Beware of the scaremongers

The beach at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro.

The beach at Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro.

This column apppeared in Arab News on June 05, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazil is constantly being criticized by outsiders who love poking holes in the reputation of the country. With record unemployment, two digit annual inflation, the worst performing economy in the first semester of 2016, the ongoing impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, and ongoing outbreaks of dengue and Zika viruses, there are plenty of negative things to criticize in the country.

But it is when exaggeration gets the best of people’s criticism that one cannot stand still and not rectify their wildly inaccurate utterances. Two recent pronouncements come to mind: One was a petition that was signed by 150 prominent doctors and scientists warning that the Rio Olympics in August had to be canceled or moved elsewhere because of the risk of the Zika virus being picked up by participants in the sporting event and then spreading the disease around the world. The other pronouncement was that the violence in Rio de Janeiro was so acute that foreigners should just stay away from the Olympics if they wanted to remain alive.

The signatories of the petition said that the Zika epidemic was very severe in Rio de Janeiro; that the disease was recently found to be more dangerous than previously thought, and that Rio’s public health infrastructure was already overwhelmed and would not be able to deal with the larger number of cases during the Olympics.

The World Health Organization did not agree with the dire warnings, saying, “Canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.” It noted that Brazil was among 60 countries where the virus was present, and that there was no public health justification for postponing or canceling the games.

The worried doctors and scientists claim that the 500,000 foreign tourists expected at the Rio Olympics will be perfect carriers of the virus back to their home countries. But a Cambridge University professor disagreed in a BBC interview, saying that August is the coolest month in Rio due to it being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, which will consequently cause a decrease in the reproduction of the mosquitoes that transmit the virus.

While Rio de Janeiro has an unfortunate reputation of being violent and crime-ridden, the security situation has greatly improved over the past 10 years, with heavy police patrols in the tourist areas such as Copacabana. Even so, the International Business Times ran a scare-mongering story this week claiming that 41,000 deaths a year in Brazil are due to firearms, and that 21 cities out of a recent study of the 50 most violent cities in the world are in Brazil. These figures may be true, but it is also true that most of this violence is being done by poor people against other poor people.

To beef up security in Rio during the Olympics, the Brazilian government will be deploying 38,000 military personnel to patrol the most dangerous parts of the cities and an additional 47,000 security forces from the civil, military and federal police as well as Civil Defense and National Force members.

Brazil is not a paradise of non-violence and vibrant health, but it is not the hellhole that many foreign observers make it out to be. It would be a shame if their negative scaremongering manages to scare away tourists that are thinking of visiting Brazil during the Olympics or afterward. It is a beautiful and friendly country that deserves to be visited by as many foreigners as possible.

Alarming murder rates just 40km from Brasília

THE Brazilian TV show Fantástico revealed on Sunday night that the murder rates in four cities just 40 kilometers from the country’s capital Brasilia are twice the national average of 24.5 victims per 100,000 inhabitants. Shockingly, these cities are only beaten by Honduras, considered the most violent country in the world.

Novo Gama, Luziania, Aguas Lindas and Valparaiso are all approximately 40 kilometers from Brasilia and have grown much in recent years as escalating living costs in Brasilia and the Federal District have pushed more and more of the poorer populations into the adjoining state of Goias, where living costs are much more affordable. This has led to an overcrowding of schools and hospitals in these cities, with Novo Gama not even having a public hospital of its own. It has also concentrated violence in these urban areas.

The murder rate in Luziania is more than double the national rate at 71.4 victims per 100,000 inhabitants, while in Valparaiso the rate is a shocking 75.97 victims per 100,000. In comparison, the most violent country in Europe is Turkey with 18.4 murders per 100,000, and the most peaceful are France with .8 murders per 100,000 and Norway with only .53 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

These cities on the edges of the Federal District have always demanded financial support from the federal capital for their security, schools and hospitals, arguing that this helped stem the flow of their inhabitants going to Brasilia seeking medical care or education. Brasilia in turn, already facing overwhelmed public hospitals that force patients to lie on cots on hallways, has reluctantly been willing to dole out money to help these cities. Unfortunately, this has led the state of Goias to become lazy in funding these cities, having grown accustomed to the aid from Brasilia.

