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Black, slum-dweller, builder’s assistant, Amarildo

The case of Amarildo, an Afro-Brazilian teenager tortured to death by the Brazilian police represents the dispossession of blacks and institutionalized racism of Brazilian society as black people of the favelas continue to confront racial stereotypes that dehumanize and ultimately take their lives

‘Between 2002 and 2010, according to the records of the System of Information Pertaining to Mortality, 272.422 black citizens died as a result of assassination, with a medium of 30.269 killed each year. But in 2010 the figure was 34.983.’ The Colour of Murder. Map of Violence, 2013, p.38

The word ‘metaphor’ suggests transport. In the case of Amarildo, a Brazilian teenager killed by the police, we see much more about potential than we do about action, [1] and the changing meanings of racial relations in Brazil which reveal challenges to Brazilian society. Why does the case manifest more as potential than as act? What allows black people, who are dispossessed of power, to continue to remain invisible, tortured and killed in our country? What does this episode reveal about the way in which racism has remained a part of our society? In what instances is this racism manifested and reproduced? The disappearance of Amarildo is informative for those of us seeking to understand significant aspects of our society and our country, particularly in terms of race. Amarildo, who is ‘just one more ‘Silva’ gleaming in a star’ [2] and also his father – they were poor, living in a favela [3] and the assistants of bricklayers. And Amarildo was black.


According to the police investigation, the bricklayer’s assistant, Amarildo, was killed by torture. He was seen for the last time on the 14 June, in the company of military police, when leaving a container belonging to the Unit of Pacification Police (UPP, Unidade de Polícia Pacaficadora) in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro. According to the investigation, Amarildo, a diagnosed epileptic, was killed after receiving repeated electric shocks, and was and asphyxiated with a plastic bag. After months of pressure from his family and the public in various parts of the world, demanding an answer to the question ‘Where is Amarildo?’ more than ten police were implicated, including a Major of the Military Police. The body of Amarildo, however, has not been recovered.

The case drew attention to a situation consistent with the fear and violence experienced by those who live in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Beyond the question of the territory itself, there is also the historic burden of racism experienced within Brazilian society. To be a ‘favelado’ (one who lives in a favela) and poor in Brazil represents a double stigmatization. According to the [Portuguese"> dictionary Aurélio, stigma (estigma) means to be scarred, marked or branded in an ‘infamous’ way. [4] In Ancient Greek society, scars [5] ‘marked evidence of something extraordinary or perhaps bad, which showed the moral status one presented to the world. These marks were made with cuts or fire on the body, and also could signify that the person who bore them was a slave, a criminal or a traitor – a person marked, ritually polluted, who should be avoided, particularly in public spaces.’ [6]

African slaves, transported by force to Brazil, were branded from the moment of capture. They carried on their bodies the marks of corruption, of moral and spiritual degradation, and of the territory of Africa, which according to the renown French author Victor Hugo, was a continent with no history.[7] Cursed by Noah, all of the children of Ham, the Hamitic, were to be reduced to conditions of slavery. [8] They were seen as being without souls, without history, without discipline and without morality, mingled goods that crossed the seas in the holds of merchant ships.

‘They leave the cane-fields tied and broken, and oh! How many times before have they left and been sold? With what contempt have their bodies been crushed and destroyed in the sea? Preach it finally, and mark with fire the grave where they lie, and like this, preached to and buried, many times they are sold and resold, imprisoned, siezed and dragged, and, if free of the prisons of the port, not free of torments from the see, nor exile, nor taxes, nor the insurance of their being sold and bought by Christians which is as risky as being taken to Algiers by the Moors.’ [9]

It was stigma and branding that legitimized the condition of slavery in Brazil. In cities of the Republic (after Brazil declared independence from Portugal) people continued to stigmatize those who did not have houses, and with houses purportedly dignity and morals, and who were classified as being inferior to other races and in possession of inferior genes. Although free, the condition of ex-slave and manual labourer disqualified black people from manifest citizenship within the young Republic. Racism formulated at the end of the 19th century, manifested in theories of ‘whitening’ the population (through the ‘importation’ of European migrant populations) and consolidating white ‘civilization’ in Brazil by diluting and diminishing ‘black’ influence within the country. Thus discriminated against for their black skins and for their memories of Africa, many former slaves took refuge in the hills. Despite the city reforms implemented at the beginning of the 20th century by Perreira Passos, favelas emerged, with large populations of black people, mixed-race people and poor people, who were attracted to the new spaces. As the 19th century moved into the 20th, the term ‘favela’ gained a negative connotation, representing everything that the new Republic was struggling not to be in terms of binaries comprising disorder over order (manifest in houses of straw) [10], inland and the coast, the favela versus the formal space of the city, black versus white, barbarism versus civilization and stagnation versus progress.


