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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Letter: Brazil's homeless visible through death
A homeless man sleeps rough at Sao Paulo cathedral
Some 2,500 people sleep rough around Sao Paulo's cathedral
Adhemar Altieri explores how a recent spate of murders in Sao Paolo has caused Brazilians to sit up and take notice of the tens of thousands of homeless people in their society.

The street people of Brazil - the homeless who roam and beg and scavenge - have pulled off something rare.

It was involuntary - you really can't say they were trying for it. And it certainly didn't come cheap.

Many paid for this unusual feat with their lives. But they have done it: at least for the time being, the homeless in Brazil are no longer invisible.

It took a killing spree, and a deadly, continuing aftermath exposed by the national media, for society to focus its attention on the plight of the urban poor and destitute.

Even the most insensitive are paying attention now.


It began in the early hours of August 19 this year in Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo.

That night 10 homeless people were attacked while sleeping in various, high-profile spots in the downtown area.

Outside the stock exchange, on the steps of the city cathedral or near busy boulevards.

The attacks shot to the top of the news agenda.

All the victims were hit on the head with a single blow, apparently with the same weapon.

Something cylindrical in shape, according to police, possibly a club, a pipe, maybe a broomstick.

We sleep together for protection, and one of us always stays awake, just waiting for the attackers to come.
Sao Paulo homeless
Three of the attack victims died, and the others were hospitalized in serious condition - one of them in a coma.

Aside from aid groups and social services departments that exist to try and help them, homeless people in Brazil are virtually ignored, by society and the media.

Even when they're killed they hardly ever make the news.

But when someone tries to knock off 10 of them in a single night, that changes things.


You begin to ask - What's at work? or - What kind of lunatic might be on the loose?

Whilst people were absorbing the news, just three days later, four more street people were attacked while sleeping, two of them women.

Again the attackers went for the head and delivered single blows.

Two of the victims died, including one of the women.

The three-day toll: six dead, nine seriously injured and hospitalized.

By then, human rights groups were demanding answers, and the media was in a frenzy - giving the homeless the kind of attention they always hope to get without having to die for it.

It's unlikely that Brazilians ever saw this many homeless people interviewed on television or newspapers.

People like 23-year-old Fabio Romano, who sleeps with seven other young people in the Sao Paulo cathedral square, Praca da Se.

Holding up a plank of wood for the cameras he described the strategy:

"We sleep together for protection, and one of us always stays awake, just waiting for the attackers to come."

Urban face

Or Edinaldo Fernandes, a 33-year-old, one of the tens of thousands of migrants who have come to the more prosperous southern cities from the impoverished Brazilian northeast.

He moved to Sao Paulo to work as a painter 12 years ago but is now unemployed.

"Downtown is getting too dangerous," he says, "I want to stay away."

Edinaldo is part of Brazil's urban face - the fact is today's Brazil defies the idyllic Amazon-like wilderness many imagine the country to be.

Sao Paulo mayor -  Marta Suplicy
Sao Paulo's mayor, Marta Suplicy, declared three days of mourning
More than 80% of Brazilians now live in cities, and the migration away from the countryside that created this situation over the last few decades has put extreme pressure on urban areas - Sao Paulo is easily the worst victim.

With a population of 18 million it's estimated that 10,000 homeless are scattered amid its vast collection of urban problems of every size and shape.

And street people are literally all over town - under every bridge, on just about every park bench, and begging at your car window on most intersections.

The attacks grabbed so much attention that police naturally began to investigate.

But that was unusual.

Police don't bother to investigate at all when the crime victim is a homeless person - no fixed address, no ID. Possible witnesses are also street people and hard to locate.

It's pretty difficult to crack a murder case like that, and besides if the killers are never found who would complain?

Candelaria massacre

But this time it was different.

And so under pressure from all sides, police and city officials suddenly found themselves moving like they'd never moved before to try and solve the murders.

And a couple of theories were raised - predictable ones that stirred memories of earlier horrors which still haunt Brazilians.

In a joint statement, 21 charities and religious groups that work with homeless people said history was repeating itself.

They referred to the high profile Candelaria massacre of 1993 in Rio de Janeiro when eight street kids were killed near the city cathedral - shot point-blank by off-duty policemen while they slept.

Rio shanty town known as Vigario Geral massacre victims
The massacres in 1993 were carried out by military police
The case made headlines around the world.

The other theory looked back to the 1960s and '70s, when Brazil was under military rule, and vigilante groups were often hired by business owners to euphemistically "clean up the streets".

