São Paulo’s Parque da Juventude is unlikely to feature highly on the to-do list of many tourists, and given its location in the north of the city the most likely reason an unsuspecting traveller would chance upon it would be if they caught the Metro and failed to disembark at Portuguesa-Tietê (from where you can catch buses to various parts of Brazil), and instead found themselves one stop further along the line at Carandiru – the station which directly overlooks the entrance of the park.
And besides, from Avenida Cruzeiro do Sul – the bustling avenue upon which the park entrance lies – it looks to be no more than a simple green space adjoined to a shiny business park.
Indeed, these were my initial thoughts when one scorching afternoon back in December I caught a bus to Santana, the next station along from Carandiru, and walked along the Cruzeiro do Sul to check out the 1º Museu Aberto de Arte Urbana do Mundo (World’s First Outdoor Urban Art Museum), a collection of commissioned street art that since 2011 has adorned the pillars which elevate the Metro above the centre of the avenue.
However, as I reached the park and spotted the Metro sign it took me back to the mid 90s when I’d first heard of Carandiru.
Back then I was, and occasionally still am, a heavy metal aficionado and one of the bands I first got into was Brazil’s Sepultura. Upon buying their breakthrough album Chaos AD I was shocked by some of the images in the sleeve, particularly one of a number of naked corpses. Initially I thought the band were just trying to shock but then I read the liner notes which explained that these were some of the inmates who had been killed in a massacre by military police at a prison in São Paulo in 1992*.
And this prison was where? Well, in the space that is now Parque da Juventude.
Unfortunately, without an internet connection back then it wasn’t massively easy for a 15 year old from the UK to find out more about a prison massacre in Brazil, and so it remained something I was only reminded of whenever I took out the album to have a listen (you know, back when we actually listened to music on CDs and vinyl).
However, ten years later I met my wife and whilst living in London I made a concerted effort to ‘get-to-know’ more about Brazilian history and culture. Amongst gigs by Arnaldo Antunes and Seu Jorge, lectures on Clarice Lispector and talks with Socrates, we also rented a number of Brazilian films, and one of the few we found on LoveFilm was Carandiru, a film adaptation of the book Estação Carandiru by Drauzio Varella.
Varella is a physician who between 1989 and the massacre in 1992 volunteered on an AIDS programme inside the prison, and his book provides a fascinating insight into his experiences there, as well the relationships he developed with the prisoners, their visitors and the wardens.
In the book Varella repeatedly remarks upon Carandiru’s grim conditions and the overcrowding that meant it often held over double its 4,000 capacity. Unsurprisingly then, with Varella’s observation that, ‘Prisons are like pressure cookers: when they explode, there’s no containing them’, Carandiru provided the perfect conditions for tragedy to strike.
Whilst the exact details are not clear, it is believed that a fight between two prisoners in Pavilion Nine (one of the prison’s seven cell-blocks) then led to a larger confrontation between two gangs, which itself then descended into general disorder and a mass uprising within the block.
Within a short time military police took command of the prison and an armed riot squad stormed the Pavilion. ‘From that moment on’, says Varella, ‘the only ones who can say what went on in there are the riot squad, the prisoners and God’, although he does hint at his own conclusion:
“On 2 October 1992, 111 men died in Pavilion Nine, according to the official version. The inmates claim there were more than two hundred and fifty deaths, counting those who left wounded and never returned. There is no reference to the wounded in the official records. No military police were killed.”
Following the massacre the prison did continue to function, however the shadow it continued to cast eventually led the government to shut it down, and on 9th December 2002 five of the prison’s seven blocks were demolished – including Pavilion Nine.
In 2003 Parque da Juventude opened in its place and today consists of three sections. The furthest from the station functions as a sports park whilst directly opposite it is a space with a library and the two remaining Pavilions (4 & 7) – now refurbished and known as an educational institution called ETEC.
In between them sits the area known as Parque Central, and upon walking through it I was surprised to find the preserved remains of the prison wall and some cells.
As part of its preservation, and in order to create an atmosphere of remembrance, walkways have been installed so that you can pass through the cells and along the top of the walls themselves.
Understandably, the park wardens are sensitive to what happens in this area of the park and I had to provide identification and sign a declaration in order to take photos – on the premise that I wouldn’t use them for commercial purposes.
Yet, whilst the park certainly provides a fitting memorial, did the tragedy itself bring about justice for victims and the necessary change that would ensure it could never happen again?
Well, whilst the military police maintained that it only intervened to break up a fight, Amnesty notes:
But evidence uncovered later suggested that the military police had shot prisoners and that after the massacre they destroyed evidence which could have determined individual responsibility for the killings.
Until April of this year, when 23 officers were jailed, only one person (Colonel Ubiratan Guimarães) had ever previously faced court for what had happened – and he was acquitted.
And what of the prison system?
According to Amnesty, Brazil’s prison population has doubled over the past ten years but with a shortfall of 200,000 prison places this has has led to, “severe overcrowding and inhumane living conditions” – as you can see below for yourself in the trailer for the 2009 documentary Under the Brazilian Sun:
As for the authorities, video evidence of torture inside a prison in Joinville (in the south of Brazil) in January only reinforces what Brazil’s own justice minister, José Eduardo Cardozo, said at the end of 2012:
“We have a medieval prison system, which not only violates human rights, it does not allow for the most important element of a penal sanction, which is social reintegration.”
Back in São Paulo, the brutality of the military police (the same force whose officers raided Pavilion 9) was plain for all to see during one of the recent protests on 13 June, an episode that journalist Andrew Downie believes shows that the force is still, “unprepared to deal with dissent and opposition and untrained to meet the demands of a democratic society.”
It has been suggested that those actions may now lead to a review of how the police operates. Unfortunately, it has taken violence on one of the country’s richest streets against a largely middle-class protest for this to even become debated, when it really should have happened 21 years ago after Carandiru.
Let’s hope the opportunity isn’t lost again.
*The album includes a song (Manifest) that pays homage to the dead and attacks the lack of justice for what happened.