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The police attack on a poor São Paulo neighbourhood shows how in Brazil, the property rights of the rich come before the rights of the poor, argues Sócrates Fabiano.

Moradores Pinheirinho

The Brazilian government was delighted with the news that Brazil has overtaken the UK in the GDP rankings to become the sixth largest economy in the world, according, ironically, to the British Centre for Economics and Business Research at the end of 2011. However, does it mean anything?

Well, undeniably it confirms the trend of the last ten years of continuous growth. Unsurprisingly, this growth has been very poorly distributed, with the rich guys, who are happy with the current government, getting away with most of the pie. Only the smaller part of it is left to the majority of the 190 million Brazilians. A wealthy country doesn’t mean wealth for everyone, far from it. In Brazil, widespread poverty still goes hand in hand with corrupt institutions and oppression against the vulnerable in society. Of this, on 22nd January Brazilians had a timely reminder.

Naji NahasAt 6am on that Sunday morning, when not even the birds had woken up, around 2,200 well-armed policemen, supported by two helicopters, crushed into Pinheirinho, a very poor neighborhood on the outskirts of São José dos Campos, one of the biggest cities in São Paulo state. Their mission seemed to have come out of a movie script: to evict 6,000 people from their houses using force. And no, there wasn’t any Al Qaeda training camp in there. The Pinheirinho residents’ crime was to have their houses built in the wrong place, owned by the wrong guy: multi-millionaire Naji Nahas.

Born in Lebanon and married to a Brazilian, Nahas arrived in the country in the 1960s with loads of money to invest. By the 1980s, he was one of the wealthiest men in Brazil, and worked hard to conform to the stereotype, right down to the Rolls Royces and the cigars. In 1989, Nahas’ fraudulent financial scheme led the Rio de Janeiro stock market to crack down. He was then condemned on court, but managed to be found innocent. That’s the way it goes when a very rich white-collar criminal goes to court in Brazil.

As there is not much free lands available, due to the abnormal concentration of land in Brazil in the hands of a few, many of the immigrants to the big cities form poor areas start building their houses in apparently ownerless lands. As years pass, others immigrants join in, and soon you have the so-called favela – neighborhoods with very precarious houses, surrounded by streets with no asphalt, with no sewage treatment.

Pinheirinho was one of these neighbourhoods, with the first house being built in 2004. One of Naji Nahas’s bankrupted companies claimed to be the owner of the area, went to court to get the land back, and finally got the green light in January from the São Paulo state justice to clear the residents out.

Pinheirinho residents sleeping in a churchThe residents of Pinheirinho, who had nowhere else to go, equipped themselves with helmets, improvised shields and batons made out of garbage. One picture of them in battle position went around the world. An emergency injunction obtained by the residents from the Federal court seemed to have held off the eviction, but a state judge called Márcia Loureiro authorized police to go ahead, without telling anyone in the area. The police sealed off the neighbourhood, to prevent media access, arrested the leaders, and used tear gas, rubber and live bullets against anyone who stood up to them.

It’s not for nothing that this has been called ‘The Massacre of Pinheirinho’. Reports that some people were killed are unconfirmed as year but many people are reported missing and some have been seriously injured. One resident, David Washington Furtado, was shot in the back as he tried to run away from the police invasion and has lost the use of one of his legs. The expelled residents are now living in very poor temporary accommodation under a gymnasium and in a church. ‘The children will need psychological assistance for the rest of their lives’ said Marrom, one of the community leaders.

The left movement in Brazil showed solidarity, but couldn’t do more than that. Some activists went to the place in the day as soon as the first news hit the web. Pictures of international solidarity outside the Brazilian embassies in Berlin and in Madrid circulated on the social networks. During the day, a demonstration called on Facebook gathered 500 people in the main avenue of São Paulo city. One activist is currently on hunger strike outside the major TV channel in Brazil (TV Globo), in protest against the way they portrayed the police action as legal and necessary.

Police open fireOn TV, the spokesman of the São Paulo State Police said that they had acted on behalf of the judge. But there are other views. Leonardo Sakamoto, a Brazilian human rights activist, posted on his blog a summary of the conversations he had with some respected law experts. He said that ‘the Federal Constitution forbids public employees to fulfill justice orders when, in order to accomplish them, some excess have to be done. Above the private interest, there is always the protection of human dignity.’

In the Brazilian Constitution, the right for private property is enshrined in article 5. Just below it, in article 6, comes the right to family life. In real life, it seems that things follow exactly this order.

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