Police in Goias and the Federal District blame much of the violence in the so-called “cidades do entorno” on drug traffickers and criminal gangs clashing with one another. They also blame the surge in violence on a lack of policemen to patrol the streets, with the Secretary of Public Safety of the DF Sandro Torres Avelar admitting to Fantástico that more needed to be done to lower the murder rate.

The program noted that an integrated security headquarters in Aguas Lindas, that had been set up a few years ago and was staffed by military and civil police, as well as by firefighters, but then abandoned more than a year ago, was going to be reactivated.  Yet it noted that two weeks after it starting filming for the program that aired Sunday, the building where the center used to be located at was still empty and abandoned.

The security situation has deteriorated so much in these four cities, that residents are afraid to go out at night, and state authorities had to call in 107 soldiers of the National Security Force to help patrol the streets.

Ironically, Fantástico noted that funeral homes listen-in illegally to police scanners and then often show up at crime scenes even before the police can get there. “Sometimes up to five funeral homes show up at the same place,” Candido da Silva told the program.



Brazilian serial killer found dead in cell

THE Brazilian serial killer, Ademar Jesus da Silva, whom the media here had dubbed the “Luziania Monster”, was found dead in his detention cell in Goiania, Goias, on Sunday afternoon at around 2 pm after having hung himself using strips of cloth that he had ripped off the covering of his mattress and twisted into a rope.

The Correio Braziliense newspaper carried a gruesome police picture of Ademar already dead, slumped over on a concrete bench in his cell with a rope around his neck and the front of his t-shirt stained with a trail of blood, on its front page today. Forensic experts are saying it looks like suicide, but the mothers of his six young victims in Luziania said they were suspicious as they believe that Ademar had an accomplice in his deadly killing spree. The mothers told the Correio that they were angry he died so soon before having been able to suffer and pay for his crimes.
One mother told the paper that she still did not believe that one of the bodies dug up by the police last week, after Ademar confessed to the killings and led the authorities to where he had buried the bodies, was that of her son. She said she would only believe it when the DNA tests came back positive. The results for all six bodies are due by the end of this week.
Prisoners being held in a cell next to Ademar’s, told reporters that they remembered hearing ripping sounds coming from the killer’s cell and that just before he killed himself he had told them he was going to take a shower.
A police investigator told Brazilian television that Ademar had actually asphyxiated himself to death as the cord was too short for him to hang himself properly.
Brazilian authorities are now investigating his death and are waiting for the report of the autopsy that his being done on Ademar’s body. The Ministerio Publico, a watchdog arm of the government, is leading the investigation and has already raised questions as to how police guards could have allowed such a thing to happen. Ademar had been moved from Luziania to the capital of Goias, Goiania, a few days ago as they feared for his safety if he remained in the town where he committed the murders.

Serial killer sparks debate on Brazil’s weak criminal laws

Confessed serial killer Adimar Jesus da Silva speaking to the
press this week while in police custody.

ALL OF Brazil was shocked last week when a 40-year-old mason confessed to the police in Luziânia, Goias, that he had killed six young teenagers after having sex with them over the course of a month from the end of December 2009 until January 2010.

Adimar Jesus da Silva was shown on television this week, in video filmed by Goias police, calmly pointing to the various places in the countryside just outside Luziânia where he had buried the corpses of each of his six victims. The banality and coldness of his expression left no doubt in the minds of many viewers that this man was indeed a monster with a sick mind.

But the fact that Adimar had previously been arrested in the Federal District in 2005 and sentenced to a ten-year jail term for sex crimes against two young boys, before being released early for “good behavior” in December 2009, is what enraged the mothers of the six victims and advocates for tougher criminal laws in Brazil.

