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DANGEROUS KNOWLEDGE Survivor waits to testify against Brazilian police
David L. Marcus

09/24/1995
The Dallas Morning News
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(Copyright 1995)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil-Wagner dos Santos has been beaten, stabbed and shot, but he considers himself lucky. At least he’s alive.

Some of his best friends are not.

Wagner has a problem: He knows too much. He is the only surviving eyewitness to one of Latin America’s most notorious massacres of the 1990s-the Candelaria attack, which left eight street children dead at the foot of a magnificent church in Rio de Janeiro.

Wagner, who staggered away with three gunshots in his face and one in his chest, was put under police guard. Last year, as he got ready to go to court to identify the assailants, someone handcuffed him on a dark street and shot him again.

Miraculously, he lived, although his spinal cord is damaged, half his face is paralyzed and his skin is a minefield of welts and wounds. Now he is about to testify against those charged with executing the Candelaria kids: three military policemen.

“I’m not afraid to show up in court, but I am scared to step out on the street,” Wagner said as he sat in the tiny concrete courtyard of a gloomy building called the Center for Protection of Witnesses. With its steel gates, armed guards and pillbox towers, it looks eerily like a prison, but it is designed to keep people from entering, not leaving.

In many ways, the twisted tale of Wagner dos Santos is the sad story of human rights in Latin America today. Some of the most brazen violators operate under the banner of “social cleansing,” and the victims are often young people, even children.

From Honduras to Peru, from Brazil to Venezuela, military dictatorships have given way to freely elected governments. But to many, democracy has meant something close to anarchy, as a loosening of authority has led to a surge of common crime and random violence. Tired of feeble legal systems, many people-including the police-mete out their own swift, bloody justice.

The distinctions between criminal and cop, between victim and victimizer, have blurred. Often, as in Wagner’s case, people depend for their safety on the very authorities they fear.

In a book about street children, The Children’s War , Brazilian journalist Gilberto Dimenstein argues that the middle class is willing to make a trade-off: They want muggers and beggars off the streets, and they won’t ask questions about how it happens.

“Human rights violations, like everything else in Latin America, have been privatized,” said Jim Cavallaro, director of the Rio de Janeiro office of Human Rights Watch/Americas, the only international human rights agency with a full-time office in Brazil.

Not long ago, political prisoners languished in cells in Buenos Aires, Panama and beyond, or union organizers were interrogated by military officers before being “disappeared.” According to Americas Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights groups, the abuses of the 1990s are more haphazard, but no less brutal:

* Last year, 1,500 children were killed in Brazil-more than four a day. In Colombia, which has a population about the same as California’s, six children were killed daily in 1993, the latest government statistics show.

* In Honduras, an independent human rights group accused the police of killing at least 42 boys and young men this year.

* In Guatemala, police have been charged with rounding up and systematically executing street children.

* In El Salvador, in the first six months of this year, paramilitary groups took “credit” for killing 25 suspected criminals.

“What’s changed with the transition to democracy is who the victims are,” said Mr. Cavallaro. “The victims used to be leftists and intellectuals, but now they are common criminals or people who might be common criminals or even people who rat on the authorities for being part of criminal rings.”

Wagner dos Santos knows very little about his childhood, and Brazil’s social-service system, strapped for money, doesn’t have anyone who can help him find out.

Not that he wants some court-appointed psychologist to tell him how tragic his past was. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself, and he doesn’t want anyone to show pity.

He’d settle for someone who can help him track down his last name.

This much Wagner knows: He was born 24 years ago in a working-class neighborhood outside Rio de Janeiro. His father left almost immediately, which is typical. Sixty percent of Brazil’s poor households are headed by single mothers, according to the latest census.

When Wagner was 5, a hit-and-run driver ran over his mother while she crossed a highway. Wagner was shuttled from one relative’s home to another, eventually ending up at the home of a woman who had two children of her own.

“She locked us in the house and hit us with a stick-once she broke my arm,” Wagner said. He held out his right arm, which still refuses to straighten out.

One day, he said, the woman struck him in the head with a shovel. This time he bent his head forward. There, under tight curls, was a mound resembling a partially sunken golf ball.

Wagner’s neighbors took him to a hospital, which turned him over to the police, who sent him to the state welfare agency, which dropped him off at a state-run dormitory for orphans and abandoned children.

At age 12, he started school. The first day, the teacher asked his last name. He didn’t know, and he didn’t have a birth certificate or any identification.

He recalls the moment he got a last name. “The teacher said, `OK, you are Wagner dos Santos.’ ” She had picked a name that is the equivalent of Smith or Jones in the United States.

Wagner-he rarely uses his invented last name-reached sixth-grade level. By then he was 18. He went to live next to the gold-trimmed Candelaria church, a baroque and Renaissance style structure whose spires thrust against the modern bank buildings of downtown Rio de Janeiro. With his youthful face, Wagner fit in with the street children who slept atop the newsstands by the church.

Wagner doesn’t pretend to be an angel. He admits to stealing clothes and food from downtown stores, but he insists that he never used violence. The police who are guarding Wagner say his story seems to check out.

On July 22, 1993, the youths of Candelaria church got into a confrontation with police. The police fired tear gas. Someone threw a rock into the windshield of a patrol car. Wagner says he wasn’t there. Again, the police say they believe him.

In the early hours of July 23, Wagner said, he and two friends were forced into a car by four muscular men with short, military-type haircuts. Wagner and his friends were shot in the head with a .38-caliber handgun, then dumped on a sidewalk.

