Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – It was a dark chapter in Brazil’s history that shocked the world and sowed the seeds of social reform after eight street children were gunned down by off-duty police officers outside the Catholic Candelaria Cathedral on July 23, 1993.
Twenty-years later, some observers are questioning if the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and 2016 Olympics will lead to further police abuse against vulnerable young people as authorities attempt to clean up Rio de Janeiro. The anniversary also puts the spotlight on persistent accusations of police brutality, mostly against Brazil’s most impoverished people.
While celebrations are underway with the visit of Pope Francis to Rio, the grim Candelaria anniversary will be marked with several sombre events and marches outside the church.
I never get invited to these events and I don't want to go. It's just a political show and I'm not interested.
One person who won’t be attending is Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, a social activist whose efforts to help street children then living by the cathedral earned her the nickname the “Angel of Candelaria”.
“I never get invited to these events and I don’t want to go. It’s just a political show and I’m not interested,” says de Mello, who now runs Projeto Uere in the Maré community in the north of the city. “They don’t want me there either, because they know that I know the truth.”
Citing figures from the Brazilian Centre of Latin American Studies (Cebela), the truth, she says, is that about 176,000 poor, mainly black children have died violently in Brazil in the past 30 years, often at the hands of police or militias, or in drug-related crime.
Human rights organisations have repeatedly identified the chronic problem of abuse by police in poor communities in Brazil.
Calls to Rio Prefeitura, the city’s government, for comment on such allegations were not returned by publication time.
To some extent, the notoriety of Candelaria lies in the detail: those who died were aged between 11 and 20 and would gravitate to the church as a place of refuge. Testimony from one survivor gunned down helped bring the convictions of two policemen.
Eight police officers were accused of opening fire on more than 60 street children outside the church on July 23, 1993. Many survivors later died violent deaths, including Sandro do Nascimento, whose hijacking of a busload of passengers in a wealthy area of Jardim Botanico became the subject of the 2002 film Bus 174.
Candelaria was a tipping point in Brazil, spawning a gradual change in attitudes towards street children, and galvanising activists into ensuring nothing like it would happen again.
“A lot changed [for street children] because people like me made a lot of noise,” de Mello says.
World Cup clean-up
As Rio prepares for the spotlight of next year’s World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the government’s response to children who flee to the streets because of hardship, violence or tragedy at home is still evolving.
No precise figures exist on the number on children on Rio de Janeiro’s streets. The federal government recently released a census that counted more than 5,000 in the state itself, but that underestimates the true number, according to Professor Irene Rizzini of the Catholic University of Rio.
|A cross bearing the names of 8 street children killed [Joe Hewitt]|
Today, street children are seen more as a vulnerable group that needs help, rather than a public nuisance or danger to society, says Rizzini, also the director of the International Centre for Research and Policy on Childhood (Ciespi).
Unlike in the 1980s and early ‘90s, children are rarely seen sniffing glue in a huddle on street corners in the wealthy southern zone, begging from tourists, or sleeping on the beaches of Copacabana or Ipanema.
She says the decrease in the number of street children is caused to several factors, including more initiatives to help families where children may be at risk of fleeing to the streets, a drop in the birth rate, and word on the street that life there is no longer as seductive as it was in the past.
More shelters for children have been made available over the years, but Rizzini says this has done more harm than good. Constant police harassment – such as picking them up and dropping them off at shelters on the pretext of drug treatment – to keep children out of certain posh areas is also a problem.
“These shelters, the way they are in Rio, are more of a problem than a solution,” Rizzini says. “Kids report constant violence and neglect … that is why they do not stay in them.”
The long-time advocate of children’s rights is closely monitoring the impact of the World Cup and Olympics on the street population. She is not the only one who fears the mega events could adversely affect some of Brazil’s poorest children.
Football and the street
Former street children from up to 18 countries will come to Rio next March to compete in the Street Child World Cup. The 10-day event is aimed at giving street children a platform to raise awareness of the situation.
A girls’ team will come from the IBISS foundation set up by former World Health Organisation psychiatrist Nanko Van Buuren that runs 60 social projects in about 40 favelas, or slums.
These shelters, the way they are in Rio, are more of a problem than a solution. Kids report constant violence and neglect … that is why they do not stay in them.
“Sometimes young people are forced out of their communities and end up homeless because they have fallen out with drug traffickers. Our job is often to negotiate their return,” says Van Buuren.
De Mello says she partly attributes the decline in the number of street children to greater involvement in organised crime in certain communities, as well as the crack cocaine epidemic. Fewer children are seen sleeping on the streets of Rio today because “they are too debilitated by drugs to even make it from their communities to the streets”.
She wants drug detoxification to be a key part of the approach to homeless children, and would like to see special clinics set up to tackle the problem.
Rizzini says a new policy approved by the Children’s Rights Council in Rio should be replicated on a national scale in Brazil. It includes ensuring social programmes are extended street children and their families, and better training for the police in human rights.
“The new policy – the first of its kind in Brazil – has concrete actions to be implemented by most of the departments in the city government,” Rizzini says.
The anger and demand for police reform that has emerged from the recent nationwide social protests could help street children such as those who died at Candelaria, she adds.
Today, the only physical reminders of what made the Candelaria Church infamous the world over are a humble cross bearing the names of eight youths, and red painted outlines of eight small figures on the pavement where they were gunned down. But the significance of the anniversary will resonate throughout Brazil.
“Candelaria reminds us that we are not safe,” says Rizzini.