When corruption kills: The search for justice in Brazil and beyond

Thorough investigation and transparency are crucial if tragedies like the Santa Maria fire are to be avoided.

A fire at the 'Kiss' nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil resulted in the deaths of over two hundred people [EPA]
A fire at the 'Kiss' nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil resulted in the deaths of over two hundred people [EPA]

This week’s news that the Brazilian authorities are seeking criminal charges (both murder and manslaughter) against more than a dozen individuals [PT] in relation to the January’s devastating nightclub fire that, at last count, had killed 241 people [PT] in the Southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria is a welcome step forward for relatives and survivors. Yet the labourious and painstaking process of finding out what happened and, in particular, who is responsible is only just beginning.

The list of those implicated [PT], ranging from the nightclub owners, manager and members of Gurizada Fandangueira, the bandperforming in the club that night, for murder as well as a number of government officials and members of the fire service for manslaughter points to more than just a one-off accident, which has undoubtedly brought the country’s safety regulations into the spotlight with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games to be held in Rio de Janeiro. However, the complex case of negligence and corruption that allowed the fire to happen is, unfortunately, unexceptional and not unique to Brazil.

A pattern of negligence

Since the horrific fire that gutted Santa Maria’s Kiss nightclub in the early hours of Sunday, January 27, it has become clear that the case bears an alarming resemblance to the spate of recent nightclub fires that have killed scores of people elsewhere in the region – including Mexico City in 2008, Quito in 2008, Lima and Caracas, both in 2010. However, nowhere are similarities with Santa Maria more apparent than in the case of the 2004 fire in the República Cromañón nightclub in Buenos Aires, which left 194 – mainly young people – dead. It was not particularly surprising that the Argentine media headlines in the days after the fire were littered with references to a “Cromañón in the south of Brazil” [SP] and highlighted the similarities between the two catastrophes [SP].

Nearly a decade ago, on December 30, 2004, during a concert by the rock band Callejeros at the Argentine venue, a flare ignited by a spectator made contact with the flammable roof material, triggering an intense fire and the emission of highly toxic gases, responsible for the deaths of many of the victims. Furthermore, the evacuation that followed was fraught with problems. The venue was allegedly operating well beyond capacity and the main emergency exit was shut with padlocks to avoid concertgoers sneaking in without paying, hampering the evacuation of those fleeing the toxic fumes. As news of events in Santa Maria reached Argentina, the organisation los pibes de Cromañón (the Cromañón Kids), comprised of relatives and survivors of the 2004 fire, issued a statement [SP] punctuated with the refrain “man is the only animal who trips over the same stone twice”, suggesting that important lessons have not been heeded.

Mourners cry for justice after Brazil fire

Although the full extent of the events leading up to the Santa Maria fire is yet to be disclosed, what unfolds is a remarkably similar chain of events: a flare making contact with flammable roof material, inadequate and scarce emergency exits, blocked by security guards to prevent those inside leaving without paying, and, as the Brazilian daily the Folha de Sao Paulo reported [PT] shortly after, an expired safety certificate for a venue that was functioning beyond its capacity, suggesting that this is more than just a “tragic accident”. Instead, it would appear that this is yet another avoidable and completely pointless atrocity. Eyewitness reports and the investigation that followed point to a rather complex web of corruption, negligence and institutional failings involving the club’s owners, the band members and the mayor and other members of the local government.

Killed by corruption

The events at both Kiss and at Cromañón beg consideration of the way in which disasters of such magnitude at public venues are portrayed by the media and by many of those responsible as one-off or exceptional accidents. This way of thinking tends to obscure and inhibit the pursuit of both individual and institutional responsibility. Moreover, the complex sequence of events and the various degrees of responsibility of many different individuals and institutions tends to make it extremely difficult to bring the various parties responsible to account.

With the arrest of band members and the nightclub owner in the aftermath of January’s fire, it seemed that blame might be levelled at those directly responsible for the venue’s safety (the owner/manager) and those alleged to have ignited the flare (thought to be the band members). Indeed, the police commissioner in charge of the investigation, Sandro Meinerz, was reported as having stated that blame should lie with whoever let off the flare [SP]This appears to be an all too frequent case in which the arguably indirect and structural causes of the fire are eschewed; the suggestion is that the lack of safety certificate, emergency exits, venues operating well beyond capacity are a set of innocuous circumstances that only become deadly when ignited by specific catalyst, in this case pyrotechnic equipment.

