Luana looked as if she had been tumble dried after her twenty-four hours of labor. Her hair a ragged black mop and her eyelids fluttering out of sync, utter exhaustion flattened her frail body to her bed in the maternity ward. Six other fatigued women raised disinterested eyes when I walked through the door, but Luana’s faint smile to me was one of profound alleviation and delicate triumph. My own smile was merely the external flare of an intense electrical current pulsating from head to toe: the impulsive, convulsive joy of fatherhood, temporary and at once measured, for I am not the nor a father. I only said I was to get past security.
And as no one seemed to doubt my claim to fatherhood when I first stared through the incubator window at the little light-skinned baby, I lived this lie for two days, constantly jolted by a bizarre sensation akin to sense of pride and purpose. A pleasant, if fleeting, illusion.
Maria Vitoria was born at 4:16 p.m. on July 10, 2012. Her real father, 16-year old Edivan de Freitas Alves, was killed two and a half weeks earlier (see previous posts).
In his stead, Edivan’s diabetic father struggled into the ward on his peg leg to insist on naming the child Edivania, but his middle-aged bitterness was no match for Luana’s adolescent stubbornness. During labor Luana had made a promise to God to name the baby after the Virgin if all went well. “Edivania is an ugly name, anyway,” she grumbled at the severe man before her. After unsuccessfully attempting to force a mother-daughter pose for a photograph, he grunted angrily and left the ward without saying goodbye.
“He’s an asshole,” she spit as the door closed. “He used to beat Edivan all the time, and now he thinks this baby is his.”
A few minutes later Maria Vitoria started to cry, as babies do, and Luana lifted its tiny head to her breast, just as natural as the rain that fell lazily outside the ward window. Something then happened. Something changed. A light hit her, went through her, radiated from her and flushed back out into the world and unto me. She smiled to the sky. My shutter clicked. Something greater than light was captured.
I am human. I am moved by the meaning we invent for symbols and stories to shelter so that these may in turn distract us from the despair of emptiness. I photographed your husband in his mortal pose, and felt my soul eclipse into death. I now photograph your smile over the child he left you, and my soul shutters speedily back to life. I invent this meaning and feel it. Luana, I am human.
Family of Femmes
Back at her home in Santo Amaro favela, twelve women spanning four generations await Luana’s arrival with a surprise: neighbors and friends all chipped in to buy a magnificently pink crib set, aglitter with all the adornments a newborn’s family could dream of.
Life goes on.
There are no men left in the Dos Santos family. Zuleide and Maria are great grandmothers in their mid-40s. One husband died of liver failure, the other shot dead in his home. Their daughters Patricia and Isabel are both in their early thirties, and each have several children, ranging in age from little Marisa of two years to Luana who will turn sixteen this October. One of Patricia’s ex-husbands pays a pension that supports most of the family, while Bolsa Familia covers the rest. Isabel, Luana’s mother, lost two of her husbands to violence. Luana’s father was murdered when she was five years old. Branca, her 13-year old sister, lost her father shortly after she was born. The other three fathers of Isabel’s children have legitimate families to feed, and so chose not to be bothered with more fatherly tasks.
While it is genetically rare to produce all female offspring, the lack of fathers and father figures is normal in Recife’s favelas. A recent survey indicated that 73% of households in the city’s favelas are headed by women.
The Dos Santos women had lived in two adjacent homes in Santo Amaro favela until the night Luana’s fiancé Edivan was shot to death in the front corridor of one. Since then they huddle together in the two bedrooms of the second house, sleeping on mattresses leaned to the walls during the day to make space. Luana refuses to step foot in the other house, and meanwhile the Dos Santos are looking for a renter for both. They want to escape the memories. “It does no good to remember,” they recite again and again the recipe for muddling through.
