On April 17, 2003, four unarmed male teens begged for their lives after being caught in a drug sting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Police shot them all in the back of the head, execution style. At their funerals, unrepentant officers harassed and intimidated the family members of their victims, hoping to scare them from pressing charges.
At the time of this execution, the coffins of Rio’s drug-war dead were already piling up. Brazilian narks have been rampaging for two decades, killing kids with terrifying abandon, and making international headlines.
One night in 1993, 50 homeless children lay huddled together on the steps of a Rio church. According to media reports, five hooded men, arriving in vehicles, fired into their sleeping mass, killing four before they could begin to flee, perhaps before they awoke. A fifth was shot in the back as he ran for cover. Three more were abducted and two of those three were executed later that night. The third was left for dead after being shot in the face. It was later discovered that three of the hooded gunmen were off-duty military police, employed by the US in the war on drugs.
Later that same year, Rio’s narks spent one bloody night roaming the streets in the slum of Vig?rio Geral with guns, killing at least 21 people, including a 15-year-old girl and her entire family.
According to the 2003 Amnesty International report, Brazil: Candel?ria and Vig?rio Geral 10 years on, in both cases the murderous drug police were either acquitted despite overwhelming evidence, or given drastically reduced sentences on appeal. “Wrongly accused” cops received huge cash settlements, while the victims were never protected or their families fully compensated. In fact, said Amnesty, many of the witnesses were hunted down and killed by angry narks who wanted to prevent them from testifying further in court, a common practice in Rio’s drug war.
In one heinous story from 1993, the mother of a youth killed by drug cops was herself assassinated for speaking out and creating a controversy over the murder of her teenage son.
According to the 2003 report, Children of the drug trade by Luke Dowdney, worldwide outrage after the 1993 killings forced drug cops to avoid further public mass-executions of children, but they kept on killing them, one by one. These police officers seem able to commit any indecency with impunity, even the murders of pregnant women and infants.
In 2001, police officially killed 52 children in Rio alone. The majority of all police killings in Rio were done with a single shot from behind or to the head. To keep the numbers down, police used secret graves to bury many little bodies.
Most of these atrocities occur in the favelas ? slums where the drug trade offers one of the only economic opportunities.
“Children have lost that aura of: ‘He’s only a child. We won’t shoot him,'” an unnamed favela resident told Dowdney’s team of researchers. “Now it is: ‘I will shoot more because their bodies are slimmer and more flexible; a child’s metabolism is quicker, so I’ll shoot to kill. If I don’t shoot to kill, that kid will survive and come back and shoot me.’ So now they shoot to kill.”
One joint equals death
Luiz Guanabara, spokesman for Psico-Tropicus, one of Brazil’s few drug-reform organizations, says that even a single joint is enough to get a child an on-the-spot execution.
“Recently a 15-year-old boy was shot dead by the civil police at Tabajara, a slum in the middle of Copacabana,” Guanabara told Cannabis Culture, adding that the police were not in uniform.
“Apparently the boy was there to smoke a joint. He was the only son of a middle-class family and worked as a photographic model due to his beauty. I know the story as I received a call from a friend of mine who was close to the boy’s family and was shocked.”
Sometimes, just being in the wrong place is enough to earn children an immediate death.
The organization Children in Organized Armed Conflict reports that in February 2004, three innocent teenagers, aged 13, 16 and 17 years old, were killed on their way home from a dance by drug cops wearing black ninja masks, who dragged them into an alley to perform the executions. There was no evidence of drug use or trafficking.
Then in March 2004, a 16-year-old girl died on her way home from school after being shot in the heart by police during a drug raid. Innocent bystanders like this 16-year-old are often caught in the crossfire.
Brazilian narks try to defend their actions, blaming the deaths of innocents on drug traffickers in the favelas, who sometimes employ teenagers, giving them guns to protect the neighborhood from rival gangs and cops. The implication is that since some kids carry guns, all are dangerous. More dangerous, even, than adults.
In charge of Rio’s cops is State Public Security Secretary Anthony Garotinho, who bragged to the press in 2003, after 12 days on the job, that since he took office “one hundred criminals” had been killed “in confrontations with police.” He later qualified that “If someone has to die as a result, let them die. We’re going to go in hard.” It didn’t seem to matter to him that many of those killed were children, and that they never saw the slightest judicial process before their death sentences.
Contrary to what the authorities would have the public believe, cops lie about the dangers of the favelas. Amnesty’s researchers found that police were more likely to be killed in other parts of Rio, yet more likely to kill in the favelas. Children of the Drug Trade researchers found that only 1% of all favela residents, including children, are involved in the drug trade. The officers’ spin reveals their desperate need to conceal a reality more complex and difficult than the common “good guy versus bad guy” mentality can capacitate. Rio’s child-murdering cops are spurred on by a stinging ghetto prejudice against all favela residents.
