The Mothers of May: The Difficult Democratization of the Genocidal State in Brazil

Rafael Dias, from the NGO Global Justice, believes that Brazil exists as a genocidal state because “there was never a rupture between the slave-state and the modern state, and we have now an elitist state that operates through violence to marginalize the indigenous, the black, and the poor, who were all considered threats or dangerous classes.”
Source: Americas Program

“My son’s name was Edison and he was 29 years old. He was killed on the streets. He just went home for some medicine and to put gas in his motorcycle. We lived in Baixada Santista, a working-class neighborhood in Sao Paulo. On May 15, the police followed him and killed him, 500 yards from the gas station. Even though there are contradictions in their statements, the District Attorney’s Office failed to act and shelved the case,” said Débora Maria da Silva, a 50-year-old woman of mixed-race and mother of two.

Edison had been working at a cleaning company for seven years and had a son. He was far from the stereotypical delinquent, but his skin was dark and he lived in a poor area of Baixada Santista on the coast of the state of Sao Paulo. The same day on which Edison died, the First Capital Command (PCC), a criminal drug-trafficking organization, attacked police commissaries and burned buses. “The city was paralyzed. It seemed like there had been an earthquake,” said Débora.

The wave of violence in South America’s biggest city, with 20 million inhabitants, began on May 12 after the government of the state of Sao Paulo moved 765 prisoners to a maximum security prison located 380 miles from the capital. One of the transferred prisoners was the leader of the PCC, Marcos Williams Herba Camacho, also known as Marcola, who directed the criminal organization from prison. In three days they carried out 180 attacks against police forces and prison guards in which, according to initial official estimates, 39 officers and 38 gang members died. They also set fire to more than a hundred buses, automobiles, and a dozen bank branches.

At the same time, riots were recorded in 73 of the 144 prisons in the entire state, which were also declared in a state of rebellion. The conservative newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo broke the news that the city morgue had received many more corpses than the number of deaths the government was reporting: 272 compared to the 172 that were officially reported. That led to the suspicion that there were dozens of illegal deaths, which the newspaper attributed to assassins who would surely have been policemen. On May 24, while the repression still had not subsided, authorities admitted that of the 300 recognized victims only 79 were involved with organized crime.1

That same day, Amnesty International stated that death squads composed of policemen were to blame for “close to 9,000 murders … the majority categorized as ‘resistance’ killings, without judicial investigation, registered between 1999 and 2004.”2 Many accused the governor, Claudio Lembo. The financial magazine Exame protested that the violence generates costs equivalent to 10% of the gross domestic product. President Lula was one of the first to tell the public a difficult truth: “The problem is Brazilian society. We’re reaping what we’ve sown in this country.”3

Neither Justice nor Law

“Some mothers, who knew that their children were murdered by the police and had no connection to organized crime, decided to confront the state because the state is in charge of security. Because it was election season they did not want to show weakness and decided to face the public’s anger over the burnings of buses by killing poor young people,” says Débora. “When it was clear that the young people’s deaths were carried out in the same manner and they were all workers, I began to look for other mothers. The state trivialized the deaths because at the top they only want to see numbers. I was busy as a bee visiting other mothers’ houses because many were afraid and did not want to talk.”

In July of the same year three mothers began to meet in order to visit police stations, investigate motives behind the deaths, and interview authorities. On the one-year anniversary of the murders, they led a protest and mass with 1,000 people who were carrying signs that read: “The ones who kill the innocent are the criminals.” The majority of the victims lived in Baixada Santista. “The state shelved the cases and did not prosecute any police officers.” The numbers speak for themselves: the state admitted there were 493 deaths from firearms between May 12 and 20, of which 47 were killed by the PCC. “Therefore the police killed 446 people,” Débora concludes.

She was able to demonstrate that the police had lied in the case of her son Edison, by providing evidence of contradictions in the police file. “They said that the police radio was off but I demonstrated that that wasn’t true.” What hurt the most, she explains, was that she ran into a dead end because the state closed all the cases. Her last resort was to meet with other mothers, to try to comprehend an incomprehensible situation and to work to make sure it never happened again.

First, they decided to call themselves the Mothers of May and they set up the Baixada Santista Association of Mothers and Relatives of Victims of Violence. Eventually they were even approached by people affected by the military dictatorship who hadn’t had the strength to come forward on behalf of their own family members. When the Mothers of May appeared, it gave them the courage to denounce the events of decades prior. “Now we’re 17 mothers just in Baixada and 4 more in Sao Paulo. We already have groups in 13 states made up of family members affected by the military police,” she says with pride. Their organization collaborates with the Network Against Violence in Rio as well as mothers from Espiritu Santo, Minas Gerais, Belem, Pará, Acre and Pernambuco, and other important states.