School is out, and the days are spent in and around their home watching novelas, painting finger nails, cooking, cleaning, waiting, receiving visitors, chatting endless nothings, entertaining pipe dreams, and acquiescing to much lesser fates. There is spunk and perk in the skip and jump of little girls, and there is fire and flare in the loins of pubescent teens. Mothers dream of being thin and desirable again to men, and grandmothers in bikini tops smile the grin of those who know they never lost it. Day in, day out. Time drags the willing and the unwilling alike across the fields of aging, and lends no ear to their giggles and cries. Necessity mettles with dreams and doings, diverting paths and forcing others to repeat themselves. A 13-year old brings in cash from a man of sixty suffering from impotence. A 15-year old widow declares her love for an American man whose frigid hands she warmed in hers during a theatrical cult of the Universal Church. Tragedy and joy weave constantly in and out of the monotonous fabric of existence. These are not the infernal pits of les miserables, nor is it the carefree paradise of poverty. It is only the maddening complexity of humanness.
A Delicate Balance
Today I hoped to interview Edivan’s parents in their home, but I was advised not to go there. Rumors were spreading in the neighborhood that Luana had already found a new man, a wealthy white American who might marry her and take her away from poverty forever. Edivan’s father let it be known that he had no love for this pompous foreigner, and nothing good in these bloodstained alleys awaited the man if he were to stick around.
I felt a strange tension in the air. People in the streets had stopped making eye contact. Clouds shifted restlessly as if trying to speak something out of breath. It would not matter that I am innocent. Cultures were clashing. Reason is a luxury, and luxury is scarce. In an instant I packed my rucksack and departed.
Twenty minutes later an old digger kindly walks me towards the shady far north end of the Santo Amaro cemetery to Block A/23 C-05, where a sand placard washed half away by the rain exposes illegible scribblings of Edivan’s name, his date of birth, and his date of death. And then we are left alone again.
I did not know him while he was alive.
My lens descends over the boy as I adjust my shutter speed and flash bulb. He looks calm. Asleep. Click. Morgue workers politely ask me if they can remove the body. Women and children wailing outside, I nod. The gray bag swallows him so quickly.
I only knew him as my brother. That is the reason for everything I have done in all my life.
If the weekend is murder’s drunken orgy, Sunday is its hangover. At 8:00 a.m. a brief birth of sun glistens on a caravan of media trucks speeding off from the homicide department towards downtown, where a group of churchgoers stumbled upon a body dumped roadside the night before. Meanwhile, everything is closed but the Houses of God, and it is hard to find a cup of coffee. An hour later another corpse is found dumped on the north side, as cold as the tropics will allow, and the sun is gone for twenty-four more hours. The sky falls like lazy anger. The Earth is one massive puddle waiting to be splashed.
Brunch at Leide’s Restaurant has a discount for cops, and so the tables are soon packed with uniforms of various colors representing the various specialty units of the Military and Civil Police. GATI was created to combat a surge in carjackings that haunted the mid-1990s. CIOE was formed to rescue kidnap victims back when ransom was all the rage. CIPC, the canine unit, still sniffs for anything smelling of weed or explosives, and CORE guards hospitalized prisoners while waiting for something more exciting to happen. But violent crime in Recife is not like war. It is, rather, an attritional conflict threatening no more and no less than the general health and happiness of a society, and exciting operations tantamount to the boyish urban combat of Rio de Janeiro are rare. And so a lot of guns sit together to each lunch over conversations about other things, like sports and salaries. Conversations transcend unit, rank, and unlike Rio, even police institution.
At 2:00 p.m. a call comes in. The body of 21-year old male was found floating in drainage ditch outside the town of Chã de Alegria. After a dubious trek through the flooded muddy roads of a sugar cane countryside, and a temporary breakdown, the VK Gol squad car rolls into a grassy valley where a group of people wait blank-faced under variously colored umbrellas. Morgue workers wait with them, standing in the light rain, mud splattering their white rubber boots. Someone had roped the cadaver’s legs and dragged it onto the grass just out of smell reach on this windless day.
“Bibita” was last seen leaving a São Pedro party in town on Thursday night. His brother, straining to be what they call a man, says with nascent tears that the boy had no enemies…per se…but he was just like his father, who died of liver failure a few years back. Bibita was a cachaça drinker, and when liquored up, he rarely made any friends.
“He never listened to his mother,” his stepfather laments over his corpse, which, covered in gold and green flies, is bloated to twice its normal size and grotesquely deformed.