What is interesting in the Cromañón case is how the tragedy was met with the slogan “not the flare, nor rock and roll; what killed our kids was corruption”. Invoked by relatives and survivors, they pointed the finger at the authorities’ responsibility for the events of December 2004, away from those who launched the flare and, most significantly, away from the victims themselves. In Argentina, what could have been viewed as a “tragic accident” became a paradigm, indicative of the corruption at private and institutional levels and the ordinary citizen’s struggle in trying to call the authorities to account.

Indeed, following Cromañón, in a campaign spearheaded by relatives of victims and survivors to expose the causes in their entirety and pursue those responsible, the institutional failings of government became clear. The mayor of Buenos Aires, Aníbal Ibarra, was subsequently removed from office [SP] after a political investigation for his failure to have enforced a functioning inspection system for venues; amid suggestions that the nightclub was overdue a visit by the Federal Fire Department, and that Fire Department personnel had accepted bribes from venue owners.

Brazil nightclub fire seen as a ‘call to action’

In the months and years that followed, several parties to the crime were detained and investigated, including Omar Chabán, manager of the nightclub, Callejeros’ manager, band members and various civil servants, police officials and fire fighters. However, actually bringing them to trial proved problematic and involved an arduous search for justice, with only a small number of those investigated actually ever facing trial, and legal proceedings only beginning in 2008.

The trial, which concluded in 2009, led to the conviction and sentencing of Chabán to twenty years in prison, eighteen to the band’s manager and lesser sentences were meted out to number of members of the local government [SP]. The members of the band were acquitted, a verdict that was met with outrage by many of the victims’ relatives [SP].  This was not the end of the matter, as a second round of legal proceedings began in 2011 and continued into 2012 in which additional sentences were given out [SP] to the owner of the nightclub, Rafael Levy and Callejeros’ lead singer Patricio Fontanet.

Reacting to the sentences, relatives and survivors deemed the judgement to be far too lenient and too focused on those directly implicated, rather than examining the wider, institutional causes, stating that “this is a political crime, committed by a corrupt State […] inefficient both in its action and negligence. The judges don’t understand and want to convince us that this is an accident. This simply isn’t the case: it was murder”. In the face of impunity, a failure to address the wider causes and investigate all of the culpable, the responsibility has fallen on the relatives of the victims, survivors and their supporters to contest misinformation and cover-ups and continue to demand full accountability.

Above the law

Those states’ failure to punish corruption and negligence has proved to lead to the unlawful and untimely deaths of citizens and allows the authorities to remain safe in the knowledge that they will most likely not be prosecuted for their part in corruption scandals and negligence and that they are above the law.

If all of those responsible, including government officials, are not held to account, surely we will see more cases such as this? Indeed, in the years since the Cromañón tragedy, relatives of the victims have raised concerns that another tragedy of a similar type was possible [SP] in Argentina; little did they know that history would be repeated in neighbouring Brazil.

However, for critics who might argue that this problem is the exclusive domain of “corrupt” Latin American countries – indeed a recent Global Post article entitled “Latin America: where clubbing can be deadly implied that the flouting of regulations was a Latin American problem – we are reminded that similar events have occurred beyond on the region in recent years: in the USA (Station Nightclub Fire, 2003) and in Sweden (Gothenburg, 1998).

With the conclusion of the initial police investigation, the Santa Maria fire appears to be yet another case in which private profit is prioritised over public safety resulting in an avoidable and huge loss of life which the authorities failed to prevent, and even promoted, through accepting bribes and allowing such practices to continue unregulated.

Meanwhile, as the initial police investigation was concluded, worrying information came to light: that the mayor’s office had withheld documentation from investigators [PT]. Thorough investigation and transparency, even if it exposes inconvenient truths about the levels of state involvement and demonstrating that no-one is above the law, are absolutely crucial if such tragedies are to be avoided, wherever they might occur.

Cara Levey is a lecturer in Hispanic Studies at University College Cork, Ireland. She is also a Coordinator at the Argentina Research Network in the United Kingdom.

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