Débora Maria da Silva: a path paved with mourning and struggle that united mothers from across Brazil

Activist explains how her son’s murder led her to create the Mothers of May Movement and to demand accountability and reparations in Brazilian and international courts

Dona Débora, leader of the Mothers of May Movement, in an interview with Conectas
on the Crimes of May. (Photo: João Paulo Brito/Conectas) Dona Débora, leader of the Mothers of May Movement, in an interview with Conectas on the Crimes of May. (Photo: João Paulo Brito/Conectas)

In the month when the Crimes of May turn 17 years old, Conectas has published the profile of Débora Maria da Silva, co-founder of the Mothers of May Movement, which is demanding accountability for the human rights violations that occurred in one of the bloodiest episodes in our history. The text is part of the publication Conectas 20, which presents the career paths of prominent figures in the history of Conectas. 

Read the profile of Débora Maria da Silva: 

In March 2005, in São Paulo, a former civil police officer kidnapped the stepson of the man appointed as leader of the criminal organization PCC (First Capital Command), in an attempt to extort the drug dealer. The crime, together with other conflicts between the State and drug trafficking gangs, produced a tragic domino effect that would forever leave a mark on Brazilian history.

Just over a year later, starting on May 12, 2006, a series of killings occurred that over a two-week period would result in the murder of 59 government agents and more than 500 civilians. The so-called Crimes in May exceeded in a few short weeks the official number of deaths by the State in all the 21 years of Brazil’s military dictatorship.

The episode exposed a long-standing relationship between the public authorities and criminal organizations: a network formed by police officers, clerks, police chiefs and death squads left a trail of blood that killed hundreds of civilians, among them the street cleaner Edson Rogério Silva dos Santos, who was 29 years old at the time. 

Edson Rogério was the son of 62-year-old Débora Maria da Silva, founder of the Mothers of May Independent Movement, created from the mourning of mothers whose children were murdered during that terrible month in 2006. It was while she was listening to a radio program that Débora discovered that her son had been killed, when the announcer mentioned the names of the victims and commented: “They killed a bunch of black guys”. 

The victims of the murders committed over this period were primarily young black men from the urban outskirts of São Paulo and the coastal region of Baixada Santista, where Débora raised her three children, between the cities of Santos and São Vicente.

Most of the deaths bore the hallmarks of summary execution in circumstances typical of death squads – groups of police officers that emerged in Brazil during the dictatorship to avenge the death of colleagues and who began to execute whoever they considered suspicious or inconvenient.

And there are those who believe that this explains the sluggishness and negligence that marked the investigation of these murders. “The investigations were not making any headway,” said Dona Débora, as she came to be known. “We provided the evidence, but they couldn’t care less. At the Public Prosecutor’s Office, it was even worse. Just one rubber stamp after another, but nothing ever happened.”

It may also help explain the fact that 79 prosecutors from the São Paulo State Public Prosecutor’s Office expressed their support for the “efficiency of the response of the Military Police, which was concerned with restoring the violated public order”, in an official letter released a week after the attacks. Years later, only two of the prosecutors have expressed any regret.

Débora claims that none of the footage has been released from the security cameras around the gas station where Rogério was last seen and where he was approached by police officers when refueling his motorcycle after leaving his mother’s house.

“When they went to get the footage, it had already been deleted. We thought we would get some justice, but we were treated with such disregard and I was very, very, very depressed. I fell out of bed and ended up in hospital.”

My journey from mourning to fighting back began there, on my fifth day in hospital. Débora attributes the transformation from anguish into action to a supernatural encounter.

“I had a vision. I was still too weak to get out of bed, and my son appeared before me,” she explained. “It was very strange. He pulled me off the bed angrily, with a big scowl on his face. He sat me down and said: ‘I don’t want you here. I’m not coming back, it’s no use being like this. Go out there and fight’.”

Débora said she was scared, but tried to convince herself that it was a hallucination brought on by the medication. “The next day, in the shower, I felt my arm hurting and saw that it had purple marks. The same thing on the other side. That gave me a big shock.”

Two days later, after being discharged from hospital, Débora began to find the mothers of the other victims she had seen on TV or read about in the newspapers. First, she went to the house of Ednalva Santos, the mother of Marcos Rebello Filho, who was killed on Mother’s Day. Together, they located Vera Freitas, the mother of Matheus de Andrade Freitas, whose father was a well-known community leader. 

“We went inside the favela, but nobody wanted to say anything. Then we found Vera, who told the whole story and said that she knew the mother of the nine-month pregnant girl who was killed, Ana Paula Santos,” she said. “The next day, we went looking for her mother, Vera Gonzaga, who was suspicious and asked us: ‘Do you know the story of the mothers of Acari? We are going to get killed’.”

Vera Gonzaga was referring to the mothers’ movement that emerged in Rio de Janeiro in 1990 when 11 young people disappeared after being stopped by the police in Magé, in the Baixada Fluminense region. They got together to investigate the disappearances and demand accountability from the police. One of its leaders was murdered in 1993 in circumstances that were never explained.