Forensics specialists arrive after a half hour, and determine that death was caused by a blunt object smashed against the victim’s cranium. Outside of Recife, in the impoverished countryside, the percentage of firearm-related homicides diminishes substantially. Here it is sticks, stones, and machetes.
Learning of three more homicides in the area over the last month, I ask a detective why people here in these beautiful green hills are killing each other? “Lack of education. Lack of prospects,” he says, looking disheartened for the first time since brunch.
Bibita was one of fourteen siblings, none of whom finished high school or had any hope of doing so. They were all agricultural laborers, the socially immobilized legacy of slavery. Where human dignity is so precarious, the symbolic bases of one’s manhood become extremely fragile, and actions in defense of these bases therefore become dangerously extreme. Bibita may have done no more than offend someone at the Sao Pedro party. This is good for the homicide department, as they fully expect the mystery to unravel itself quickly as the culprits go about informing the world that their dignity as men may have been bruised, but was certainly not broken. If the process is slow, however, a serious danger arises. The Brazilian northeast is land of family feuds, and whoever killed Bibita is now the enemy of thirteen brothers and sisters. So much for these picturesque green hills, sweet land of sugar.
Two hours later the chief of the civil police personally calls the homicide department, whose operational jurisdiction is restricted to the metropolitan area of Recife and nearby towns, and makes a special request to cover a high-profile murder near the town of Palmares, one hundred miles away. The body of a physician, the son of a state legislator and brother of a city councilman, was found in his underwear in a river bed after having been tossed from a bridge some thirty feet high. Whispers spread rumors that the victim was gay, and automatic conjecture points to young male hooker bandits as culprits. A steady rain holds for hours as we wait for fireman and morgue workers to assist in the complicated removal of the 250-pound corpse, which having been dead for nearly two days, is smelling of rot. As the men lift the massive thing, fresh blood leaks from numerous perforations scattered across its torso and back.
The physician had been knifed to death in his own bedroom, wrapped in a blanket, transported out of town, and tossed off the bridge along with a bottle of whiskey, Coca-cola, two drinking glasses, and the 20-inch knife used to kill him. The killer(s) then attempted to clean the crime scene, but ask any forensics specialist, and they will say this is a near impossible task when blood is involved. In this case, signs of blood and physical struggle remain on the walls after being scrubbed with detergent. All doubt dies when the bed is removed, and underneath, a drying puddle of blood.
It is 7:00 a.m. and sky alight when we arrive again at the homicide department. The rain has finally stopped, and Recife is half under water. Because it is now Monday, the vender is outside again, and I slam two cups of coffee and a cold chicken coxinha. I have slept less than three hours in the last forty-eight. Fighting exhaustion with caffeine and deep fried smooshings of thickly breaded shredded chicken clump, just to stoke courage enough to drive my motorcycle back home, I begin to understand the growth and form of policemen bellies.
Death. So much senseless death. Someone asked me today if I thought it would ever get better. I said, yes, and I believed it when the words slipped off my tongue and fell into the dead space between us, ill-retrievable and demanding an explanation that I do not yet have. It is merely a belief like that which so many have in such things as God or Luck. Inexplicable and pointless to defend, a softer light it is to wake up to and rise to the forever mumbling callings of life.
The month of June in Brazil is one of popular festivities in celebration of São João (Saint John), whose June 23rd day of praise brings the masses to the streets from sundown to sun up. Families and friends gather all dressed in hillbilly flannel tops and jeans, straw hats, and freckles painted on their cheeks to dance to forró and brega music around campfires stacked on the streets. Children toss and launch booming fireworks, while young teens roam about in search of first loves and other related encounters. The iconic tunes of Luiz Gonzaga move the most arthritic of hips to sensual motion, while the more modern tunes of Sorriso Maroto bring all the young girls’ bottoms to the floor. These festas juninas, in essence a harvest party juxtaposing a variety of traditions from all of Brazil’s cultural bases, are an explosive abundance of corn products and alcohol. A celebration for one and all. A time to eat, drink, and be merry. A time to feel happy and free.
