May Crimes: eighteen years of fighting for justice and memory in Brazil

On Mother's Day, 12 May, it will be 18 years since one of the biggest massacres in Brazil. Accountability has still not been assigned, but the May Mothers are persevering

Mães de maio em evento na Faculdade de Direito da USP. Foto: Gabriel Guerra/ Conectas Mães de maio em evento na Faculdade de Direito da USP. Foto: Gabriel Guerra/ Conectas

On Mother’s Day in 2006 Débora Maria da Silva´s life changed forever. She is one of the founding leaders of the Independent May Mothers Movement. She was also celebrating her birthday on the same date. For her the month of May came to be a period marked by devastating grief. Three days after the celebration, her son Edson Rogério Silva dos Santos, 29 years old, fell victim to one of the most horrific massacres in Brazilian history: the May Crimes.

>>> Read Débora Maria da Silva´s story in the Conectas 20 book

Eighteen years after the massacre that claimed the lives of at least 500 people in Baixada Santista, the city of São Paulo and in other regions of the state, neither the state nor its officers have been held accountable. 

In August 2023, the Special Action Group for Combatting Organised Crime (Gaeco), of the Public Prosecutor´s Office in São Paulo (MP-SP) closed the Criminal Investigation Procedure regarding 12 deaths in Baixada Santista connected to the May Crimes. The prosecutors stated that the witnesses did not conclusively identify the responsible parties and that there are no further inquiries to be conducted at this time.

According to information from the Ponte Jornalismo, despite the decision to close the case having been taken in 2023, it was only in April 2024 that the Expert Centre for Citizenship and Human Rights (NCDH) of the São Paulo State Public Defender´s Office was made aware of this when they received a response to a request for information on the status of the investigations. The request had been submitted together with Gaeco in November of the previous year.

So, the grief felt by the mothers has taken on new dimensions. “As well as no longer having Mateus, I have to live with the impunity because the competent authorities have no interest in investigating who is responsible.” Wrote Vera de Freitas in the book “Do Luto à Luta” (From Mourning to Struggle) a collection compiled by the May Mothers. “I suffer along with the other mothers whose children are murdered. Unfortunately, the extermination is still happening and no one is doing anything to stop it.”

A story without end

Vera’s lament is not an exaggeration. Nearly twenty years after the May Crimes, between 2023 and 2024, Operations Shield and Summer, conducted by the Military Police also in the Baixada Santista, resulted in 84 deaths. This wave of killings was in response to the death of the Military Police officer Patrick Bastos Reis, of the special unit, Rota, in July 2023. 

A report by the magazine Piauí revealed that in this conflict, even the rights of the mothers of police officers are violated. As journalist João Batista Jr. recounts, upon receiving the news of her son Patrick’s death, Cláudia wished to have his body buried in the family tomb in the city of Santa Maria. However, she was surprised by a Rota commander who stated that it would not be possible, citing a supposed rule that required the body to remain in the Military Police mausoleum at the Araçá Cemetery in São Paulo for at least five years. There is no such rule.

After witnessing her son’s funeral turned into a political act, attended by the governor Tarcísio de Freitas, a Bolsonaro supporter who said he “couldn’t care less” about the complaints submitted to the UN by Conectas and the Arns Commission regarding irregularities in the operations, as well as the São Paulo Secretary of Public Security, Guilherme Derrite, Claudia is now seeking the right to reclaim her son’s remains, in court. “Derrite never even bothered to call me.” She told Piauí. 

The magazine further reveals that Derrite himself has been investigated for 16 homicides that occurred during police operations which he participated in, in the past, but the inquiries did not identify the person who fired the fatal shots.

“The standard narrative of confrontation fails to hold up in the face of the disproportionate use of force by Brazilian police, whose statistical data show a failure to align with the principles of progressiveness, proportionality, and legality. Furthermore, it stems from extremely ineffective, inefficient, and ineffectual investments of state resources in a policing model that does not serve to reduce violence, as we have witnessed in recent decades.” Wrote researchers Dennis Pacheco and David Marques in the 2023 Brazilian Public Security Yearbook by the Brazilian Public Security Forum.

According to them, proof of this is the fact that 7 of the 10 cities with the highest rates of intentional violent deaths (IVD) in the country are in states with the most violent police forces (Amapá and Bahia). “When we look at the 20 cities with the highest rates of IVD, 14 are in states with the most violent police forces (Amapá, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro). Clearly, violent police officers do not reduce violence.” They concluded. 

Listen to the May Mothers

On 22 March 2024, a day when two more deaths were added to the final toll of Operation Summer, the May Mothers, with support from Conectas and the Center for Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology (CAAF) at Unifesp, launched the project “Strengthening the Reach and Impact of Human Rights Movements in Brazil.” This initiative aims to bolster the fight for justice and the memory of the victims of state violence in Brazil.

“We need to ensure that each Black life lost in this struggle continues to be a seed so that their memory is respected, their fight is valued and we can build a truly democratic society.” Said Gabriel Sampaio, Director of Litigation and Advocacy at Conectas, during the event, which was streamed on YouTube. “A society cannot be called democratic when 18 years have passed since the May Crimes, without any response.”

In March, the May Mothers also released a documentary featuring excerpts from hearings, events and marches, as well as a booklet called “Listen to the May Mothers: Let’s Birth a New Brazil,” a guide for relatives of victims of state violence. 

The story of the May Crimes reveals the deep wounds left by state violence in Brazil. But as the mothers face the silence of the authorities, they strengthen the fight for memory, truth, and justice. Amid the shadows of impunity, these voices call for a country where the life and dignity of every individual is respected. “We will birth a new Brazil,” says Débora da Silva, “a new society.”

May Crimes: animation chronicles one of the biggest massacres in São Paulo:

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