Maria Jose Miranda, a public prosecutor, told the Correio Braziliense newspaper that Adimar’s early release from prison last year was the result of a sequence of errors, the main one being weak legislation. Under current Brazilian laws, there is no death penalty, not even for first-degree murder, and the most anyone can be imprisoned for is 30 years. Even so, most murderers never serve a complete life sentence, being allowed early release from imprisonment for good behavior after having served only 2/5 of their terms. Brazilian Congress is looking into changing the law so that those sentenced for committing serious crimes would have to serve at least 2/3 of their sentences before being eligible for early release because of good behavior. The electronic monitoring of those accused of sex crimes is also being considered.

The outgoing head of the Supreme Federal Court and the National Council of Justice, Gilmar Mendes, has been criticized for having vetoed a new law a few years ago that would have imposed tougher sentences for those found guilty of committing heinous crimes. Pedophile acts would have been included under that definition.

“If minister Gilmar Mendes had not voted for the unconstitutionality of the Heinous Crimes Act, Adimar would have been imprisoned until at least 2013. It’s easy now to blame lax judges for having freed him, but Adimar was freed because he fulfilled the legal requirements that Gilmar Mendes himself ruled were sufficient,” Miranda told the Correio.

Indeed, the Correio Braziliense did an investigation of Adimar’s case and found that although public prosecutors and doctors had several times told the court that the mason needed weekly psychiatric treatments and evaluations while in jail, their recommendations were ignored. This led to Adimar being examined by a doctor in May 2009, who subsequently wrote in her report that he did not appear to have any mental illness and that he did not need prescription medication. This despite an earlier psychiatric evaluation done more than a year earlier by three mental health professionals, that found Adimar showed signs of sadism and a sexual perversion that they concluded led him to find pleasure in the suffering of others.

Adimar was first arrested in 2005 after sexually abusing a boy of 11 and another aged 13 in the Federal District. He allegedly promised his victims money if they helped him in his work as a mason. In February 2006, after a trial, he was convicted to 15 years imprisonment for his sexual crimes. In September 2007, his lawyer managed upon appeal to have Adimar’s sentence shortened to ten years and ten months imprisonment.

Within one week of being released early from jail for “good behavior” in December 2009, Adimar had molested and killed his first victim in Luziânia. He told police that he killed all of his victims by beating them on their heads with shovels and rocks, after he had sex with them and felt revulsion for what he had done.

One critic of his early release pointed out that Adimar would have obviously shown “good behavior” while in jail since he was surrounded only by adults, and that there were no children there who could have tempted him into criminal acts.

As several defenders of the Brazilian justice system pointed out, no judge could have predicted that a sexual predator such as Adimar would have developed into a serial killer. Nevertheless, the mothers of the six murdered victims said they are planning to sue the Federal District court for having released Adimar early from jail without a proper psychiatric evaluation.

It remains to be seen now if the public outrage over the Adimar killings will provide enough momentum to get Brazilian criminal laws toughened or not.

Brasilia agog at brutal murder of top lawyer and wife

THE BRUTAL murder of a former judge of the Superior Election Court, Jose Guilherme Villela (seen at right), 73, his wife, Maria Carvalho Villela Mendes, 69, and their maid of 30 years, Francisca Nascimento da Silva, 58, on August 28 has left Brasilia residents atwitter.

The boyfriend of their granddaughter found their bodies on Monday, August 31, in their top floor apartment in 113 Sul. They had been savagely stabbed multiple times, a total of 72 stab wounds among the three victims according to investigators. The police said there were no signs of a break-in, and that all doors leading into the apartment were found locked on that day. This led investigators to believe that the murderer (or murderers) was known to the couple and maid. Following a forensic examination of the apartment and the bodies, police said they believed the couple and their maid had been killed on the evening of Friday, August 28.

113 Sul is considered a posh address in Brasilia. The superquadra is home to three current ministers in the government of Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, including one who lives in the Villelas’ building.

