The back of beyond
What it’s like to defend human rights in small-town Maranhão
Drive a car with tinted windows, never walk alone, avoid using the telephone, don’t stay out at night and when traveling always be wary of an ambush. These daily concerns of the young lawyer Igor Almeida sound like the kind of advice you’d give someone going to the beach in Rio de Janeiro or to the cinema in downtown São Paulo. But for the 29-year-old activist and member of the Maranhão State Society of Human Rights (SMDH), the risk is part and parcel of a job that involves making sure the most vulnerable people in society have the right to life and their fundamental rights.
Maranhão made it onto the front pages of the national newspapers at the beginning of this year, after more than 60 people were killed in the Pedrinhas prison, in the state capital of São Luiz. Igor visited the facility on two occasions to talk to the prisoners. A video of decapitated bodies in Pedrinhas captured the media’s attention, senators visited the state, international complaints were filed, but little by little the interest waned and the case disappeared from the news. For local activists, however, public exposure is just one part of the job.
“In 2010, we had 18 similar killings in a prison riot. The story got exposure, but nobody talked about the root causes. This is why new tragedies like this one, in 2013, keep on happening,” said Igor.
The lawyer said that it is harder to defend human rights outside large urban centers. “Maranhão is a peripheral state. Political matters make things even more difficult here. When newspapers from the southeast give visibility to the violations occurring in the state, it helps show that the story is in the spotlight, but the work remains here,” he explained.
Despite all the attention given to the prison problem in the state, the activist said that the most frequent challenges for the SMDH still lie in rural areas. “Maranhão leads the ranking of land conflicts compiled by the CPT (Pastoral Land Commission). We work with numerous cases of land disputes and ‘quilombola’ land rights issues,” said Igor.
Despite the risks and difficulties, he said that working in defense of human rights is a worthwhile pursuit. “I learned this early on. My family were all rural workers and I grew up seeing what life was like for them. There was nothing else I wanted to do for a living. Anyone who works in this area understands the value of this dedication. The chance to look someone in the eye and see their gratitude makes everything worthwhile.”
Conectas has been working in close cooperation with the SMDH to pressure the government to make the necessary improvements to the prison system. Together, the organizations have filed international complaints over the killings in Pedrinhas and they have been to Brasília to request that federal authorities take over the investigation and prosecution of the crimes.