Brazilian Police Massacre Slum Dwellers Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When off-duty police massacred street children and slum dwellers in Rio de Janeiro in 1993, they showed the world the extent of Brazilian police brutality and touched off worldwide protests that led to attempted reforms.

Summary of Event

In mid-1993, Brazilian police inflicted two massacres on the poor of Rio de Janeiro. Eight street children died in a hail of bullets at the Pius X Square near Our Lady of Candelária church during the night of July 23-24, 1993, and a month later, during the night of August 29-30, a squad of masked policemen attacked the Vigário Geral favela (slum) and killed twenty-one residents. These incidents were the most infamous sources for the reputation of the Brazilian police for brutality and corruption. The massacres provoked an outcry within Brazil and international protests by human rights organizations. Police brutality;Brazil Brazil;human rights abuses Human rights abuses;Brazil Massacres;Rio de Janeiro [kw]Brazilian Police Massacre Slum Dwellers (July 23-24 and Aug. 29-30, 1993) [kw]Police Massacre Slum Dwellers, Brazilian (July 23-24 and Aug. 29-30, 1993) [kw]Massacre Slum Dwellers, Brazilian Police (July 23-24 and Aug. 29-30, 1993) [kw]Slum Dwellers, Brazilian Police Massacre (July 23-24 and Aug. 29-30, 1993) Police brutality;Brazil Brazil;human rights abuses Human rights abuses;Brazil Massacres;Rio de Janeiro [g]South America;July 23-24 and Aug. 29-30, 1993: Brazilian Police Massacre Slum Dwellers[08660] [g]Brazil;July 23-24 and Aug. 29-30, 1993: Brazilian Police Massacre Slum Dwellers[08660] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;July 23-24 and Aug. 29-30, 1993: Brazilian Police Massacre Slum Dwellers[08660] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 23-24 and Aug. 29-30, 1993: Brazilian Police Massacre Slum Dwellers[08660] Santos, Wagner dos Emanuel, Marcus Vinicius Borges Maia, Elizabeth Cristina de Oliveira

At the Candelária church, members of the Ninth Battalion of military police decided to teach a bloody lesson to several dozen children who lived and slept in the public square. Candelária massacre Massacres;Candelária The day before, some of the children reportedly had thrown rocks at a police car. When the police returned the following night, they asked for the children’s ringleader, Marco Antonio da Silva. Not suspecting what was about to happen, Marco answered. The policemen forced him and two of his friends into a car and drove away. The police then shot all three youths in the head and discarded their bodies near the Museum of Modern Art before returning to Candelária. The other children screamed and tried to run away, but the police fired on them; in addition to Marco, seven others died, and several were severely wounded.

The Candelária slaughter showed not only the brutality of the police but the problems caused by street children in Brazil. Like other Brazilian cities, Rio de Janeiro included in its population hordes of children who had been abandoned by their families or who had run away from their homes. One estimate placed the number of such children throughout Brazil at eight to ten million. These street children worked at whatever jobs they could find, but many also committed petty crimes to survive. They stole from merchants, robbed tourists, and were generally considered a public nuisance. Some were addicted to drugs. Packs of children such as the one at the Candelária square harassed neighborhoods and undermined public order.

Many Brazilians felt threatened by the street children. At times, merchants reportedly hired off-duty police to attack the children and remove them from the area. Sometimes the police murdered children in such raids, although the Candelária massacre stood out because of the large number of youths killed and because it occurred in downtown Rio, in front of one of the city’s most famous churches. Nonetheless, such killings had become commonplace in Brazil. In 1990, an estimated one thousand street children were killed by death squads and other vigilante actions. However, such murders typically occurred in the more remote, slum sections of cities and drew relatively little public attention. In November, 1991, a death squad, perhaps of off-duty policemen, killed six children in Nova Jerusalém, on the periphery of Rio de Janeiro.

Brazilian police forcibly evict residents of a slum built on the outskirts of São Paulo in 1998.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

With Brazilians still debating what had happened at the Candelária church in late July, late August brought another outrage by the police, this time in the Vigário Geral Vigário Geral massacre favela. After four policemen had been killed there two days earlier by drug dealers, thirty-three hooded men, reportedly members of the Ninth Battalion of military police, returned to take revenge on the slum dwellers. They cut telephone wires to prevent anyone from calling for help and then rampaged through the slum in a two-hour spree of killing and destruction.

