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Brazil, Heaven and Hell in the Same Day

A trip to the Amazon ends in violence for AQ’s editor-in-chief.
heaven and hell in the same day
Background Photo: Diário do Belém Online (Via/Whatsapp)

Last Thursday began beautifully, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, with a walk through a lush city park. I strolled among bougainvillea and castanha do Pará and samaúma trees. I saw a large red and blue macaw ambling down the sidewalk, and had just sat down to take a selfie with him when the little jerk charged me, wings spread and beak wide open. That’s the selfie interruptus on the left, above. Once my heart slowed, I laughed and laughed.

We had just launched our Amazon issue of Americas Quarterly, and a friend wanted a picture of me hugging a tree. Texans generally don’t do this sort of thing but, hey, when in Rome... I asked a security guard in the park if he would mind taking the photo. “Ah no, you don’t want that tree!” he exclaimed with a toothy grin. He escorted me to the tallest, oldest, gnarliest-looking tree in the park, snapped ten or so photos from different angles, slapped me on the back and said: “Have a good trip home, friend.”

Man, I marveled for seemingly the thousandth time in my life, how can Brazilians be so unbelievably nice?

Shortly thereafter, I was in a taxi making the five-hour trip from Paragominas to Belém, for a flight onward to São Paulo. It would be a long day of travel, but my morale was high and João, my driver, had a full collection of pirated sertanejo CDs – country music with a tropical touch, lots of talk of paixão and coração. I leaned my head against the passenger-side window, warm to the touch but not hot, as alternating scenes of jungle, cattle ranches and dusty villages whizzed by. I felt happy, stimulated, fulfilled.  

It was just after 2 p.m, on the highway about 40 miles east of Belém, when the trouble started.

At first, it looked like a routine traffic jam. But then we saw the vehicles in front of us were in reverse, coming back toward us very quickly. Then another wave of cars, now speeding forward against traffic, weaving furiously among those of us who remained stopped, too stupefied to move.

João cursed under his breath. “Must be an accident,” he mumbled. I suggested we try to turn around as well. That was when we first heard gunfire. João put the taxi into reverse, made a very jittery nine-point-or-so turn, crossed the grassy median and pulled into the dusty parking lot of a warehouse. Other cars were doing the same.

I finally noticed that, just up the highway near our previous location, there was a large prison. The gunfire coming from there increased in frequency – automatic weapons, bap bap bap bap bap. João and I opened our doors and made a run for the side of the warehouse to take cover. Peeking out, I saw about half a dozen figures up the highway outside the prison walls, dressed in black, slowly stalking from right to left. Police? Bap bap bap bap bap.

“Jesus,” João sighed.

More gunfire. Some yelling. And then, the most awful silence.

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I hesitated to write this story. I was a reporter in São Paulo from 2010 until this June, and I know how accounts of violence in Brazil can generate predictable, ugly reactions. On one side there is the bandido bom é bandido morto crowd, those who believe “a good criminal is a dead criminal” – a statement that an astonishing 50 percent of Brazilians said they agreed with in a major poll released in October. That crowd seizes on such stories as proof that “bandits” should be summarily killed, by police or vigilantes, because the judicial system is weak and ineffective. On the other side, you have people, including many on the ideological left, who sigh and say violence is terrible but it’s an inevitable consequence of Brazil’s inequality, and that education and redistribution of wealth are the only viable solutions – although they might take 20 or 50 years to show results.

My being American (worse: Texan) will also muddy the waters here. We have our own awful problem with gun violence in the United States, and that will disqualify me from writing on this topic in many eyes. My Twitter feed will fill up with place names like Newtown and Charleston and, who knows, maybe Paris, from people who will insist, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Brazil isn’t that violent compared to other countries.

Despite all that – forgive me – I had to write this, because my heart won’t stop breaking for Hironobu Noguchi, Etsuko Saito Noguchi, and Emiko Shiguetomo, who were also on the highway to Belém last Thursday. Hironobu was driving; Etsuko was his wife; Emiko was his sister; all were elderly members of the Japanese-descended community that has thrived for decades in Pará state, and Brazil generally. Their pickup truck was no more than a minute or two ahead of us on the highway when a group of about eight men drove up to the front gate of the Pará Penitentiary and Recuperation Center #2, guns blazing, hoping to free a group of inmates inside.

What precisely happened next is unclear. Some local media reported that Hironobu’s truck was caught in the crossfire between the prison guards and the assailants. Local authorities said the criminals needed a getaway vehicle, and sprayed the family with gunfire when they didn’t immediately stop. Whatever the case, we know how it ended – with three passengers splayed in the grassy highway median, covered in blood. The criminals took their truck, and sped away.

By the time ambulances arrived, Etsuko and Emiko had died. Hironobu was shot in the abdomen, but made it to a hospital and survived. A policeman was also shot. Meanwhile, inmates inside the prison had staged a mutiny to help facilitate the prison break, taking seven guards hostage. Police set up roadblocks to prevent further bloodshed – and perhaps keep the perpetrators from escaping. Cars piled up for miles in both directions, and João and I warily eyed the gathering crowd, and the surrounding patches of jungle, for signs of anyone with a gun. Two police helicopters swooped low overhead, black SUVs sped up and down the highway with their sirens blazing, and a team of hostage negotiators rushed inside the prison walls. One hour passed, then two. And by that point, we all believed we knew how this was going to end.