When those residents became outraged over the recent spate of child killings this year, State Public Security Secretary Garotinho threatened ominously that protesters could be arrested for “association with drug traffickers” and thrown in jail for up to 10 years. In reality, though, Garotinho has little to fear from the majority of Rio’s residents who, like police, are hopelessly blinded with prejudice against anyone who lives in the favelas.
Colombian kid killers
In Colombia, millions have taken to the streets in sweeping national protests waving signs demanding no more multimillion dollar US-funded drug war, no more deaths of innocent children. Yet the deaths continue.
One example was the killing of six schoolchildren in Colombia’s city of Pueblo Rico, shot by the Colombian military during a school outing of 60 youngsters aged six to 12 in August 2000. At first, soldiers responsible for the massacre claimed that narcoguerillas had used the kids as human shields. The children had a different story. They said they were ambushed by automatic weapons and grenades, and held under heavy fire for nearly 45 minutes.
Town Councilor Hernando Higuita, alerted by nearby explosions, reported that when he shouted at the army to stop firing on the children “they shot even more.”
Such violence against children is common in Colombia’s “reconciliation zones,” regions where the government has granted the Colombian military the powers of police, judges and executioners. Commonly, murdered kids are portrayed as victims in conflicts with revolutionary soldiers, even when everyone in the surrounding village knows that the military police are lying.
For example, Colombia’s Centre for Research and Popular Education (CRPE), a human rights organization, recently protested the death of a nine-year-old boy at the hands of government troops. Soldiers claimed the boy was killed in combat with revolutionaries. The truth, according to CRPE, was that soldiers burst into his home based on a unsubstantiated “tip” from an informant, and shot him dead.
According to a UNICEF study, at least 500 children a year die in Colombia. These kids know they are targets. Almost half of Colombian children say they are too afraid of violence to even walk to school, and 61% say they have “no hope for the future.”
<Human rights traffickers
Human rights organizations are speaking out. UNICEF began the Children’s Peace Movement, which now boasts over 100,000 children as members. A group called Mama Coca protests the deaths of innocent women and children in an annual anti-fumigation march, which last year saw 3,000 women walk across the country to bring awareness about the US-funded aerial spraying that’s supposedly aimed at coca crops, but actually targets food crops, schools and whole villages. Despite rulings by the Colombian Constitutional Court and various lower courts last year, the spraying continues (CC#43, Death-spray legal defense).
Mama Coca spokeswoman Maria Mercedes revealed that children and their families are also forced to leave by organized involuntary resettlement programs. “Just recently [September 2003] when we were in Caquet?, government security forces picked up over 100 peasants and put them on a plane to Bogot?,” she wrote in a letter to Cannabis Culture. “They are doing this all over the country.
The underlying motive is profit. As documented by CRPE and previous articles in this magazine (CC#23, Colombia’s corporate killers), soldiers are clearing the land so that big corporations can snatch up territory and resources like oil, gas and emeralds.
Instead of investigating profit-hungry corporations and bloodthirsty soldiers, Colombian President Uribe targeted and humiliated human rights groups in an address to the nation on September 8, 2003. “Every time terrorists start to feel weak,” he said, “they send their mouthpieces to talk about human rights.” During the same speech, he referred to groups like CRPE and Mama Coca as “human rights traffickers” as though somehow they were synonymous with drug traffickers and revolutionaries.
Of course, Uribe’s pockets are stuffed with hundreds of millions of US dollars to maintain his country’s child-murdering war on drugs, an arrangement known in the US as “Plan Colombia.”
Bolivia makes change
In other parts of South America, the sickening paradox of corporations making money on a drug war that kills and injures children is enough to topple a government.
On March 9, 2003, three 12 and 13-year-old Bolivian children stood nearby as drug war protesters, many of them traditional coca growers, threw sticks and rocks at heavily-armed US-funded anti-drug police who double as death squads in Bolivia’s Chapare region. A soldier was savagely beating a woman protester, kicking her after she fell. Disgusted, one of the children swore at the soldier, who then opened fire. The boy was shot in the stomach and his friends were also hit.
Although severely injured, none of those three children died that day. Nevertheless, this incident outraged the nation, reminding them of the drug war deaths of many innocent children, women and men in their decades-long US-led drug war, and of the two presidents, Banzer and Quiroga, whom they had previously removed after massive public outcry over similar atrocities.
The mother of a child shot at the protest explained the high-level corruption that puts the most defenseless innocent lives at risk in her country every day.