Eight members of the Gilberto Cardoso dos Santos family died in the massacre, including a fifteen-year-old girl. The slaughter also claimed seven men who had been playing cards in a bar. They died when the police set off a bomb inside the bar and then shot everyone who tried to escape. At one point, the police were about to shoot a woman but allowed her and her family to flee unscathed when the woman’s husband, Edmilson Costa, agreed to die in their place. Spraying machine-gun fire around the Corsican Plaza, the police destroyed carts used by the slum dwellers to sell fruit, juice, soft drinks, and other merchandise. A teenage boy and a man died in the hail of bullets in the plaza. Much of the killing was random violence, designed as angry vengeance on the favela rather than as an attempt to identify and punish the individuals responsible for the deaths of the policemen’s comrades.

Like the Candelária slaughter, the massacre in Vigário Geral showed the extreme violence that can result from urban poverty and social tensions, especially when these are heightened by growing problems with drug trafficking and abuse. Brazilian shantytowns such as Vigário Geral were rife with petty criminals and networks of drug dealers. Investigators later discovered evidence that several members of the Ninth Battalion had gone to Vigário Geral to shake down Flávio Pires da Silva, who ran drugs with a network based in the favela. A shootout ensued, and four members of the police were killed.


The massacres in Brazil provoked tremendous public outcry, but attempts to punish and reform the police brought only limited success. Testifying against the police was risky. One of the original three Candelária victims, Wagner dos Santos, survived serious wounds and was able to recognize the police who had carried out the slaughter. He knew that if he identified them, it would put his life in danger again, but he bravely denounced the perpetrators and offered to testify against them in court. For his courage, he suffered two more attempts on his life and was again severely wounded. A children’s rights group subsequently hid him in Switzerland until it was time for him to return to Brazil to provide evidence in the trial of Officer Marcos Vinicius Borges Emanuel. Seven other survivors of the Candelária massacre also testified, but only by deposition, as they were too fearful to participate in open court.

Elizabeth Cristina de Oliveira Maia survived the Candelária massacre and then courageously agreed to testify against the policemen-murderers. On July 16, 2000, she appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States to describe her life as a child living in the streets of Rio de Janeiro and what had happened during the bloody night in 1993 at the Candelária church. The governor of Rio de Janeiro State, Anthony Garotinho, Garotinho, Anthony attended the proceedings and acknowledged the government’s responsibility for the carnage. Garotinho promised to provide pensions for the Candelária survivors and the families of those who had been killed. The government failed to protect Elizabeth Cristina, however. On September 26, 2000, a hooded assassin gunned down the twenty-three-year-old mother of three near her home in the Botafogo district of Rio de Janeiro. She was scheduled to testify in judicial proceedings against some of the accused policemen the following week. The murder not only prevented her testimony but also was meant to intimidate other potential witnesses into silence.

The judicial proceedings that took place as a result of the massacres did not yield completely satisfactory results. In late April, 1996, for example, a jury convicted two military policemen of crimes associated with the Candelária killings, including six cases of murder: the previously mentioned Emanuel and Nelson Oliveira dos Santos Cunha. Cunha, Nelson Oliveira dos Santos Emanuel received a sentence of 390 years in prison (Brazil has no death penalty), and Cunha was sentenced to 261 years. However, Emanuel, with no previous convictions, in reality faced only a maximum of 20 years in prison and was eligible for parole after 4 years beyond the 3 he had already served while awaiting trial.

Both Emanuel and Cunha claimed that the real perpetrator of the massacre was Maurício “Friday the Thirteenth” da Conceição, Conceição, Maurício da another policeman, who had died two years before the trial. Human rights observers were also troubled by Emanuel and Cunha’s protection of their superior, Lieutenant Marcelo Cortés, Cortés, Marcelo from prosecution. Emanuel claimed that Cortés had not participated in the massacre but seemed to be taking responsibility to shield higher-ups in the military police command structure. In fact, Wagner dos Santos identified Cortés as a participant in the massacre.