As often happens on the street, he never knew his friends’ real names, just their nicknames: Little Opossum and Flounder.

The others died, but Wagner stumbled to a gas station. An ambulance took him to the emergency room-although witnesses said the police ordered the medics not to help Wagner.

Days later, Wagner learned that eight of his friends, ages 8 to 19, had been killed that night. All had lived outdoors by the church. Information from Wagner was vital to the indictments of three military police and a civilian. Under international pressure, the government promised a speedy trial.

After six months of surgery and physical therapy paid for by the government, Wagner got a job as a groundskeeper at a Club Med on the northern coast of Brazil, thanks to foreigners who took an interest. But after a few months he returned to Rio. He was homesick for the home he knew best-the streets.

The Candelaria trial was coming up, so he moved into the shelter for witnesses, a two-story building in a dangerous downtown neighborhood where only prostitutes and giant rats venture out at night.

On Dec. 9, 1994, he walked out to get away from the blank white walls and jalousie windows. “Two men handcuffed me from the back and kicked me, saying, `So you tried to get away?’ ” Wagner recalled.

The next thing he knew, he was back in the hospital with six bullet wounds and two fresh 9mm bullets still in his body.

This year, the police caused an outcry in Rio not because they were too cruel, but because they were too passive. The governor of Rio de Janeiro state appointed a retired army general, 64-year-old Nilton Cerquiera, to oversee the police. During the military dictatorship, Gen. Cerquiera had commanded a secret police squad that was accused of torturing political prisoners.

Despite Gen. Cequiera’s background, there was little public outrage over his appointment. That is because this year, nearly 10,000 people will be slain in Rio de Janeiro state, population 13 million. People are sick of crime.

In July, Gen. Cerquiera made a bold pronouncement. If Rio’s civil police didn’t shape up in five months, he’d fire all of them.

The public loved the get-tough rhetoric. But Gen. Cerquiera’s threat was short-lived. The media reported that those monitoring the civil police radio heard the cops saying, “We’re gonna get him.” Gen. Cerquiera reconsidered and announced that he would not fire the police after all.

Defending human rights in developing countries is not an easy matter. Just ask Jim Cavallaro.

Or better yet, ask the man who mugged him.

Last month, as Mr. Cavallaro and his fiancee rode a bus along the beach in the Copacabana neighborhood, a young man sat in front of Mr. Cavallaro and pointed to a bulge in his waistband. “Hand over your money,” the man demanded. “I’ve got a gun.”

Mr. Cavallaro gave up all his cash, about $6. Then he put his assailant in a choke-hold. “He has a gun, and he just mugged me!” Mr. Cavallaro shouted.

The bus stopped by a police post, and policemen grabbed the assailant. Then, despite Mr. Cavallaro’s objections, they used an old torture trick called the “telephone,” smashing cupped hands against his ears.

The mugger, it turned out, had a rag in his waistband, not a gun. When Mr. Cavallaro saw him again at the police station, his shirt was bloody.

Mr. Cavallaro, a fast-talking New Yorker who lives in Rio, filed two complaints with the police-one against the mugger and one against the officers who beat the mugger.

“No matter how angry we are, if society is to function, there has to be rule of law,” Mr. Cavallaro said. “We can’t have police taking justice in their own hands.”

The mugger, apparently, wasn’t interested in making a social statement. He refused to lodge a complaint against the police.

Brazil has been through military regimes, elections and impeachments as well as booms and busts. The result is undoubtedly democracy, but it isn’t always pretty.

“The police officers in Brazil today were trained to squelch dissent and crime during the dictatorship,” said Gary Barker, a Houston native who worked with street children in Colombia and Brazil for three years. “Some people say the police need to be retrained, but I think it has to start at the top. The commanders have to say, `We’re not going to stand for the killing of kids.’ ”

He reels off the results of one study after another showing that human rights violations and other crimes almost never result in imprisonment in Brazil.

That’s why Wagner will go to court in a few weeks. He says it’s important to testify in the memory of his Little Opossum, Flounder and the other Candelaria victims, even though he fears that he will be killed.

Wagner is back in the whitewashed confines of the Center for Protection of Witnesses. He sleeps in a 5-by-10-foot room with a view of the observation tower for the guards. He never steps out past the police.

His girlfriend, Ileani, rarely leaves. Last year her husband, a police officer, was shot dead. He had denounced fellow cops for running a stolen-car ring. She, too, waits to testify.

Wagner tells his story impassively, enunciating each word carefully because he cannot move half of his mouth. He doesn’t ask for anything until the massive blue front gates swing open and a visitor steps out to the wild streets.

“Could you get me some cigarettes?” Wagner says. He holds up his hand to wave off any advice about health.

“At least they’ll kill me slowly.”

PHOTO(S): (1-6 Special to The Dallas Morning News: John Maier Jr.) 1&2. Above: Wagner dos Santos has been beaten, stabbed and shot. Right: Wagner stays in a guarded shelter while waiting to testify. He was attacked when he went outside, so now he doesn’t leave the grounds. 3&4. Left: Military police stand guard at the Center for Protection of Witnesses. Above: A masked street child holds a protest sign. 5. Bloodstained clothes hang in front of the church where the massacre. 6. Wagner dos Santos (left) watches TV with Paulo Roberto de Oliveira. ; PHOTO LOCATION: 1.-6. Digital.

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