Brazil is dealing with an economic, political, and social mess — and if there’s a picture that could serve to illustrate at least some of the above, this one could be it.
It depicts a group of boys casually playing football at a beach — right next to two dead bodies.
The identity of the cadavers is unknown. What is known is how they died.
Last week, on April 21, an elevated bike path that was supposed to be one of the legacies of this summer’s Olympics collapsed, three months after opening to the public. The project cost taxpayers a reported 12 million dollars.
Two passers-by were instantly killed in the tragedy, their bodies washed out to sea. Another person is still missing.
When asked by the photographer what he thought of the corpses just lying there, one of the boys reportedly said: “In the favela this happens every day.”
The picture caused a stir on social media. One commenter posted on Facebook: “People don’t respect anything!” Fabio de Melo, a priest, took to Twitter — where he has almost two million followers — to express his dismay: “We are all becoming a little less human,” he wrote.
Father de Melo might be right, but the boy at the beach is no less so. In the favela this does indeed happen every day.
For decades, the more than one million people living in the city’s 763 favelas have had to deal with daily violence — from both criminal gangs and police— while at the same time still having to go about their business.
According to a 2014/2015 Amnesty International report titled “You Killed My Son: Homicides by Military Police in Rio de Janeiro,” of 1,275 registered cases of killings by on-duty police between 2010 and 2013, 99,5% of the victims were men, 79% were black and 75% were aged between 15 and 29.
The report goes on to say that a “culture of racism” within Brazilian society, coupled with a narrative that discriminates and criminalises the poor, contributes for the legitimisation of these deaths.
I worked in Rio as a journalist at a time when an outsider could enter any of the favelas in the city’s south side without fearing for his life. Back then, in 2014, the government’s so-called Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, or Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) were on a crusade to free dozens of the city’s main favelas from the stranglehold of drug gangs and establish some kind of order and normalcy. But even then residents — most of them black young males — kept on being killed.
Now, with less than 100 days to go until the city hosts the first Olympic Games to ever be held in South American soil, most of the city’s favelas have gone back to being no-go zones to outsiders. With the state’s finances in dire straits, it’s now almost common knowledge that the UPP project has failed.
“The city is unrecognisable from when you left two years ago,” my friend, a Rio-based photojournalist, told me over the phone.
While this massacre against the city’s poorest and darkest-skinned citizens continues, the rest of the middle-class, mostly white population, both liberal and conservative, has reacted like those children pictured playing football at the beach: with total indifference.
In fact, part of the reason why President Dilma Rousseff and her Workers’ Party are so loathed by the country’s upper and middle-classes is that in 2012 the government enacted one of the world’s most sweeping affirmative action laws, requiring public universities to reserve half of their admission spots for the largely poor students from the nation’s public schools.
Most people filling Maracanã Stadium for this summer’s Olympic Games won’t notice, but not far from it is a favela called Mangueira which for years has been plagued by crime.
As Brazilians and tourists from around the world flock to the city to witness the biggest sporting show on Earth, I wonder if they will stop and shed a tear for the child who goes to sleep to the sound of gunshots in Mangueira, as Usain Bolt sprints to the finish line for yet another gold medal.
The picture and the boy’s remark are another reminder of the daily plight faced by the millions of the country’s poorest citizens. While the rich sip caipirinhas on Copacabana Beach and enjoy multi-billion-dollar sporting events, there are many who spend their lives dodging bullets. Perhaps “we are all becoming less human” after all.
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Felipe Araujo is a freelance news journalist based in London. He spent five years at CNN International and covered the 2014 World Cup in Brazil for Germany’s public broadcaster ZDF. He writes about race and minority issues, sports and culture. Twitter: @felipethejourno
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