As for the Vigário Geral slaughter, the government eventually accused fifty-two military police of participating in the carnage. By 1998, only two had been convicted, and these again were lower-ranking men.

Brazilians found themselves trapped between a rising wave of criminal violence on one hand and police brutality and corruption on the other. Police publicly boasted of the numbers of people they had killed, although many, perhaps even a majority, of the alleged lawbreakers they executed had no previous criminal records. The police also enjoyed widespread support from a public dismayed and terrified by street crime. Indeed, support for the police was perhaps strongest among the poorest citizens, whose precarious lives in the slums were especially threatened by gangs of thieves, drug dealers, and other criminals. Brazilians did not trust the police, however. Public opinion polls showed that large majorities of Brazilians believed that the police were corrupt, sometimes needlessly violent, and often implicated in the activities of death squads.

The Candelária and Vigário Geral massacres were only the most visible part of a shocking national phenomenon. In 1991, for example, military police from the same Ninth Battalion had kidnapped and eventually murdered ten people from the Acari favela while trying to find several million dollars reported to belong to a truck hijacker. In 1992, military police in São Paulo ended a riot in an overcrowded prison by shooting 111 unarmed prisoners. Because most of their victims were poor and had no political influence, the police were under little pressure to change their behavior.

Others issues related to police violence were also difficult to solve. Street children continued to infest Brazilian cities, and violence against them continued. According to Amnesty International, of the seventy-two people present at the Candelária massacre, forty-four had died violently by mid-2000. Despite public outcry regarding the Candelária slaughter, the killing of street children increased after 1993.

A major obstacle to the elimination of police corruption was low salaries. With pay as low as $300 per month, many police officers succumbed to the temptation to supplement their incomes by conspiring with drug dealers, participating in merchant-funded death squads, and extorting protection money. The government promised to raise police salaries, but financial problems stood in the way. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International Amnesty International called for Brazil to institute witness protection programs to shield people such as Wagner dos Santos and Elizabeth Cristina de Oliveira Maia from police retaliation, but little was achieved.

The Candelária and Vigário Geral massacres highlighted the terrorist behavior of Brazil’s police, and the conviction of Emanuel and a few others did little to eliminate police violence and corruption. The fate of Wagner dos Santos illustrates the ineffectiveness of Brazil’s police reforms. On August 27, 1997, military police from the Second Battalion attacked Santos as he was walking to work. According to a report by Amnesty International, police gunshots left him partially paralyzed and brain-damaged. Witnesses also claimed that the attackers planted drugs and a pistol at the scene to frame Santos and then charged him with attacking the police. In 1998, a Brazilian court began prosecuting him for the apparently trumped-up charges. Santos managed to escape to Switzerland, however, where he was taken in by a Swiss family and given an opportunity to pursue formal education and employment. Police brutality;Brazil Brazil;human rights abuses Human rights abuses;Brazil Massacres;Rio de Janeiro

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cavallaro, James. Police Brutality in Urban Brazil. New York: Human Rights Watch/Americas, 1997. Analyzes police violence in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Porto Alegre, Recife, Belo Horizonte, Natal, and Salvador. Discusses attempted reforms by human rights organizations and offers recommendations to curb the violence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, Jack. “Reining in the Rogue Cops of Brazil and Its Neighbors.” Christian Science Monitor, December 10, 1998, 7. Discusses reasons for police brutality and corruption in South America, particularly Brazil, and the uneven attempts to eliminate them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Michaels, Marguerite. “Rio’s Dead End Kids.” Time, August 9, 1993, 36-37. Mentions the Candelária massacre, but focuses on the conditions that produce Brazil’s street children and possible solutions to the problem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Penglase, Ben. Final Justice: Police and Death Squad Homicides of Adolescents in Brazil. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994. Surveys Brazil’s record in the late twentieth century of violence against street children in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Pernambuco and makes recommendations for curbing the violence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schemo, Diana Jean. “Rio Ex-Officer Is Convicted in Massacre of Children.” The New York Times, May 1, 1996, p. A11. Covers Officer Emanuel’s trial and conviction and provides background information on the Candelária massacre.

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