July 14, 2013: The Mysterious Disappearance of Amarildo de Souza


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


On July 14, 2013, a 43-year-old bricklayer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil named Amarildo de Souza was brought in for questioning by police officers on his way home from the market. They believed he was connected to drug trafficking in the area, even though he had no prior involvement in any illegal activity.


While Amarildo was at the police station, more than 300 officers from the police force flooded the area to arrest drug traffickers. During this 2-day long raid, he became lost in the shuffle and never seen again.


According to the police, he was released after questioning by the Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (UPP). Cameras show him being taken to Rocinha, the base where he was questioned, but suspiciously, all UPP cameras and GPS systems malfunctioned upon his release, thus showing no evidence of where he went, if he was even ever released. His whereabouts have been a mystery since.


A skeleton was found on September 27, 2013 and was examined to determine if the remains belonged to Amarildo, but the results were inconclusive. At this point, his body has not been found.

THE INVESTIGATION


Amarildo was one of the most respected men where he lived, a married father of 6. He was known for his work ethic, and also became something of a local hero after rescuing a 4-year-old child from a burning shack when he was a kid. By all accounts, he was considered a strong, popular, well-respected hard worker. (2)


He was called in for questioning by police during a crackdown against drug traffickers, though he did not have a criminal history. His wife, Elisabete, arrived at the station but was told she couldn't wait for him, but that he would return home. But he never did. (2)


When he failed to come home after being questioned, his disappearance quickly turned into shock from the community, as his family and friends protested and campaigned for answers. (2)


Initial reports claimed that Amarildo was released after questioning. However, he never made it home and was considered missing for over 2 months after his disappearance. During this time, the suspicious behavior of the police lead to public outrage as the community forced the authorities to explain the suspicious circumstances in which a non-criminal, non-drug trafficker could get arrested on such charges and then disappear. (1)


The answer? He was tortured. He had been brought in for questioning, and when the police claimed he had been released, he was kept at the base and tortured. In total, by October of 2013, 24 policemen and commanders were accused of torture, concealing a body, procedural fraud, and conspiracy. (1)


It was determined that 4 officers played a direct role in his disappearance and torture, while 12 stood guard. 8 other men were present and did not help with the torture, but did not help the victim. A major was found to have bribed a resident to lie in her eyewitness statement, testifying that his disappearance was linked to a local drug trafficker as opposed to the police. (1)


Though his body has never been found, it was determined that he was tortured with electric shocks and suffocated with plastic bags for hours before he was finally drowned in a bucket. In 2015, security camera footage was able to be found and enhanced that showed an image compatible with the size of a human corpse sealed in a motorcycle cover and placed on a truck that left the base the night of his disappearance. (1)


Police violence is no stranger in Rio. Roughly 16% of all homicides between 2010 and 2015 took place from on-duty police officers. Though deaths at the hands of police were (and, I suppose, are) so common in the country, Amarildo's case became the poster for the fight against police abuse. #WhereIsAmarildo was posted extensively on social media as the community demanded to know what happened to him. (1)

CRITICISMS OF THE UPP AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS (1)


Controversy surrounded Amarildo's case, because it lead to charges and sentences being brought against 25 UPP officers. The UPP had been established in 2008 as a method of increasing security pending the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics coming to town. They were designed to address the issue of police brutality and corruption by only using new recruits who had just graduated from the police academy. But, like many relationships between authority and those they have authority over, the relationship was wrought with mistrust. Residents believed they would become the "new bosses" and replace the ousted gang leaders, controlling their towns.


As such, many believe that the UPP had a role in the rising number of missing persons in the towns they patrolled, which came to light more and more after Amarildo's disappearance. And while the number of homicides and resistance killings by police declined dramatically, the number of missing persons in Rio's impoverished communities increased 33% from 2007, the year before the UPP was established.


