In yet another incredibly shocking documentary in the Unreported World series, reporter Evan Williams and his colleague Paul Kittel – director and cameraman – travelled to the Brazilian city of Recife, a beach paradise that’s visited by thousands of British tourists every year.
There, they uncovered allegations that the police are involved in ‘death squads’ which murder thousands of ‘undesirables’, including hundreds of street children, every year.
Within minutes of the programme beginning, Evan and Paul were taken to the scene of the murder of an 18-year-old boy at the side of a street. Police officers told Evan that the murder was “an execution” – a close-range shot to the head, typical of many of the city’s thousands of murders each year…
The team then met with some of the city’s estimated 4,000 street children, some as young as ten, who are users of drugs, most predominantly crack though glue-sniffing is very common among them too. Whilst there, they also met with Demetrios, a social worker who claimed that he personally knows of around 600 street children who’ve been killed over the past few years, and of that number, he believed around 60% were murdered by police death squads.
While many of the murders are ‘execution’ style – the victim is forced to kneel then shot in the back of the head – others are more horrific and the victim’s are burned alive.
Demetrios works tirelessly to try to get these kids off drugs and into a more stable environment so they won’t be targets of the death squads, but his job is nigh on impossible given the poverty and violence that haunts that area of city, which is just minutes away from the coastal strip that’s diametrically opposite to the poverty in the slum area…
In the main coastal area – which is separated from the slum district by a bridge – wealth and tourism flourish, and it is this that the death squads are ‘protecting’ by killing young people who may or have been proven to be, committing crimes.
One of the young people Evan met in the sprawling city’s slums was Edivana who took him to her home where she lives with her parents, siblings, her own two children and eight other relatives in what amounted to a one roomed of a shack. She told Evan that she works as a prostitute and gets “£10 a go” which she said wasn’t enough to feed her and her children. She’s already been widowed twice; both her husbands were killed by the death squads because they were thieves.
She also told how young men who come from the area in which she lives have a hard time getting jobs, so to make money, they go out and steal. These young men are often the targets of the death squads who arrive in the early hours of the morning to take the ‘suspect’ into woodland where they are killed by a single shot to the head.
The team then talked with the Chief Detective of the local police department who told Evan that death squads are responsible for at least a third of the city’s murders and confirmed that serving police officers and ‘civil’ police officers are members of these squads. He claimed that he and many of his colleagues are wholly opposed to the activities of the death squads and in fact, try to protect vulnerable street kids when they can.
He took Evan down to the cells where a young man was being held in protective custody after fleeing a death squad known as the Thundercats. “The Death Squads can kill you for anything – a drug debt, a robbery – they have been around since I was a child” the young man said.
While Evan and Paul were at the Homicide headquarters, reports of another murder came in and one of the officers who’d attended the scene showed him a picture of the victim lying dead. He was the third victim that week who’d been found in the “kneeling position” and shot.
The team then travelled to the outskirts of the city to visit with that particular murder victim’s family. His mother Albetina wept as she told Evan that she had nothing to stay for now that her son was dead. She told him that no-one from the police had asked her any questions nor had there been any investigation into the killing.
“The evil is everywhere” she said, “It’s so hard to deal with the loss of a son, I haven’t even told his children yet. I now have nothing here.”
On their way back to the city, their driver pointed out an electronic sign at the side of the road that revealed the ‘running total’ of murders in the city; there’d been 5 just that day and a total of 1,174 in the first three months of the year, making this city the murder capital of the world.
Eduardo Machado leads the group of activists who erected the sign. The ‘PE Body Count’ group campaigns to stop the death squads who Eduardo says operate with impunity and added, “I call it social cleansing because the people being killed are normally black, they’re poor and they’re from the slums that surround the city. They have become what I call ‘the killables’.”
He added that the police are “issuing their own justice” because the justice system in Brazil is totally dysfunctional. The law states that if a suspect is arrested, he cannot be detained indefinitely so he’ll be released until his trial, which can take up to ten years. It is these people who are also targeted by the death squads who don’t want a suspected criminal out on the streets – and therefore liable to be committing further crimes – while awaiting trial.
This was confirmed when Evan and Paul went on a “crack house” raid with police. The police wanted the team to see that they are trying to tackle the drugs problem and those involved and “not just leaving it to the death squads.”
The head of the operation told him they’d found only eight suspects and little evidence of drugs or weapons. The reason for this, he explained, was that once a warrant is issued for the arrest of an individual, by law, a defence attorney has to be notified, so the person is warned that the police are coming and obviously, will most often disappear. This though leaves them vulnerable to the rapid and fatal ‘justice’ issued by the death squads.
Evan then arranged a clandestine meet with a death squad member who revealed that he’s a serving police officer and that he has personally killed about thirty or forty people. He says he’s performing a “social service by cleaning up the ‘scum’” because the justice system is failing. When Evan asked him if it was true that the government and the police are trying to rid the city of the death squads, he agreed that it was true to some degree, however he himself didn’t fear arrest because at times, he kills alleged criminals on the orders of his superiors in the police force.
“This is how it works…” he said. “The senior police officer will call us in. In the course of that meeting he says there is a guy we want you to kill and we want it done, say, by Friday. We go and do the job, so, a lot of police are involved.”
He also told Evan that his group will kill anyone if the price is right. They’ll kill journalists, politicians, rapists, robbers; anyone at all, but the price varies. They don’t earn much, if anything, for killing a street kid.
The team then went back to the area where they’d originally met Demitrios and the street kids which by day, is a bustling market. There he met with the man who runs the market who revealed that he and his associates pay five or so men to patrol the area at night and to “intimidate and beat up” any street kids who – during the day – may have stolen from the vendors at the market. He added though that many of these hired men “go much further.”
It’s common, he said, for a shopkeeper to pay a death squad to murder someone who’s stolen from them.
The team later interviewed a state prosecutor who told them that just 3% of the city’s homicide cases ever get to trial and that 50% of all the murders committed are carried out by death squads, which he confirmed include police officers who feel they have to “take the law into their own hands.”
Back on the wealthy beach strip, Evan and Paul were called to yet another murder scene. Police officers at the scene said the dead boy had allegedly stolen a laptop from a woman who reported him to the police. He was later found dead on the beach.
“Middle-class people often hire death squads to kill those they suspect of stealing from them” one officer told Ewan. “This fits the pattern. It’s most likely a death squad killing.”
Another murder was soon reported and the team filmed as the body of a murdered teenager, William, lay in a school playground where he’d been playing football. William was an ex-convict and suspected to have been involved in gang activity and it is this, the police told Evan, that probably led to his death at the hands of a death squad.
As they were filming, Evan commented on how the dozens of onlookers were acting as though this was an “everyday event”, and of course for them, it is.
Yet again, an Unreported World team had put themselves in significant danger to bring us this documentary, and as I’ve noted with previous episodes, it seems wholly inappropriate to give this programme a time slot of only 25 minutes and to show it at a time when Coronation Street is also on.
These men and women are literally risking their lives to bring some of the world’s ‘dirtiest secrets’ out into the open, so why, oh why, are they given so little time – and such an inappropriate time slot – to do so??
However, as always with Unreported World, this was a shocking but well investigated documentary where ‘real’ journalism was at the heart of the programme. Evan and Paul visited with ‘all sides’ of this problem, from the street kids who are in danger to those responsible for putting them in that danger and the authorities who are supposed to be trying to stop these deaths, and kudos to them for doing so.
They’re really brave, and as I said, they’re literally risking their own lives by often going into places where journalists are most definitely not welcome.