Rio's 800 or so favelas, childhood innocence and gun-fuelled violence intertwine with frightening regularity.

As he leads me through the community, we bump into one of his neighbours, Maria de Conceição, together with her five-year old granddaughter, Raine. The two adults exchange stories about the previous morning's "invasion" by the military police who were supposedly hunting out traffickers. In a bid to out-rival the heavily-armed gang members and demoralise the favela residents, whom they sometimes see as complicit, the police apparently used helicopters and shouted and swore at the residents. The grandmother says that she counsels Raine on how the little girl should protect herself when the familiar ‘ra-ta-ta-tat' reverberates off the walls of the shacks.

"I tell her: ‘If you hear gunfire keep with your back to buildings and run into the nearest house or shop!'" Says the woman, indignant that the daily insecurity they face means the advice she gives is not of a more mundane nature. The infant with hair in pink bunches simply stands by her grandmother's side licking an ice cream, as if her grandmother were in fact giving her instructions on not getting her hands sticky.

Nevertheless some argue that the tactic of confrontational policing premised upon bigger and better weapons than the gangs builds resentment in favela residents from an early age and desensitises children to the presence of arms.

"Arms no longer provoke fear in a population that is so used to bullets and the sound of gunfire," says peace activist Leonardo Pimentel from Jacarezinho favela, a few miles down the road. "Things you used to only see in Haiti, Gaza Strip or Iraq you see here now. There's a naturalisation of the presence of arms. When I was young every kid's dream was to be a police officer," he continues. "In the mind of young kids today the police are the enemy, because they killed their brother, their friend, their uncle. Their dream is to kill a police officer."

Support for the gangs is also generated by the money and status they afford a select few of their members, as well as those whom associate with them. Chinaider Pinheiro left the CV in December 2008 and now works in Afroreggae - an NGO specialising in alternatives to violence in the favelas.  But in his final months there he was earning R$32,000 (£10,200) per month. This is almost 100 times the minimum wage and typical income for the average favela residents. With this huge sum he claims he often dined on champagne and lobster and kept himself, his wife, children and 28 girlfriends in designer clothes. (An entourage which quickly dissipated once he decided to leave the CV, he points out).

It's a rival gang - the Third Command (TC) - that operates in Da Silva's favela in Conjunto Amarelinho. Despite the gang's involvement in the escalation of violence that led to his son's death, Da Silva is not overtly critical of its role. This may be partially out of fear, but instead he cites the fact that "We grew up with them and so we have a certain affection towards them even though even though we know that they are on the wrong path."

Father Luiz Antonio of the Catholic Church's grassroots organisation the Pastoral of the Favelas, which works to improve the quality of life for favela residents across Rio, dismisses the notion that most gangs would feel attached to the communities in which they operate. He argues that as the drug trade has increased, gangs have begun taking control of neighbourhoods with which they have no pre-existing ties. As a result the demand for ever more powerful arms is not fuelled just by the strategic questions of military survival, as Pinheiro has suggested, but also symbolic questions of dominating potentially hostile communities.

"Twenty years ago the bandits didn't show off their arms here there and everywhere. Nowadays they want to show who is in charge. It's not the state, it's them," he says poignantly - underscoring the fact that the Brazilian state does not enjoy a monopoly of force within its own borders. "Young girls used to want to go out with a successful pop singer - now they want to go out with a bandit. Here in Favela do Dique the daughter of a man who delivers the bread was involved with a bandit. The father told her, ‘You are not going to go out with him any more!' The daughter went and told this to the boyfriend who executed the father. It often doesn't matter whether the parents prohibit their daughters because they go and do this."

But it is often said that the guns are not produced in the favelas. One of Pinheiro's new colleagues at Afroreggae, Reginaldo Lima, is clear about where responsibility lies for the arms flooding Rio's streets. "It's not the criminal system, but the facility with which arms can be obtained commercially the world over," he says with a mixture of anger and conviction.

Global business

Mirror. Photo: Luke McLeod-Roberts. All rights reserved

The ICCE's Giovanelli would corroborate that assault rifles are readily available in Rio and come from all over. Together with Brazil's IMBEL MD-2 calibre 5.56mm and M964 calibre 7.62mm, the most common rifles the ICCE deals with are American Colt M16A2 calibre 5.56mm and AR-15 calibre 5.56mm and the Belgian FN FAL calibre 7,62mm.

According to the data available obtained for this investigation from the Rio Civil Police's Department for the Repression of Arms and Explosives (DRAE), which archives statistics on confiscated arms and ammunition, of the 5,674 arms seized by the police during the first 10 months of 2008, the origins of which were identified, 23 per cent were manufactured abroad. The most common source was the United States, followed by Italy, Argentina, Austria, Belgium and Germany - in that order. Particularly concerning given the urban context is the apprehension of grenades - 457 in 2008 of which 120 were produced abroad.

"Grenades appear here since the middle of the nineties," says Pablo Dreyfus, firearms research coordinator at the NGO Viva Rio. "The hand grenade is an excellent arm for urban combat, which is basically the type of combat that happens in Rio de Janeiro between traffickers and between police and traffickers."

Former head of the DRAE Delegate Carlos Oliveira rattles off the black market "prices" of a series of the most common guns. A 9mm pistol would cost R$3-3,500 (£955-1,115) and a .40 pistol $3,500-4,000 (£1,115-1,274), he says. While the larger R15 rifle with .223/ 5,56mm calibre R$15-20,000 (£4,777-6,369) and the 7.62mm is more expensive at R$35-40,000 (£11,146-13,739). He is keen to point out that effective policing has led to a reduction of supply and hence an increase in cost. But even now, that may not seem like a huge amount to shell out if you're making R$32,000 (£10,200) per month - untaxed.