Investigators first cast suspicion on the son of one of the many domestic employees of the Villelas, who had run into trouble with the law a few years ago and had been defended in court by Mr. Villela himself. Mrs. Villela reportedly had a large jewelry collection that she kept at home, and police said all of it was missing following the murders. The press initially reported eyewitnesses allegedly having seen a man trying to sell pieces of the jewelry in a satellite city of Brasilia, but no arrests were made. Crucially, dollars kept by the couple in the apartment were not taken.

Globo TV reported that although the Villela’s building had security cameras installed in strategic points, they were not hooked up to any recording device, thus denying police crucial evidence of who had been in and out of the building on that fatal day. Investigators did find surveillance footage from a neighboring building showing two men with backpacks running away from the Villela’s building on Friday evening, but the video quality was not good enough to identify any of the men. After residents and security guards told police they had not noticed any strange people in the area on the day of the crime, investigators put out a public appeal for anyone with information or video footage of the area to come forward. No one has done so yet.

The Correio Braziliense newspaper early on reported that the police made a crucial mistake of leaving the Villela’s apartment unguarded for two days following the discovery of the bodies, and that several relatives went into the apartment to recover various documents. Now, police investigators are saying that close family members are the main suspects in what may have been a murder-for-hire scheme.

The murdered couple’s son, daughter, and granddaughter have been called in several times for questioning, with the daughter being subjected to one round of exceptionally long questioning on Friday that lasted at least 6 to 8 hours.

Reporters have been mobbing chief police inspector Martha Vargas, who is in charge of the investigation. TV crews have been daily filming her arriving at the 1st Delegacia de Policia every morning, as well as every time she and forensic investigators have returned to the Villela’s apartment to look for more clues. According to the Correio she has been to the apartment ten times already. She has (rightly so) resolutely refused to discuss the ongoing investigation with the press, but leaks from within the police department have been giving crucial clues to the press.

A 15-cm knife found at the scene of the crime was initially thought to have been the weapon used to kill them, but police sources now say that the knife may have been planted at the crime scene to throw investigators off. They also claim the only fingerprints found at the apartment belonged to the Villelas, their maid and close relatives. Investigators were also puzzled by the lack of large amounts of blood at the crime scene, which they would normally expect to find after such a brutal triple murder.

Stumped investigators have looked at the financial records of the Villela couple to try and see if they could have been murdered for their wealth. Crucially, investigators allegedly found that Mr. Villela had recently taken out a large life insurance policy in his name. Police did not say who the beneficiaries were. O Globo newspaper also reported that Mr. Villela had recently won an important case in the Supreme Court here and was being paid 12 installments of R$7 million ($3.88 million) each. Two installments had already been deposited into his bank account.

With no eyewitnesses and no video surveillance footage to help them, police investigators are waiting for forensic laboratory test results which are due to be ready on Monday, September 14, to help them find out who killed the Villelas and their maid and why.

UPDATE: Globo TV this week reported that the autopsy report of all three victims in this gruesome murder said that none of them had defense wounds on their hands or arms, suggesting that they had been drugged before being stabbed to death. Toxicology tests done on their blood found no signs of drugging, so investigators believe that they could have been knocked out by ether, which would have evaporated in the more than two days it took to discover their bodies in the apartment, meaning no trace of the knock-out chemical substance would have been found at the scene of the crime.

Living behind electrified fences in Brasilia

TWENTY years ago no one had them. Now practically every house in my Lago Sul neighborhood has them: Electrified wires at the top of fences carrying up to 8,000 volts each to deter thieves from breaking into them.

Brasilia has been suffering from a wave of criminality over the past few years. Part of this growth in crime can be blamed on demographics. The Distrito Federal, which encompasses the capital and all of its satellite cities and outlaying areas, has seen a boom in inhabitants. There are now more than 2 million people living in the Federal District, many of them poor people lured here by the country’s highest per capita income and hopes of striking it good by working hard or striking it rich through crime.