When Débora speaks, even when she gets upset, she does so with a certain serenity. “Our meetings are very painful. We cry. We suffer anguish because the impunity is what hurts the most. People raise a child and the state kills it. Mothers don’t symbolize death, but life. During the meetings people don’t accept what happened. They cry when they see a photo of their child. I’m being treated for depression. I’m a widow because my husband died in a similar way as my son did … and I have a brother who was disappeared.” From what one hears in the Bahia Social Forum, Débora’s reality seems to be shared by many Brazilian families.

 Expendable People
“The state exterminates the poor, black inhabitants of favelas because it’s easier to kill them than give them education and healthcare, because to them the poor are expendable. Black boys are the most vulnerable. The security policy of this country is a policy of extermination; they prefer jails to schools. When young people are murdered, their deaths are deemed ‘resistance’ killings, or ‘acts of resistance,’ which do not exist in the penal code,” Débora explains, politicized by her life experience.

Nonetheless, these are not just the opinions of a mother in distress. The book Crimes of May published six months after the events by the CONDEPE (State Council for the Defense of Human Rights, of Sao Paulo), an independent commission composed of representatives from the Federal Attorney General’s Office, the Medicine Regional Council, the Public Defender’s Office (CREMESP), and various human rights groups, reached the same conclusions as Débora.

Desiré Carlos Callegari, the president of CREMESP, claims that among those killed in May the majority were male (96.3%) and young (45% between the ages of 21 and 31 years old; 16.5% between 31 and 41). On May 15, each victim received an average of 5.8 gunshot wounds. Of the 493 dead, 43 were killed by delinquents (23 military police, 7 civil policemen, 3 municipal policemen, 9 prison guards, and 4 common citizens). Seventeen were prisoners who had revolted and 109 died in confrontations. However, 87 were murdered by unidentified killers “bearing signs of execution with police participation.”4

Criminal expert Ricardo Molina de Figueiredo, a member of the independent commission, analyzed the cases labeled “resistance” killings, which totaled 124 the week of May 12th through the 20th. The study of all the cases revealed that the majority of the victims were shot in a highly lethal area, that the shots were fired at close range, and that there was a great number who were shot “from head to toe.”

This allowed him to purport that “the combination of these factors indicate a situation similar to execution and not a shoot-out where the shooters are moving around. In an incident of confrontation it would be very improbable that these three components coincide, which allows us to conclude that 60 to 70% of the analyzed cases were executions.”5

The Public Defender’s Office in Sao Paulo says more or less the same. Pedro Gilberti, assistant general public defender, reports that there was faulty conduct and abuse of authority. The worst thing is that those elements, “until now did not lead to accusations, having been buried in the common grave of the archives, where impunity rests.”6

Thanks to this commission and the work of the Mothers of May, the belief that there were many summary executions stuck in the public’s mind. The second conclusion was put forth by the state: once again, it received impunity. The situation is dire because in Sao Paulo the murder rate began to rise again after 10 years of decline. In 2009, although violent crime continued to decline in the state capital, in the peripheral, inland, and coastal cities violence is climbing. In a single year in Baixada Santista the homicides grew by 37%.7

A Genocidal State

To understand how all of this can be occurring in a country which aspires to be a global player, a country where democracy has reigned for 20 years, one that benefits from a progressive government like that of Lula’s, and which will host the Olympic Games and the World Cup, one must investigate from a variety of perspectives.

Rafael Dias, from the NGO Global Justice, believes that Brazil exists as a genocidal state because “there was never a rupture between the slave-state and the modern state, and we have now an elitist state that operates through violence to marginalize the indigenous, the black, and the poor, who were all considered threats or dangerous classes.”8 In his opinion, “It’s a question of state, not government.” That’s why there were no significant changes with the installation of the left-wing government in 2003. “Now we have the model of militarization of the favelas because the poor continue to be considered a permanent enemy, and that is the logic of public security.”

The Left continues to treat inhabitants of favelas like lumpen, people marginalized in society, explains Rafael Dias. “The Left does not understand the situation of poor people. Because they aren’t organized in unions or parties, they don’t form part of the leftist political agenda. The leftists think they can resolve the problem applying compensation policies like the Bolsa Familia, or “Family Allowance” Program. We’re repeating the three principles that existed during slavery, the triple P: pao, pau y pano (bread, wood, and cloth).”