The ‘favela’ came to represent disorder, and the absence of morals in part because of the territorial (dis)organization of their inhabitants: black people, mixed people and poor people. Even today ‘favela’ is often seen as the negation of the city and urbanity. It is well known that an important part of our (Brazilian) society was constructed on this vision of the world – and of society – founded upon the acceptance of racial hierarchies long reinforced in the historical experiences of Brazilians. For example, despite being residents of the favelas, the greatest victims of urban violence are those who confront the drug trade by living each day with its effects, and being ‘taxed’ generically simply by being associated spatially with the drug trade. It is worth remembering that at the beginning of the police inquiry into the death of Amarildo, the delegate Ruchestor Marreiros accused Amarildo of being responsible for guarding the weapons of drug dealers, and wanting to send Elisabete Gomes da Silva, wife of Amarildo, to prison on the charge of being an accomplice to drug trafficking! However, the chief of the police unit, Orlando Zaccone, did not consider the charge to have sufficient evidence and nothing came of it. In a more recent case notice was given of the killing of a young black man identified as Paulo Roberto Pinho de Menexes. Here the media did not hold back in reporting that he was supposedly a drug user who had also at times worked with the police.

The boy’s mother, Fátima dos Santos Pinhos de Menezes, and his neighbours, all affirmed that Paulo Roberto was tortured and killed by a unit of the UPP in Manguinos, Rio de Janeiro. Power becomes visible here: how people in dominant groups close to power in society give stigma to others in inferior positions, who for their part assume this stigma, and suddenly it is there as a force that divides and differentiates society. In this case, the difference was racial, territorial and moral, besides the class markers of income and education. [11] Amarildo was a bricklayer’s assistant. He was poor, and he lived in a favela.

According to a study entitled ‘the Colour of Homicide in Brazil’ produced by the the coordinator of studies of violence at the Latin-American University (FLACSO), Júlio Jacobo Waiselfisz, between 2001 and 2010, in the period in which the death of White youth across the country fell by 27.1 percent, the number of black youth who died increased to 35.9 percent. The ‘Map of Violence 2013’ shows that in 2010, almost 35 thousand black people were killed in the country. Other research data shows that between 2002 and 2011, 50.903 white youth died and 122.570 black youth – a difference of approximately 150 percent. Despite this disparity, the numbers do not represent a growth in the murder of black people – that rose in a much more moderate degree in that period - but rather the decline in white homicides allows us to look at the on-going stigmatization that is determined by the colour of skin.


Based on data from the System of Information on Mortality from the Ministry of Health, research revealed that in Brazil the major victims of violence are young, poorly educated black men. Racism is a major motive for these crimes. It is also possible to affirm that the political strategies of security and protection of citizens are manifest differently according to the colour of the population and the area in which they live.

Waiselfisz points to three factors that determine this situation: firstly, a culture of violence that is present in our society. Following the research, in Brazil there exists a tradition of resolving conflicts with death, an inheritance that has its roots in slavery. Secondly, a high circulation of guns and other weapons, and finally, impunity. ‘These facts should be of concern to a country that pretends to have no ethnic, religious, racial or political boundaries. It shows a high level of violent death far greater than in many other parts of the world where there have been actual conflicts, either internal or external’ [12] noted the researcher.

On the apparent absence of armed conflict in the country, it is worth noting the adoption of public policies of security that are highly militarized, not only on the borders of the country but more recently in the ‘borders’ of favelas and formal zones of Brazilian cities. In a commentary on the state of public security, Rodrigo Pimental, speaking on Globo Network TV, Ride de Janeiro’s 1st edition of the 18 June, affirmed that “a rifle should be used in war, in political operations in communities and favelas. It is not a weapon to be used in an urban area.’ [13] The hierarchy expressed here between ‘favela’ and ‘urban area’ is clear, and clearly extends to the áreas inhabitants as well. It is also clear that in terms of confronting crime in the favelas, the sense is one of war. In 2010, then Secretary-of-Security, José Mariano Beltrame, affirmed that ‘a shot in Copacabana is one thing. In the Favela de Coréia, it’s something else.’ In June of this year, a journalist working for Globo News, Leilane Neubarth, transmitted live the news of a protest held by those who lived in the City of God (Cidade de Deus), most of whom are black, calling for civility, Brazilian identity, dignity and the legitimation of their actions, claiming that they found themselves living as ‘people without meaning.’ [14]

The war against drugs that has been undertaken by police, both military and civil, and endorsed by civil society, points to the urgent need for a debate on the demilitarization of the public security policies, and not only the military police. This is not because of violence, but also because of the institutionalism of racism within society that needs to be combated. The ‘culture of violence’ that has emerged is a combination or racial and territorial stigma, and the militarization of the Public Sector police who regularly produce, it must be noted, cases of the torture and death of Young black poor favela-living men.