The police would look the other way, and some even took part in these so-called death squads.

This sort of thing is less common but not entirely gone from today's Brazil.


So it was hardly a surprise when investigators asked for pictures of all uniformed police officers on duty in the downtown core on the nights of the two attacks.

Some street dwellers thought they saw the attackers and said that a couple of them might have been wearing uniforms.

There was also a political take on all of this.

Brazil is in the middle of nationwide municipal election campaigns and with voting scheduled for October that irresistible urge to cash in politically didn't take long to make its presence felt.

The notion that uniformed police officers might have been involved in the attacks might have been an attempt to smear the current city administration, since the uniformed civil guard patrolling the downtown area answers to the municipal level of government.

The mayor of Sao Paulo, Marta Suplicy, belongs to the same party as Brazilian president Lula, the left-wing PT.

She is standing for re-election, so associating her administration with the attacks on the homeless would serve the purposes of her opponents.

At the same time, the police force investigating the incident answers to the state government, which is in the hands of the opposition social-democrats, of the PSDB party.

The inference was that they acted politically by trying to pin the homeless attacks on the city administration and thus benefit the opposition candidate.

The end result is that the federal police has been asked to follow the investigations.


The Brazilian feds are the country's equivalent of the FBI in the US or Scotland Yard in the UK.

They're perceived as the country's most serious and least political police force.

But as the investigations dragged, the media fed the story picking out similar incidents elsewhere in Brazil that normally would have gone unnoticed.

There was news of three homeless men each shot in the face while they slept, not in Sao Paulo, but in the north-eastern city of Recife, some 1,500 kilometres away.

Two days later it was a homeless man in Belo Horizonte, another major city north of Sao Paulo.

His bound and gagged body with several broken bones was found in a bag. He had been beaten to death.

News of violent deaths involving street people began to pop up from all over the country, in places hundreds of kilometres apart.

Initially, the media raised the possibility that all of these incidents might be somehow connected.

But it became disturbingly clear that any connection would have more to do with society's ills and attitudes toward the homeless than with the highly unlikely possibility that an organized nationwide anti-homeless network of some sort was on the prowl.


As the public reacted to new cases of death and aggression against the homeless, it became obvious the Sao Paulo attacks had raised awareness about something that apparently was always there, and yet, nobody, not society, not police, not the media, had cared enough to act.

The homeless themselves, in their newly found visibility, were filling in the blanks with each interview.

Society and the media might have been surprised about the deadly attacks, and news of violent deaths throughout the country but not the homeless themselves.

Their stories all indicated that for street people getting pushed around and picked on by pranksters, beaten up in their sleep, even killed, is commonplace.

For now, and probably until the initial killing spree is solved by police city shelters in Sao Paulo, which frequently go half-empty have been filled to capacity at night.

Many street people dislike shelters but like it or not, shelters are probably a lot safer right now than staying outdoors.

Within three weeks of the initial attack, the violent death toll among the nation's homeless had risen to 22.

Police forces in Brazil have a terrible record when it comes to solving crimes - something like 10% of cases are resolved on the average.


But the man in charge of public security in Sao Paulo felt he had to deliver this time.

So he made a promise: the case of the killing spree against the homeless in Sao Paulo would be solved within 30 days.

On September 14, just five days before his deadline, police in Sao Paulo announced they had identified three suspects in the case.

Protestors file pass the bloodstains left by the attacks
Protestors file pass the bloodstains left by the attacks
But the state public security boss might not be entirely pleased with this: of the three suspects one is a security guard and two are members of the state's own police force.

Investigators are now saying the killings were connected to crack cocaine dealing in the downtown area.

Ugly and violent as they were in a strange way, those two nights of gratuitous violence in August served a purpose.

They exposed a routine of discrimination, lack of respect, crime and deadly violence against those members of society least able to fight back - the homeless.

Not only are these problems not going unnoticed any more, the federal government is promising to conduct a census to find out exactly how many Brazilians call city streets home.

The government says this information will help them provide better assistance for the most in need.

At least it's a start. An even bigger accomplishment for the homeless will be to stay visible.

Adhemar Altieri is the founder and editor-in-chief of InfoBrazil, as well as head of content for MediaLink Media Projects, a Sao Paulo-based editorial and media content development company.

A veteran with major media outlets in Brazil and Canada, he is a former executive director at KISS-FM in Sao Paulo, and twice news director at Radio Eldorado, one of Brazil's most prestigious news stations.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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