However, former Rio military police ombudsman Coronel Ricardo Paulo Paúl says that low police wages mean that the value is not determined by the market but the individual deal struck between vendor and purchaser. "We have a major problem with misconduct in both the military and the civil police," he confirms. "Police have been caught holding on to arms they seize with a view to subsequently selling them on. Arms should be destroyed immediately by the army, but they go to the police depository and hang around there. You have to avoid stockpiling as much as possible - it creates possibilities for diversion," he says. An entry-level police officer earns less than R$1,000 (£318) per month (which is low compared with other states). But the endemic corruption is not simply a matter of pay. He also blames an institutional socialisation into corrupt practices and retribution for speaking out.

Alencar thinks that there are other explanations too. "The military [police] works 24 hour shifts and then has two days off. This favours their involvement in [irregular activities]. There's also the question of [their having the] power [over others] to do this."

One possible solution to the diversion of arms, which Paúl sought to implement as ombudsman was to force police to account for shots fired and publish the information in the military police's internal journal. He said this helped to control the police, assist in investigation if there were any irregularities and identify weak links in police competence. "I'm in favour of the police implementing more scientific procedures," he says. "[They can't act like the bandidos [bandits]."

The fact that a fifth of all arms seized are from abroad is particularly worrying given that Brazil has relatively strict legislation on the import of arms - a move which is both designed to protect its domestic arms industry from foreign competition and reduce the number of arms in circulation. The true proportion could be much higher, given the fact that many arms do not reach the police depository in the first place.

According to Dreyfus many of the arms on Rio's streets were manufactured in countries like the United States and subsequently exported legally to neighbouring countries including Bolivia and Paraguay from where they are smuggled over Brazil's largely unmanned 10,492 mile border by organised criminal networks. However, tightening of legislation in the US in 1996 on exports to Paraguay means that some of those arms sold on Brazilian streets may be re-trade of arms produced before that date.

This has led to some of the criminals having to look for alternative supply routes. "There's evidence of American arms bought in Miami by Brazilian and Paraguyan citizens that are then sent illegally [directly] to Brazil. It's very easy to buy semi-automatic assault rifles [like the AR-15] in the United States, especially in gun shows", he says.

But the ICCE's Giovanelli disputes the argument made by some that this is just re-trade. "The dates of fabrication of arms and ammunition are the most varied possible," he comments. "The ICCE receives anything from new arms and ammunition [made in] 2008, 2007 and 2006 to arms and ammunition that can be considered of historical importance." While the headstamp markings on the bullets and cartridge cases collected by Da Silva from his community include ammunition made as recently as 2007.

Crucially, the presence of foreign arms on Rio's streets is not just in violation of Brazilian law, it is also contrary to numerous international agreements which the countries that produced the arms signed up to. Those foreign countries that were the source of most confiscated arms in 2008 according to the DRAE - the United States, Italy, Argentina, Austria, Belgium and Germany - are all parties to the 2001 UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA) and the 2002 Wassenaar agreement, among other arms control agreements. The UN PoA is a series of recommendations for governments to follow to avoid illicit trade of small arms, such as "the use of effective end-user certificates and effective legal and enforcement measures." While the Wassenaar agreement says that signatory countries should avoid transfers of arms if there is a clear risk that they might be re-sold or re-exported or used to facilitate organised crime.

However, neither of these are binding agreements. Which is why groups such as Viva Rio, as well as Amnesty International and Oxfam, are campaigning for the implementation of a binding, universal Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), with substantial penalties for its violation. The principle of an ATT has received support from a majority of countries in the UN, which has mandated the creation of a working group charged with helping lay the groundwork.

Dreyfus argues that there is no single solution, highlighting instead a number of measures including the need for Europeans to "not export to countries where there is the possibility of diversion" and for Americans "to prohibit or limit the sale of assault rifles to civilians (they would be doing a favour to themselves at the same time)," he adds. "Everything should be done simultaneously and in a coordinated fashion within Brazil and with its neighbours, principally harmonising legislation and bilaterally controlling its implementation."

Struggle for justice

Mural. Photo: Luke McLeod-Roberts. All rights reserved

His son may have been killed thirteen years ago but the events of that April day continue to impact upon Da Silva's life. The stress of his ongoing campaign led to the end of his marriage with Maicão's mother - Maria da Penha Da Souza Silva. She felt that he had become dangerously obsessed with the struggle for justice and feared reprisals for both of them. Nobody could deny that this is a struggle he literally wears on his chest. He is often seen sporting a t-shirt dirty with the toil of his labour as a construction worker on which is drawn the image of Maicao's round toddler face.

Having retrieved cartridges made by CBC in Brazil, FLB in Argentina, CCI and S&W in the United States and S&B in the Czech Republic (all of which are commonly found in Rio according to the ICCE) Da Silva is conscious of the international dimension of the problem still played out today amid the ramshackle huts of his neighbourhood. To try and curb this he would like to see the armed forces deployed to Brazil's borders to reduce smuggling. But with basic human development indicators in places like Acarí appallingly low, he also mentions the need for "investment in education, health and security."

However, the boy's father adds that overall he wants justice, not vengeance, and that his survival so far is down to Saint George's protection. His wife may, with good grounds, question his ability to achieve that goal. But he must personally derive strength from the fact that given the scale of the problem that he is fighting - a complex mesh of institutionalised corruption, entrenched poverty and violence and the failure of foreign arms-producing nations to honour the agreements they have signed - that he believes his guardian to be a figure who courageously fought a mammoth, fire-breathing beast. And won.

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