Mauricio Campos is an engineer and he works in the Network against Violence of Rio de Janeiro, which was born in 2003 when favelas mobilized against police violence. “Our work consists in judicial service to the people who suffer from violence. The main difficulty of working in the favela is state violence, the fear, the massacres, because the people who have permanent jobs are exposed to the same threats that terrorize the poor population.”9 Campos believes that the Acari massacre, in 1990 in Rio, where 11 youths were killed, provoked a change in society because “it was the first time there was an immense collective reaction from the families of victims.”

Campos maintains that one cannot avoid the issue of “economic links between organized crime and the police. The delinquents don’t want any charges to be brought against the police because they always solve problems with bribes. According to social activists, the police are the main problem because they always attack social organizations.” He adds that, “Violence against those living in the favelas has been on the rise because the Brazilian elite have been world pioneers in attacking the poor before they can organize. In other countries elitist violence is reactionary, but here it is preemptive because we have a very capable bourgeoisie, the most lucid in Latin America, which possesses an apparatus of domination like the TV network Red Globo that you don’t see in other countries.”

The serious problem with drug-trafficking, in his opinion, is that “it is the backbone of all criminal activity, and a big umbrella for all illegal activities.” On the other hand, the increase in struggles of the 70s and 80s “was resolved by repression under the dictatorship, but when democracy returned the direct repression stopped and the criminalization of the poor began. It is an uncontrollable process, because the police complex has an incredible autonomy to the point that no government dares confront it.”

This is one of the key points: social change is denied to the poor, black, and young majority. “If there was a strong social movement, many of the youth would stop empathizing with the criminals and start relating to the social struggle. Young people are swallowed up by a process. They don’t choose a crime, they’re just bystanders, and sometimes they want to seek revenge against the police because there is no justice, social organization, nor guerrilla warfare. The only way out is by joining drug-trafficking,” Campos concludes.

Social activists aren’t the only ones with this type of analysis. It’s worth listening to one of the most important conservative voices of the political spectrum, speaking from one of the highest offices that had to confront organized crime in Sao Paulo, Governor Claudio Lembo.

The day Lembo stepped down from his position, on December 31, 2006, he gave an interview to Folha de Sao Paulo in which he spoke about the tumultuous days of May. “During the crisis of the PCC, figures from the white minority wanted ‘eye for an eye’ justice. They wanted to kill everyone to save themselves and the white minority. That was what irritated me the most. We were in an extremely difficult situation and we had to show that the state could win within the law. They called me on the phone, and a few individuals came to see me.”10

Lembo is a conservative who now belongs to the Democratic Party (DEM) and who held departmental positions in Sao Paulo during the military dictatorship. The journalist from Folha inquired about what the white minority asked for, to which Lembo responded very clearly: “For the police to go to the streets, at night, and carry out executions.” He never said who these people were who wanted vengeance even though they were never directly affected by the violence. However it is clear that they belong to the minority of the rich who utilize the state for their own benefit.

During the conflict, Lembo said that the violence will only end when the white minority changes their mentality. “We have a very bad bourgeoisie, a very perverse white minority. The bourgeoisie is going to have to reach into their pockets to help sustain the social misery of Brazil in the sense of creating jobs, expanding education, increasing solidarity, and opening up more dialogue and correspondence about situations.”

“In what ways are they responsible?” asks the journalist. “During the historical formation of Brazil, when slaves were liberated, the ones who received restitution were the slave owners, not the free slaves as it happened in the United States. Brazil is a cynical country.”11

If this is what a conservative man thinks and feels, a near 80-year-old lawyer and university professor, a governor in charge of repressing delinquents and to some extent a member of the elite he critiques, “What might the poor, black, unemployed, continually persecuted young people between 15 and 18 years old feel?”

Débora explains it in her own way: “The poor don’t have the right to reach positions of power. Those are reserved for children of the elite.”


1. “Extermination Groups under Investigation in Sao Paulo,” AFP and DPA, May 24, Sao Paulo.
2. Idem.
3. Reuters, Sao Paulo, May 19, 2006.
4. Carta Mayor Agency, Sao Paulo, Feb. 17, 2007.
5. Idem.
6. Idem.
7. Maes de Maio,
8. Rafael Dias interview.
9. Mauricio Campos interview.
10. Folha de Sao Paulo, Dec. 31, 2006, Mónica Bergamo interview.
11. Folha de Sao Paulo, May 18, 2006, Mónica Bergamo interview.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program ( of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program (

Translated for the Americas Program by Brandon Brewer.