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Yes, it’s true - bad things happen everywhere. But the degree of violence in Brazil, and the way it keeps getting worse, defies belief. More than 50,000 Brazilians are murdered every year, and by some estimates one in every 10 homicides on the planet happens there. If you measure the problem by homicide rates rather than absolute numbers, the picture is equally bleak: Of the 50 most violent cities in the world in 2014, 19 of them were in Brazil – up from 14 the year before. The national murder rate, at about 27 per 100,000, is below that of countries like El Salvador (42) or Colombia (32) but well above Argentina (8), Peru (7) or the United States (4).

In recent decades, the hope was that if poverty and inequality fell, violence would, too. Well, Brazil’s economy prospered for most of the last 20 years, pulling roughly 40 million people (20 percent of the population) into the middle class. The gap between rich and poor also narrowed, if only a bit. Yet many of the areas where the economy grew the fastest – namely in Brazil’s northeast – also saw the biggest spikes in violence. Similar trends have been seen across Latin America; it’s now clear that addressing economic factors is not enough.

Sensible proposals abound – many of them proven, some innovative. Many have recommended greater resources for police and the courts; others have suggested drug decriminalization or legalization, and reforming prisons to make them more than just squalid crime schools. Much of the solution is, frankly, straightforward: Better institutions, and better use of existing public resources. The shootout near Belém was the third security incident at that prison since August, according to local media. It is difficult to understand why a country that charges some of the highest taxes in the hemisphere is unable to defend its own facilities.

Whatever happens, it’s clear that authorities need to do something. For three decades now, successive Brazilian federal governments have insisted on treating violence as a mostly local problem – a failure of leadership that has crossed party lines. Meanwhile, public patience with the status quo is eroding; when you combine rising violence with the current recession and corruption scandals in Brazil right now, there is a generalized feeling of hopelessness and fury that in a democratic society will lead to change, one way or another.

We’ve already seen a rightward shift, with the rise of the so-called “bullets, beef and bible” caucus in Brazil’s Congress, which pushes tougher prison sentences and lowering the age of criminal responsibility. Many people I know, including leaders of the two parties that have ruled Brazil since 1995, roll their eyes at these “reactionaries,” believing them to be a temporary phenomenon. I’m not so sure. I spent several hours on that highway, listening to the crowd get angrier and angrier. They lamented the ineffectiveness of the police and the generalized impunity of criminals, and blamed the “thieves” in government for both. It was a far different vibe from the Brazil of a few years ago; if the political establishment fails to understand the connection, and act on it soon, I think they’re going to lose their jobs.

--

To our collective surprise and relief, there was no further bloodshed on the road to Belém that day. The hostage crisis ended peacefully after about four hours. The roadblocks were lifted. Yet the police manhunt failed to yield any suspects. Five days later, there had still been no arrests. Not even Hironobu’s truck had been found.

The Noguchis buried their dead on Friday, the day after the shooting. The grieving family declined to talk to reporters at the funeral, but some details did slip into newspapers: Etsuko was 74, and had been married to Hironobu for more than 50 years. The couple had eight children, and ran a modest restaurant outside Belém that catered to the Japanese community. Local TV published what they said was a photo of the two sisters-in-law: you can see it here. There were conflicting reports about whether they were born in Japan or Brazil; we don’t know much else.

I do know the Brazil they lived in, though – I know it well. It is the Brazil where foreigners are greeted with extraordinary warmth, and assimilated quickly into an exceptionally pluralistic, tolerant and vibrant society. Where, when my family and I arrived in Sao Paulo, and people learned we were staying for a few years, they would smile and exclaim: Sejam bem-vindos! (“When was the last time an American said ‘Welcome!’ to a new immigrant?” I always marveled to my wife.) It is the Brazil where we made enduring friends, had incredible adventures, and ultimately felt very much at home.  

But it is also the Brazil where most of my friends, local and foreign, were robbed at gunpoint at least once. Where my family and I lived behind a double security gate, 10-foot walls and an electric fence. Where, when my mom finally mustered the courage to come visit us, a man was shot dead by a robber on a motorcycle right outside our kids’ school – at 10 a.m., while class was in session. Where, while visiting a friend’s house in Rio, automatic gunfire erupted across the street – and our host, already experienced with such incidents, calmly showed us which columns to hide behind. And where the vast majority of Brazil’s 200 million people face far greater risks on a daily basis than I ever did.

It is a country where you can start your day with a walk through a lush, sun-sprinkled park, and end it mourning deeply for someone you never met. It is a place where you often experience heaven and hell in a single day. Yet Brazilians really shouldn’t have to choose. No, not anymore. Enough is enough.

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Brian Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly.

Embedded photo credit: Diário do Belém, November 13, 2015. (http://www.diarioonline.com.br/)

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Brazil, Amazon, violence