Unable to keep a rhythm, my hips sat alone while the firework bursts sent my manic nerves jumping in every which painful way. So I decided to leave the party at midnight to visit my friends in the homicide department.
If I had waited until midnight to catch a scene investigation, there was no need to. Bodies were being called in as early as the detectives’ shift begun at 8:00 am. Over a dozen people were murdered in Recife throughout the day, including a woman whose husband meticulously sawed off her limbs, stuffed her remains in a trash bag, and carried them by city bus across town to his own mother’s house for her to open, look at, and faint.
The seventy-year old woman was still at the police station when I arrived, sitting blank faced in front of a television along with several officers who were cheering on a live middleweight UFC fight. Her son was upstairs in handcuffs explaining how he killed his wife in “legitimate self defense.” He had made no attempt to evade capture. His was a murder for fame, the least important and yet most reported kind of all.
A new shooting had been called in just moments before I arrived, such that I was able to accompany a team right away. We sped off through the campfire-lined streets at breakneck speed—with no seatbelts because the police are more concerned about surprise armed confrontations than car accidents—to the very familiar favela of Santo Amaro (see May posts for area description).
Crawling through the broken narrow streets of one of Recife’s oldest favelas in a Volkswagen goal weighed down with four men is difficult, especially when dodging campfires and dancing drunks who lost either the ear or the care for distinguishing a firework from a pistol shot. The porch parties continued almost door to door up to the point of young Edivan’s last stand. Sorriso Maroto kept ringing “Ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay, assim voce matou papai” from across the way as the investigative team edged through a wall of swat police and into the narrow concrete alley where the sixteen-year old boy lay cold, a single bullet lodged in his chest.
His mother, his grandmother, and his little sisters hung on each other in front of their home nextdoor and wailed. “My son, not my son! He did nothing to deserve this!” Her voice was deafening. Where she aimed it the music died in respect for her loss.
In most cases of murder in Santo Amaro, no one speaks to the police at a crime scene for fear of retaliation by the fugitive criminal responsible for whatever the mayhem at hand. But sometimes, like on this night, people are so revolted that they spill the beans if front of the world. “The murderer’s nickname is ‘Junino,’” the victim’s mother proclaimed to the police. “He’s a known killer here. He ran across the main avenue after he shot my son.” But twenty minutes later she panicked. Tears ran down her shivering face as she screamed, “He is going to come back and kill us all!”
Typical of crime scene investigations, versions reported of what happened varied wildly and evolved quickly. Initially it was explained that the Edivan, the victim, did not know Junino, his attacker, and that he was summarily executed by the intoxicated boy who exploded in anger over a misfired bottle rocket. But later the family broke, and uttered that Edivan did use drugs—sometimes—and that he did know his aggressor. In fact, the day before he had gotten into an argument with him about something allegedly unknown. Whatever the motive, a number of dry tightened faces must have looked on and thought, like I did, that it was surely a stupid one. A completely unnecessary waste of a young life.
Shortly afterwards I found myself with another team speeding through the dark streets to another crime scene. A man in his mid-twenties lay in a massive puddle of blood in the town of São Lourenço, on the outskirts of Recife. He was a brick layer from Natal on temporary contract for road construction. No one witnessed the shooting. No one knew anything about him or his family. No one cried. He had been renting a tiny square house with two other men nearby for the duration of his work contract. We busted in to speak with the two men, who drunk on cachaça and exhausted from a week’s work had no words or emotions to share about the man who just left this world. Luiz Gonzaga never stopped blasting from the neighbor’s home. The festas juninas went undisturbed.
And such are the downsides of otherwise magnificent popular celebrations. Everyone is drunk and in the streets. The police are understaffed and spread thin. Emotions run wild. Scores are settled. This Saturday night, June 23, 2012, the rainclouds parted and left all free to their glee and gore. As Sunday sets, this report still awaits the discomfiting tally of homicides in the State of Pernambuco. It is unlikely to look pretty.
