In the afternoon of December 30, a Kaingang mother was breastfeeding her 2-year-old son while sitting on the sidewalk outside a bus station in the city of Imbituba, state of Santa Catarina, Brazil. They had been sleeping there for a few days together with a group of other indigenous people, who had made the the eight-hour journey by bus from the city of Chapecó to Imbituba in order to sell their handcrafted art.
In Santa Catarina, a state located in the south of Brazil, the end of the year is when its famous beaches are flooded with tourists coming from other states and neighboring countries such Uruguay and Argentina. Many indigenous people see the influx of visitors as an opportunity to make some money by selling their art, so, it’s common to see groups staying in bus stations to be closer to their potential customers.
The young mother was holding her baby while resting her back against the wall when a stranger approached them. Security camera footage showed that the man first touched the baby’s face and then cut his throat with a small blade. As he ran away, the mother yelled for help, but 2-year-old Vitor Pinto was soon dead.
This brazen murder of a toddler, killed in his mother’s arms in broad daylight, didn’t make headlines in Brazil. Few media bothered to report what happened. As expressed by journalist Eliane Brum, writing in her column for Spanish newspaper El País:
Se fosse meu filho, ou de qualquer mulher branca de classe média, assassinado nessas circunstâncias, haveria manchetes, haveria especialistas analisando a violência, haveria choro e haveria solidariedade. E talvez houvesse até velas e flores no chão da estação rodoviária, como nas vítimas de terrorismo em Paris. Mas Vitor era um índio. Um bebê, mas indígena. Pequeno, mas indígena. Vítima, mas indígena. Assassinado, mas indígena. Perfurado, mas indígena. Esse “mas” é o assassino oculto. Esse “mas” é serial killer.
If it had been my son, or any other white middle-class woman’s child, murdered under those circumstances, there would be headlines, there would be specialists analyzing violence, there would be crying and there would be solidarity. And maybe there would be candles and flowers at the bus station’s floor, as the ones’ laid out for the victims of terrorism in Paris. But Vitor was indigenous. A baby, but indigenous. Small, but indigenous. A victim, but indigenous. Murdered, but indigenous. Perforated, but indigenous. This “but” is the hidden murderer. This “but” is a serial killer.
Which lives matter?
Ever since Latin America became a “European business” — as journalist Eduardo Galeano used to say — indigenous lives have always been the cheapest ones on the continent. That's not news. “Racism against indigenous people is historical,” as Brazilian historian Waldir Rampinelli pointed out during an interview with Radio Campeche after Vitor’s murder:
Assim que a gente se tornou indepente, para os indígenas nada mudou […] Esse preconceito contra os indígenas chega até os dias de hoje. Tanto é que matar um indígena na rodoviária de Imbituba, aparentemente, é um crime muito menor do que matar uma criança branca numa rodoviária de Florianópolis.
As soon as [Brazil] became independent, nothing changed for the indigenous peoples […] This prejudice against indigenous peoples prevails today. So much so that killing an indigenous individual at Imbituba’s bus station is apparently a much smaller crime than killing a white child in a Florianópolis [state capital] bus station.
Elaine Tavares, a journalist based in Santa Catarina where Vitor was killed, notes that when Spanish and Portuguese explorers arrived in Latin America, indigenous people were branded “non-humans, second-class citizens, unfaithful, useless”:
Ao longo de todos esses séculos foi sendo construída uma imagem negativa do indígena, justamente para que pudesse ser justificada a invasão e o roubo de suas terras e riquezas. Os índios são vistos como um atrapalho, uma lembrança desconfortável do massacre. Por isso que o melhor acaba sendo confiná-los em alguma “reserva” longe dos olhos das gentes. Mas, se eles decidem sair e dividir a vida no mundo branco, aí a coisa fica feia.
Through all these centuries, a negative image of indigenous peoples has been built, only to justify the invasion, the robbery of their lands and riches. Indigenous peoples are seen as something standing in the way, an uncomfortable remembrance of the massacre. That is why the best solution ends up being to confine them in some “reserve,” away from other people's eyes. But if they decide to go out and share the white world’s life, then the thing becomes ugly.
There is the gruesome reality of Brazil. In the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, for example, at least 300 indigenous individuals have been killed in land disputes in the recent past. Many indigenous leaders have been trying to call attention to what they call a genocide happening in the country, in which organized militias have killed indigenous people. Still, little to no debate has been created on the matter. Some of the victims have been Guarani-Kaiowá, the ethnicity that leads in suicides in Brazil. According to a New York Times article, suicides among the tribe are 12 times higher than the national average.
Land and rights
Throughout the entire country, with some differences in the regional context from state to state, Brazil's indigenous struggle to get their lands recognised and demarcated. While waiting, many have to live on the side of highways or on the streets. President Dilma Roussef’s government has the worst record of demarcation in 30 years.
Congress is about to vote on a constitutional amendment to change how the land demarcation process is done. If approved, PEC 215 will transfer the final decision on indigenous land demarcation and property from the executive branch to the legislative. In effective, that would put the final word on traditional indigenous lands into the hands of Congress and its farmer lobby — the ruralistas.
Meanwhile, more fuel is being added to land disputes. In November, a reserve in Florianópolis was invaded by the former owner who did not accepted the amount paid to return the lands to the indigenous people. A month prior to the invasion, a judge had ruled against the man, on the basis that he knew those were indigenous lands when he first purchased the property. The tribe chief Eunice Antunes, also known as Kerexu Yxapyry, had already reported receiving death and persecution threats before the invasion, but no action was taken.
Two days after Vitor's murder, the 23-year-old suspect turned himself to the police confessing to killing the toddler. He decided to come forward because he said he feared for his life, though he hasn't given a motive. Some have speculated that he may be psychologically disturbed.
But if there's not much to say about his killer yet, Vitor's death speaks volumes about how Brazil treats its native peoples. In the words of Eliane Brum:
Quem continua morrendo de assassinato no Brasil, em sua maioria, são os negros, os pobres e os índios. […] Estamos nus. E nossa imagem é horrenda. Ela suja de sangue o pequeno corpo de Vitor por quem tão poucos choraram.
Those who continue to die by murder in Brazil, in their majority, are black people, poor people and indigenous people. […] We are naked. And our image is horrendous. It stains with blood the small body of Vitor for who so little have cried.