Sequestros relampagos, or lightning kidnappings, are sadly all too common in Brasilia. They occur usually when criminals overpower a person in their car, commandeering their vehicle and forcing the owner to come along for the ride. They usually steal whatever of value that they can find on that person, and often take them to an ATM and make them fork over their money.

A few weeks ago at a course I was taking I met a young and hip woman, a fellow journalist, whom I took an instant liking to. On the second day of the four-day course, I noticed that she wasn’t there and wondered where she was. She finally turned up at 10pm, only an hour before the end of that day’s session. She looked rather tired and harassed, but she smiled at me when I greeted her. What I didn’t know until the next day was that she had been a victim of a lightening kidnapping that night right in front of the building where our course was being held as she got out of her car.

“Two men suddenly appeared from either side and pointed guns at me,” recalled Rafaela as she later told the whole class about her ordeal. “They put me in the passenger seat and one of them sat in the back with a gun constantly poking into my waist.”

“I started crying and begged them to let me go. But they wouldn’t. We kept driving around and they even went to gas station and used my money to fill up,” she said. “They told me they were going to use my car in some hold-ups and then they would abandon it somewhere.”

“When they were tired of driving around they dropped me off and one of them had pity on me and even gave me R$5 so I could take a bus,” Rafaela explained.

They stole the R$200 (nearly $100) that she had in her wallet. Days after the crime, police had still not found her car.

Much of the crime in Brazil is fueled by the huge economic disparities between social classes. In the same day I can see the most expensive Mercedes and BMW cars on the streets of the capital, and then see barefoot children begging on the streets. The Lago Sul being the most upscale neighborhood of Brasilia means that the people here are threatened by this rising crime wave and feel they must protect themselves by having aggressive guard dogs and electrified fences that deliver 8,000 volt charges.

But the proliferation of cheap drugs, especially crack cocaine, is also responsible for the growing criminality. Just a few weeks ago a Bonnie and Clyde couple were finally arrested after stealing five cars in one night, killing one of the car owners, and wounding another. They had been stealing cars for nearly a year while high on crack. After driving them around, they would abandon them in an empty field on the outskirts of Brasilia and set then alight.

Many Brazilians are also upset with a justice system that they believe coddles criminals. The death penalty has been abolished and the most that a murderer can be imprisoned for is life, which usually means 30 years. Not only that, but prison officials regularly let out hardened criminals during the holidays to allow them to spend time with their families. Just this Saturday two such criminals let out for Easter were arrested in a satellite town after they robbed several stores and a car, and then rammed a police blockade set up to stop them. One of them was already in jail for three homicides! How can you let someone out like that and not expect him to drop immediately back into a life of crime? It’s what lots of Distrito Federal residents were asking themselves.

April 14 Update: My best friend from high school called me up yesterday as I was at my travel agent rebooking my flight to Saudi Arabia and told me that her house in Park Way (where I used to live until just two weeks ago) had been broken into during the Easter weekend while she and her family were away on a trip.
“They broke in through the back and stole everything! Two TVs, two computers, and some gold bracelets I had,” she told me. “And we have to wait until Wednesday for fingerprint experts to come and search for prints as there are only two of them for the whole Distrito Federal!”
In the meantime, she, her husband and her kids were not to touch anything until then. “The house is a mess, they opened all the drawers and threw everything around.”
The latest I heard from her later that afternoon was that the police were there again checking the scene of the crime. She told me that there was a possibility that convicts let out of the Papuda jail for the Easter holiday may have been responsible for the break-in and robbery.
Crime has gotten so bad in Brasilia that the local government recently ordered the arrest of 200 criminal suspects for questioning. That action does not seem to have stopped the crime wave. More police on the streets and tougher jail terms are probably the only things that will make a dent in this crime wave. Meanwhile, I understand why inhabitants of the Lago Sul hide behind electrified fences and ferocious guard dogs.

Urban Crime, Corruption and Air Travel Chaos in Brazil

BRASILIA, Brazil – Back in Brazil to visit the factory of the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer, I find that the major issues of the day here include the growing urban violence, the never-ending corruption of Brazilian politicians, and chaotic air travel caused by disgruntled air traffic controllers that has been ongoing since last year.