It is a strange sensation to sit around waiting for statistically guaranteed homicides to occur on a Friday night. The government of Pernambuco state boasted last year that in 2011 there were forty entire days without registered homicides in the capital city. Impressive, considering the body counts of previous years, but none of those days was a Friday or Saturday, so I was not too worried about wasting my time at the DHPP (Recife’s Homicide Division), where I planned to observe the process of murder investigation in one of Brazil’s most violent cities. As it were, I arrived at 7:30pm after being delayed by a rainstorm. The first call came exactly thirty minutes later.
The DHPP was formally created in 2007 to concentrate homicide investigation resources all in the same place, and since then, the 120-man division has assumed responsibility for all homicides and attempted homicides in the metropolitan area of Recife. It consists of five investigative units corresponding to delineated districts, an intelligence unit, and a forensics unit. Prior to 2007, intelligence units did not exist, and forensics was haphazardly performed at the State’s criminology institute, where precious few murders received the adequate evidence collection necessary for prosecution. After a few years of fits and starts, the DHPP succeeding in professionalizing murder investigation, albeit with limited technology, manpower, and satisfactory inter-institutional collaboration. The DHPP boasts that today a suspect is found in 96 percent of all homicides. Less than 13 percent, however, serve prison time.
The first line of investigation is carried out by three shift units accompanied by forensics experts. These are mostly police officers from other units who voluntarily serve four 24-hour shifts per month for a total overtime pay of $400 Reais ($200 USD). They collect evidence and witness testimonies at the crime scene, write up an initial report, and file it for the investigative units to pursue from nine to five, Monday through Friday.
If it is a strange feeling to sit around waiting for the statistical man to die, it is stranger to walk through a crowd of curious onlookers and through a dark alley to photograph his blood-splattered skeletal corpse. What is strange is the lack of emotion. Proximity to the death of a complete stranger, even when smelling of fresh blood and frozen to a grotesque smile, can be as emotionally insignificant as driving over a dead squirrel. A morgue worker humorously offered to adjust the corpse’s head position for a better face shot. Its eyes rolled back and a gurgling noise erupted from its throat. My camera refused to focus.
An hour earlier the body was alive and healthy and belonged to a man named Sergio Roberto. He died on his 46th birthday, shot several times in the stomach and head in a dark alley behind the local neighborhood association, where a sign on the front reads: “Center for Conflict Mediation, Community of Loreto.” He was reportedly evangelical. His son and daughter, in their late teens or early twenties, now stood seemingly emotionless by his corpse, explaining to the police what they thought might have happened. No one visibly cried. When my cell phone auto-dialed a friend on speaker phone, it was Sergio’s daughter who said, “Sir, your pocket is saying ‘hello hello’.”
Four months ago Sergio had bought a horse on credit (note: urban work horses are common in Recife). His first four check payments bounced, however, and the seller angrily came to reclaim the horse just this week. Perhaps the seller hired the killers to make an example out of Sergio. Or it may have been another loan shark, as Sergio reportedly owed money to several people. After all, the court system in Brazil is notorious for being next to useless in resolving small claims, leaving such dispute resolution to the individual, especially in the world of the poor.
Sergio also separated from his wife just a week ago, a man slyly informed the police, with a wink and a hush-hush, implying authorship with a cunning “juss sayin’.”
Reportedly there were no drugs involved. Sergio and his children were evangelical Christians true to the word of God.
Curiously, an attempted murder occurred two hours later just a few blocks from where Sergio’s body lay to rest. It may have been related. Revenge killings make up nearly 30 percent of all homicides in Pernambuco, according to the DHPP. But we never made it to crime scene, nor did we make it to two other attempted murder crime scenes that were born out of the wee hours of Saturday morning. We tried to make it. We did. A little. But in the storm washed muddy suburbs of Recife, spontaneous canals and sink holes rip through collapsing roadways, and the going gets tough for the little Volkswagen Gols rented for the police by the Secretary of Social Advocacy.
Friday night was relatively peaceful in Recife, notwithstanding the fate of Sergio Roberto and his family. Rain intermittently flushed the city from end to end. As the police chief told me a few weeks ago, the homicide rate drops during the rainy season. The rain keeps the killers inside.