The national secretary for youth recognizes this problem, one that ‘specifically affects black youth’[15] and has tried to create strategies to confront this. According to Fernanda Papa in the National Youth Secretariat, last year the government gave its first response to the crisis through the creation of a ‘Plan for Living Youth’. This plan aims to address the demands of civic society through much more government action. Through different programs, the Plan has around 40 components that will be realized through partnerships with states and municipalities to reach Young black youth through these political means. Supporting this direction, law 10.639/03, which will celebrate 10 years this year, is essential in that it makes it obligatory to teach the history of the African continent and Afro-Brazilian culture in schools, finally valorising black people and their decedents.


It is fundamental, as well, to debate the dangerous association of racial and territorial stigma with the militarization of the police, who have become part of the Public Security forces. But it is not only this. It is also necessary for society to give attention to the act – the disappearance of a bricklayer’s assistant, who lived in a favela – that speaks to its potential. The case brings together unlucky characteristics of one man. Before being a bricklayer’s assistant, Amarildo was black. He was black and he was poor and he lived in a favela, and he was a victim of the historical racism present in our society. He was a victim of the security police and a militarized police. He was a victim in the war against drugs. He was stigmatized racially and territorially. Amarildo is like millions of black people, equally kept aside and tortured since the first voyages across the Atlantic. They were dehumanized, lost names and surnames, became invisible because of the famous marks of moral degradation. They were manual labourers, Amarildos, who were transported and who shared diverse meanings, diverse identities, experiences and scars. They were black, poor, assistants of bricklayers and favelados. Most important is that we ask: ‘What happened to Amarildo?’ – that we question how our society and our institutions permit that they are scarred, illiterate, poor, kept aside, tortured and killed.


1. Something that has the potential to exist or exists as a potential and not in reality in a particular moment in time, but could be realised. Or the act that is the opposite, that is that which really exists or is currently undertaken. A person who is not thinking, but has the capacity to think, is a thinker in potential, but only a thinker in action when in fact he or she is thinking. In the same way, closed eyes can potentially see, but only see in the act of opening. See Aristole’s Metaphysics (translated into Portuguese) by Leonel Vallandro, Preface by David Ross. Poert Alegre, Ed. Globo, 1969.
2. RUM, Bo. Rap do Silva. Rap Brasil 2, Rio de Janeiro, Furcao 2000, 1995.
3. Translator’s note: ‘favela’ is the term used in Brazil to describe usually low-income, informal parts of most landscapes. The word is often translated as a ‘slum’ or ‘informal settlement’ but I will maintain the term ‘favela’ in this text.
4. HOLANDA Aurélio Buarque de Novo Dicionário Aurélio da Lingua Portuguesa. Rio de Janeiro, Nova Fronteria, 1998.
5. Translator’s note: the verb used use is ‘estigmatizar’. In this case I translate it as ‘branded’ but scarred or marked will also suffice. I avoid the word ‘estigmatized’ because of the association in English of stigmata in a Biblical sense.
6. GOFFMAN, Erving.Estigma: notas sobre a manipulacao da identidade deteriorada. Rio de Janeiro, LTC, 1998.
7. Besides Hegel, Victor Hugo shared the view of the African continent as being devoid of history with other thinkers. According to the stories of a young mixed race boy, on the island of Guadaloupe, Gaston Gerville-Réache, the stories told by Victor Hugo were sometimes interrupted by enthusiastic applause that concluded with ‘Long Live Victor Hugo, Long Live the Republic!’ For example, see the 31st anniversary of the abolition of slavery, in the presence of Victor Hugo, Gaston Gerville-Réache. Briere. Paris, 1879, p. 8. APUD, Elikia M’bokolo. Ce que sont ces étranges “amis de L’Afrique”... in: Adame Ba Konaré (org.), Petit Précis de remise à niveau sur l’histoire africaine à l’usage Du président Sarkozy. Paris, La Découverte, 2008.
8. The Bible, Genesis, Chapters, 9 verses 20-27.
9. This citation considers sugar cane production. ANTONIL, Joao Antonio Andreoni, em Cultura e opulencia no Brasil por suas drogas e minas, 1711.
10. CUNHA, Euclides da. Os Sertes. Disponivel
11. BRUM, Mario Sergio Ignacio. Cidade alta. Historia, memorias e stigma de favela num conjunto habitacional do Rio de Janiero. Rio de Janiero, Ponteio, 2012.
12. WAISEFISZ, Julio Jacobo. A Cor dos Homicidios. Mapa da Violencia 2013. CEBELA/FLACSO, 2013. Visualizado, 18/10/2013.
13. Author’s emphasis.
15. Fernanda Papa, Secretaria Nacional de Juventude da Presidencia da Repulica

*Pablo de Oliveiro de Mattos is a black historian who has a Masters degree from the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and received his doctorate in Social History from the University of Sao Paulo. He is one of the authors of the book ‘The History of Contemporary Africa’ (História da África Contemporânea) Pallas/Ed. PUC, 2013



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