Brazil: Impunity and forgetfulness over Carandiru Massacre

Visit to Carandiru, photo by Flickr user silmaraelis, published under a Creative Commons license. The caption says “the souls had longer been forgotten there”.

The Carandiru Massacre, considered a major human rights violation in the history of Brazil, happened sixteen years ago (October 2, 1992) after a riot broke out in the 9th Pavilion of Carandiru Prison Complex in São Paulo. The riot went out of control, which led to the elite force of the Military Police being called in and a confrontation which resulted in the reported death of 111 prisoners. No police were killed.

Human rights groups claim most prisoners were unarmed and offered no resistance, and that the police also fired at inmates who had already surrendered or had tried to hide. Regardless of this, no one has ever been punished, and the only person to be tried was the commanding officer of the operation, colonel Ubiratan Guimarães (assassinated in September 2006 in a possible crime of passion). He was initially sentenced to 620 years in prison but the conviction was later revoked after mistrial claims.

Many Brazilian bloggers republished the same pieces of news from the media, but only a very few dedicated an original post to the day. Dinha [pt] was one of them, remembering it as the “biggest act of cowardice committed by the Brazilian State against the imprisioned population in the country's history”:

Ontem, 02/10/2008, fez 16 anos que o Estado divulgou oficialmente que massacrou 111 cidadão brasileiros. Todos os que foram massacrados, assassinados, não estavam em guerra franca com o Estado, mas sim, no momento do massacre, eram prisioneiros, estavam sob cutódia desse mesmo Estado. Por isso estavam desarmados e mais, muitos estavam trancados em celas.

Yesterday, 02/10/2008, it was 16 years to the day that the State officially announced that it massacred 111 Brazilian citizens. All of whom were massacred, assassinated, they were not in open war with the State, but at the time of the massacre, they were prisoners, they were under the State's custody. Because of this, they were unarmed and what is more, many of them were locked in their cells.

In a blog post called “Impunity”, Tarso Araújo [pt] reminds us that nobody has been made responsible for this crime, and that there is no estimate of when the accused will be tried:

O fato de o processo envolver muitos réus, além das dificuldades estruturais do Judiciário para responder ao acúmulo de ações pendentes, faz a tramitação ficar lenta.
O processo está em grau de recurso no Tribunal de Justiça de São Paulo (TJ-SP). Por haver indícios de autoria de crime doloso contra a vida, o juiz determinou que os réus fossem julgados por júri popular, situação com a qual os denunciados não concordam.
Depois que o TJ-SP decidir a questão, será necessário definir os procedimentos para o julgamento de um número elevado de réus. Não há previsão de prazo para que os réus sejam julgados.

The fact that the process involves many defendants, in addition to the structural difficulties the judicial system faces in responding to the accumulation of outstanding suits, slows down the procedure.
The process is in appeal on the Court of São Paulo (TJ-SP). Because of the signs of a willful crime committed against life, the judge ruled that the defendants go to jury, a situation with which the accused do not agree.

Answering a question posted on Yahoo! Answers about how the rebellion started, Pucca [pt] shares a piece of story she learnt through an acquaintance, one of the few inmates from the 9th Pavilion who survived the massacre:

Um conhecido de família viveu aquele inferno. Ele nos disse que na verdade ninguem sabe afirmar exatamente como tudo começou. Ele disse que ajudou a jogar mais de 200 corpos dentro do fosso de supostos elevadores existentes no presídio e que tiveram suas portas lacradas com concreto. Seu amigo de cela (barraco) foi morto por policiais, ele só sobreviveu porque se escondeu atras da porta, quando as celas foram desocupadas pelos presos a pedido dos pms ele disse que correu juntamente com tantos outros presos pelas escadarias da prisão que estavam lavadas de sangue e cachorros pastor alemão iam ao encalço deles. Um dos cachorros mordeu sua mão direita. Disse que ficou no pátio com outros presos mais de 12 horas pelados e todos de cócoras. O crime dele???? Participou de um assalto a uma casa lotérica, réu primário cumpria pena no pavilhão 9, onde tudo começou.

An acquaintance of my family lived through that hell. He told us that in fact nobody knows exactly how it all began. He said he helped to throw over 200 bodies into the elevator shaft which supposedly existed there in the prison and which was then sealed with concrete. A cellmate of his (called Barraco) was killed by the police, he only survived because he hid himself behind a door when the prisoners vacated the cells at the police's request, and he said that as he ran away downstairs with many others, the prison staircases were awash with blood and German Shepherd dogs chased after them. One of the dogs bit his right hand. He said he was squatting naked in the yard with other prisoners for over 12 hours. His crime? He had participated in a robbery at a lotto house, was a first-time offender and serving on the 9th Pavilion, where it all began.

The Hub brought an interview with P.P., who was serving next door on the 8th Pavilion and watched the horror unfold from his window. He says that the official number of deaths, 111, reflects only the re-claimed bodies – he believes there were more than 300 deaths. Together with a group of about 30 other inmates, he was summoned to help to carry the bodies, 50 of which he carried on his own. P.P. laments that, 16 years on, the case is marked by impunity and forgetfulness:

“It was ugly. But what hurts me most – how absurd it is that it has now been forgotten – no one talks about the Carandiru Massacre here in Brazil anymore” (P.P. in interview with Raquel Quintino – a human rights activist from the Universidade de Comunicação Livre).

The Carandiru Prison Complex used to be South America's largest prison and once housed nearly 8,000 inmates. The prison was demolished on December 9, 2002 to make way for a public park. YouTube user mtrombelli has a video documentary shot by students of journalism showing its last moments, empty cells and the demolition. Flickr user ispic has a gallery of pictures taken just before the demolition.

Those who would like to dive deep in the history of the prision and the massacre should start by watching the highly regarded film Carandiru, directed by Hector Babenco, and inspired by the best-selling book Estação Carandiru (Carandiru Station, as yet un-translated) by Brazilian physician Drauzio Varella, who worked in Carandiru as a volunteer addressing its AIDS epidemic from 1989 to 2001.


  • I saw Barbenco’s movie some years back in a film festival in Lima. Back then, I wasn’t aware of the massacre, but after reading (and translating) this post I just can’t imagine the horror this must have been.
    Very shocking, indeed.

  • É isso ai, Paula, a história, com se diz, é escrita pelos que a venceram…os que morreram não estão ai para lembrar e suas familias e amigos quem sabe aonde estarão? boa lembrança. Deborah

  • Whoah. Tough story. I’m not sure how to help.

  • Clara

    Oi Paula..gostei de ler o texto. Só acho uma pena que o Brasil em geral se tenha esquecido desta data. Talvez porque tenha envolvido a morte de criminosos, não é?

  • Wow. I saw the film a couple years ago and knew it was a true story, but seeing the photos you linked to and realizing that this story has been mostly forgotten in Brazil is tremendously sad.

  • Another great article by our dear Paula Goes. Paula always surprises us with her great powers of research and synthesis, employed liberally in all her posts.

    Carandiru is a big, ugly, scar in São Paulo and Brazil history. It shows the ugliest face and the vilest echoes of our long history of police violence and social hatred. It’s easy to write a lot about Carandiru. Yet, almost no one cared to write about it anymore in it’s 16th anniversary. Did we get used to it, or have we just got bigger personal problems to discuss now? Did we forget and forgive the way the police and Ubiratan acted back then, or are we just too worried about the present to remember the past?

    Paula Goes did not forget it. And her voice empowered the few other voices that tried to break our silence.
    Thank you very much for this article, Paula.


  • […] can be found on Global Voices, written up by Paula […]

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