Last week, a domestic helper called Sirlei Dias, 32 years old, was violently attacked in Rio de Janeiro by a group of six young, middle class men as she waited at a bus stop to go to work. It was five o’clock in the morning and the men approached her laughing before punching her and kicking her repeatedly in the head and arms. Her crime? “We thought she was a prostitute,” said one of the youngsters after being arrested and booked at a police station.

Sirlei has become a national heroine after appearing repeatedly on national television to tearfully talk about being attacked and how a passing taxi driver scared the youths away and wrote down their car’s license plate number which would help the police arrest them later. Reports say that the young men could get up to 15 years in jail for their act of random violence, but not too many Brazilians really believe that they will actually be imprisoned that long. Many commentators here have pointed out that a group of young, middle class men who set afire a native Brazilian Indian sleeping on a bench at a bus stop in Brasilia ten years ago, and who subsequently died from his injuries, are already out of prison after only serving four years of a 15-year sentence.

Despite slavery having been completely outlawed in Brazil in 1888 by Princess Isabel, discrimination continues in acts of violence such as the one against Sirlei. She is mulatto, as are 39.1 percent of the 169,590,693 Brazilians, according to the 2000 Census. Her aggressors are all white.
BRAZILIAN politics have long been marred by widespread corruption, and the politicians of today are no different. The government of President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva has faced accusations of corruption for many years now, which Lula has been able to shrug off until now because none of it could be traced back directly to him.

Two major politicians are now fighting charges of having accepted illegal payments from private businessmen. Federal District Senator Joaquim Roriz of the PMDB party is accused of accepting a 2.2 million reais bribe (over $1 million). He tearfully denied this last week in the Senate, claiming that he had only accepted a loan of 300,000 reais ($150,000) to buy a cow! I doubt that many people are buying his explanation.

The president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros (PMDB-Alagoas), is also fighting charges of having accepted millions of reais from a prominent real estate developer and builder to help payoff his journalist lover and her child. Since the PMDB is in a ruling alliance with the Worker’s Party (PT), Lula has been vigorously defending Renan at every turn, even appearing on national television last week to say that the media should not accuse people who have not been tried by a court of law yet. With the full backing of Lula, Renan has been able to steamroll the Senate’s Ethics Committee into shelving its investigation into the accusations against him.
THE shock waves from the collision of a Gol Airlines Boeing 737 airliner and an American-owned Embraer Legacy jet last year over the Amazon, in which 175 people died, are still being felt today in Brazil.

Investigators blamed a series of unfortunate events, from the American pilots of the Legacy turning off their proximity transponder allegedly because they were annoyed by its incessant beeping in the cockpit, to the Brazilian air traffic controllers not being able to keep the two planes safely apart.

Air travel in Brazil has been chaotic ever since, with scores of flights being delayed or canceled on a daily basis throughout the country. Passengers blame greedy air traffic controllers, whom they accuse of being on go-slows in a bid to get salary increases. Air traffic controllers blame poor equipment and a lack of adequate training for the slowdown in Brazilian air travel.

TV news programs every day show irritated and angry Brazilian passengers screaming at airline personnel at airports across the country after waiting in check-in lines for hours only to find out that their flights have been canceled or that they have been bumped off flights because of overbooking. Airlines say that they are coping with these emergencies as best as they can, but that is poor consolation for frustrated and tired passengers who often have no choice but to sleep on the floor of the terminals.

The truth of the matter is that air traffic controllers are a part of the Brazilian Air Force, and as such are restricted in terms of promotion opportunities. Congress and even President Lula are aware that the controllers will have to eventually be put under civil aviation authority and professionalized further. The problem is that no one has the courage right now to confront the Brazilian military and take away yet one more of its powers leftover from the twenty one years of military dictatorship from the 1964 military coup until civilian rule was restored in 1985.

Latest Tweets

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Newsletter Subscribe