“The government says that it is fighting drug trafficking, but it’s a lie,” she told the press. “This eradication is just a pretext to abuse our rights and occupy our land. But the coca farmers won’t surrender. We have decided to die fighting rather than die on our knees.”
The government wants the land cleared of coca farmers so it can develop oil and gas reserves. The companies involved are favored with heavy US investment, and their target markets are in the US. Conveniently, the US “generously” agreed to accept Bolivian oil and gas imports provided that the government eradicated the country’s traditional coca-leaf crop, some of which is also sold to US corporations, like Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola decocainizes the leaves and uses them to make their famous drink. The cocaine goes to pharmaceutical multinationals (CC#37, Bolivian Peasants or Narcoterrorists?).
Does it bother any of these players that their profits are built with the maimed bodies of innocent children? Apparently not.
A Bolivian government minister, Yerko Kukok, speaking about the shootings, claimed that the children got what they deserved, because local citizens regularly “harass” anti-drug soldiers who are trying to destroy coca crops. Again, the masses were mobilized by Kukok’s resounding insensitivity.
On October 17, 2003, Bolivian President Gonzalo S?nchez looked out over the many thousands of protesters that had grown since March to paralyze the country, possibly considered that shooting children may have been a bad move, and signed his resignation papers. Fearing reprisals, he fled into exile.
Bolivian Congressman Evo Morales, leader of the six federations of coca growers, had words of warning for Vice President Carlos Mesa, who took S?nchez’s throne after his abdication.
“We know that the [US] Ambassador has been trying, since this morning, to put pressure on Carlos Mesa,” he told the press. “But we hope for a new policy? that leaves behind the attacks and assassinations that we have suffered for a long time? If he tries to repeat them, we will go into the streets again and force Mesa to leave.”
Drug war victims
The rallying cry for ending alcohol prohibition was “save the children.” Children caught in booze deals gone bad, children drinking in school, children sometimes shot in the war on drink. It is the same today with the war on drugs but, farcically, anti-druggies are the ones crying “save the children” while even police profit from the war that is killing innocent kids.
For example, Children of the Drug Trade revealed that in Rio, Brazil, it is commonly known that the police are corrupted with bribes from drug traffickers. Drug cops will kidnap children and sell them to rival neighborhoods where they are tortured and killed. The same police are also one of the main sources for marijuana and cocaine entering the favelas!
Similarly, in Bolivia, traditional coca-leaf farmers accuse the government of collusion with concentrated cocaine processors and traffickers who, they say, enjoy a strange immunity from the law.
In Colombia, while preadolescent children are wrongly assassinated for their fictitious participation in narcoguerilla groups, the DEA didn’t even get a slap on the hand when it was revealed that its agents where in cahoots with cocaine traffickers last year. According to investigators, DEA agents were likely involved in the slaughtering of two informants and the return of $40 million of seized cocaine to traffickers, but the agents are protected by the US government who says the DEA is immune from prosecution.
When everyone right up to the DEA is taking a cut of the drug profits, one might be tempted to ask, “How real is the war on drugs?” The term “war” implies that there is a goal to be reached, like taking a hill, a town, or some other objective. So a drug war, purportedly, should aim at stopping drugs. Yet it does the opposite. It keeps the black market going. It feeds cops and violence alike.
For drug warriors, children are nothing more than expendable tools in their quest for profit, control, and global domination.
Human rights groups fail drug war kids
The internationally accepted version of the facts is that the children’s deaths are part of an “escalating cycle of violence.” Government and human rights organizations try to figure out how to get kids out of the hands of traffickers while turning a blind eye to the root causes of their deaths. Instead, the psychology of drug traffickers’ guilt, excuses and rationale for involving children is explored in lurid detail.
The facts speak volumes more. According to Children of the Drug Trade, Brazilian marijuana and coke dealers carried only small, light pistols in the 70’s and 80’s, and children weren’t allowed to participate in the business. They’d be cuffed for even asking. But when police raids escalated to the point where many of the older men had died, children began to take their place.
The report also mentions that a third of these children lost a father or mother at a young age. Likely, we are left to guess, at the hands of a rampaging drug cop. Disappointingly, the report fails to explore this important angle.
Similarly, the otherwise excellent organization Amnesty International, in its 2003 report, failed to recognize the deaths of children in Rio as a symptom of injustices that characterize the drug war world wide. Amnesty’s spokespeople told Cannabis Culture that their answer to drug war deaths was to “provide children with more options.”
An inferred “blame it on drugs” approach means that crucial questions aren’t being asked, and an inevitable conclusion is avoided: these killings won’t end until the drug war ends. Human rights groups that fail to oppose the drug war are ignoring the root cause of these ongoing atrocities.