Pro-UPP people argue that the rise in non-lethal crimes, including the slew of unsolved disappearances, is just a consequence of better reporting. Before the UPP, people were scared to report disappearances and other non-fatal crimes out of fear of revenge from gang members. With the UPP in control, people felt more safe to report. However, a 33% increase seems to be a little bit more than just a reporting gap, especially considering 25 members of the UPP were charged in relation to a disappearance that was very much their fault.


Additionally, the drop in resistance killings could also be a reporting issue... critics of the UPP argue that Rio's police force has just chosen not to report many crimes that would fall in that category. The state receives monetary bonuses for killing fewer people in an effort to limit violence, and thus, police could just dispose of evidence related to such killings before an investigation can take place. Many believe that resistance killings are simply being disguised as disappearances to improve public perception.


Ultimately, of the 24 (or 25) people charged with crimes in Amarildo's case, 12 pleased to first degree torture followed by death, and 8 pleaded guilty to 2nd degree torture followed by death. The Major who bribed a resident to testify on behalf of the police was sentenced to the longest time, 13 years and 7 months. The sentences for all of the men are not listed, but it appears that most received between 9-11 years for their involvement in the torture and disappearance.


Though this story may seem much different than how things are in the U.S., there are so many similarities. Amarildo was brought in for questioning with no criminal record and no involvement in drug trafficking. Though their motive was never stated, it is likely because of the way he looked, and the poor area in which he lived. They assumed he must have something to do with it. While in custody, he was tortured for hours before he was murdered. Though deaths in custody are common in the U.S., I don't know if torture is, so this is where the paths diverge a little bit. However, they come back in a big way after: everyone was willing to cover it up. Nobody stepped in, officers paid people off, and corruption ran rampant as communities outside demanded to know what happened, and demanded justice for an upstanding, beloved member of their community.


We see so much of this with the police tensions in the U.S., perhaps to a smaller degree, but not really. Black men, specifically black men in underprivileged neighborhoods, are profiled. Due perhaps partially because of racism but largely because of implicit biases, black men are seen as more dangerous or threatening, whether they are committing a crime or not. They are pulled over because they look suspicious (Philando Castile), they are shot because they look like criminals (Trayvon Martin) or force is escalated extremely because they are black (George Floyd and so many others). And whether they are tortured, or just murdered, or sexually assaulted like a ridiculous amount of black women are while in custody, their lives are forever changed or ended because of an interaction with the police. And like in Amarildo's case, officers will stand by and watch it happen. Higher-ups will do whatever they must do to cover it up. And more than anything, they back up each other... while the communities outside fight for justice and answers.


Likening the UPP and the American police system together makes sense, but beyond that, the UPP is potentially uniquely horrifying in that, in order to financially capitalize on better numbers of not murdering citizens, they may be killing and disposing of innocent residents in order to ensure their lethal crime rates go down. And when the disappearance rates go up as a result, they can just play it off as a reporting snag due to residents feeling more safe coming forward. Perhaps believing this is a conspiracy theory, but it doesn't make sense for police-on-citizen violence to drop so very much while disappearances climb with no reasonable explanation. Especially when 25 UPP members were arrested, and 20 were convicted of involvement in the forced disappearance (read: murder) of an innocent father of 6. I would have to imagine the incident was not isolated.


I had never heard of this story, and am absolutely baffled that over 20 people would be involved in, or not step in to stop, such a brutal torture and murder of an innocent person. Power is a hell of a drug, and it is a drug that those in police uniforms around the world are easily able to get high off of. Electrocuting, suffocating and drowning a husband and father for no reason is just a part of the job.


Though many still want to know where their beloved neighbor is, it is widely agreed upon that he is dead. However, the whereabouts of his remains are still unknown, leaving some glimmer of hope to those who loved him. Hopefully, one day, the answer to the cries of #WhereIsAmarildo will be answered.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Case_of_Amarildo_de_Souza

2. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/where-s-amarildo-how-the-disappearance-of-a-construction-worker-taken-from-his-home-by-police-has-8745464.html


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