Débora managed to overcome her own fears and those of the other mothers and form a group. She discovered that the city of São Paulo had a center for victims of violence, a Police Ombudsman’s Office and a State Council for the Defense of the Rights of the Human Person (Condepe). And so she organized a trip for the mothers from the Baixada Santista region to the state capital. “I had never been to São Paulo. I didn’t know São Paulo. But I got the mothers together and said: ‘Come on, let’s go!’.”

Born into an evangelical family who migrated from the state of Pernambuco to São Vicente when she was just 3 years old, Débora was raised in a skirt and with long hair, very afraid of everything, including the city of São Paulo. Her father, religious and conservative, excommunicated her when she cut her hair. Then he hit her when she shaped her eyebrows. And he often repeated a story according to which people who get lost in São Paulo never find their way back home. 

“We took the subway and, terrified, I made the mothers get off at each station for fear of getting lost,” she recalled. After giving their statements at the Ombudsman’s Office, they arrived at Condepe, where they were welcomed by the journalist Rose Nogueira, president of the Council and member of the group Torture Never Again. 

“It was there that we learned for the first time what human rights were. We had no idea until the stone fell on our own roof,” she said. “Rose explained to us who the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina were. And we started to put ourselves in the shoes of other mothers.”

That day, Rose had on her table a pile of copies of the book “Crimes de Maio”, which Condepe had released a few weeks before, with texts by experts and reports from the independent commission that was investigating the deaths. “Rose gave me one of those books and autographed it, writing: ‘Débora, model mother of Brazil’.”

With that book, Débora and her colleagues from Baixada Santista discovered that the cases far exceeded the deaths of their own children. And so began a new phase of the journey of the Mothers of May Movement. Débora and her colleagues in the movement testified before the Justice and Peace Commission, participated in an event at the Regional Council of Medicine (Cremesp) and organized a march from a church to the cemetery in Santos to mark the first year of the killings. Débora remembers that she asked the municipal government for the police not to be present at the march. But he says that police vehicles revved their engines in front of the church. 

“They tried to intimidate us, to scare us. But it only served like ammunition for courage,” she recalled. “I was quite worked up. Like a keg about to explode. And I said: no one intimidates the Mothers of May because struggle is not a crime. We are the true defenders of human rights because we are mothers.”

At that point, the group already had its own proposals [[linkar com perfil de Shirley Rosendo]], such as sewing the names of police officers onto their uniforms (to prevent them from removing their identification badges when committing irregularities) and ending abusive searches in prisons, which include nudity and squatting.

“I didn’t even know how to speak into a microphone. I was embarrassed. But the anguish taught to speak and to make people think: yesterday it was my son, tomorrow it could be anyone else’s,” she said.

In her struggle, full of obstacles and setbacks, but also breakthroughs and partnerships, Débora met Conectas at an event marking three years of the Crimes of May, when the organization released a report on all the executions that had occurred between May 12 and 21, 2006.

“The report was alarming and brought us into contact with other mothers of the victims of those crimes,” she said. In the representation of the cases in the courts, the murders in Baixada Santista were handled by the Public Defender’s Office while Conectas was responsible for the case of the Parque Bristol shooting. In 2009, the organization requested the federalization of the investigations into this case that occurred in the southern fringes of the city of São Paulo.

After some initial mistrust, Débora and the Mothers of May forged close ties with Conectas. “We clashed quite a lot and really battled it out. We are confrontational. But there came a time when we realized that we had to walk side by side, collectively. That Conectas could give us the support we needed since we are not an organization, but a movement,” she said. “Today, Mothers of May and Conectas are sisters in arms.”

In 2010, the Mothers of May Movement requested the federalization of the investigations into the deaths of their children in Baixada Santista. And, in 2011, the organization Justiça Global and Harvard Law School released the report São Paulo Under Extortion, which exposed the corruption, kidnapping, extortion and murder committed by the State in conjunction with organized crime. 

Two years later, Débora received the National Human Rights Award from President Dilma Rousseff. In 2015, she went to the United States through Amnesty International to denounce the crimes and, in 2016, she launched the National Network of Mothers and Relatives, which was supported by Conectas.

“Conectas and the Mothers of May became sisters in arms because human rights are in our womb,” she said, when she traveled to Bogotá, Colombia, in 2018, to participate in a public hearing of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 

“Conectas registered to attend the hearing and yielded its time to the Mothers of May. We built a lot of mutual trust there because of the time to speak,” she explained. “We have always said that we speak for ourselves, no matter how much we partner with others. At the same time, we know that we can only make headway and multiply our struggles collectively. There is no important struggle that can be won single-handedly.”

In 2021, 15 years after the Crimes of May, the authorities still have not explained the deaths that occurred in 2006. As far as Débora is concerned, it has been 15 years of human rights. “I only really discovered human rights when they killed my son. And then I discovered that human rights are ourselves: people who fight for the right to life, decent housing, food, health and education,” she explained. Mothers are determined to give birth to a new society.” (by Fernanda Mena and Fabiana Moraes)

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