ITAGUAÍ, Brazil – Ana Maria Carvalho was snuggled up with her daughter and grandson in their plastic tent on the coldest night in a decade when she was awakened by shaky footsteps and the screams of her neighbors. His community was under siege.
She ran outside, following the flickering flashes of the phone’s flashlights to the gates of her sprawling encampment to keep the police out of the pre-dawn darkness.
“The police gave us no warning. What they did was wrong. It was terrible, terrible, terrible, ”said Carvalho, 62.
In a surprise raid last week, police forcibly evicted several hundred Brazilian families who had long occupied a vacant site owned by state-owned oil giant Petrobras in Itaguaí, on the western outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The court-ordered move shocked the community, which was told in May after several thousand people took control of the land on May 1 that they would be safe from eviction at least until. at the end of the year.
No one had come up with a permanent and safe alternative solution to COVID either, Fernando Lanchinho, 37, of the Popular Movement (MPB), which led the occupation, told VICE World News.
“We are isolated,” he said.
Dressed in black camouflage riot gear, more than 30 Rio de Janeiro State Military Police from the Shock Battalion and Special Resources Coordination Unit stormed the human barricade and fires camp blocking the entrance to the camp at 7:50 a.m. on July 1 after peaceful negotiations between the police and camp leaders stalled.
Faced with resistance, police released thick clouds of tear gas and fired water from an armored truck to disperse the occupants. An elderly woman died in the rush and at least two children and a pregnant woman were seriously injured, according to those affected. Members of the LGBTQ + community were verbally assaulted and Erick Vermelho, the leader of the movement, was arrested.
The two-month-old occupation had become a lifeline for pandemic refugees who grew increasingly desperate as government emergency aid programs were cut in April and inflation soared. They had set up their own cistern, a recycling scheme and a shared kitchen that guaranteed three full meals to residents. The camp also operated on a zero alcohol or drug policy.
“I have lost blood, I am three months pregnant,” China Cristavo, a 35-year-old single mother, said of the attack.
Tractors and bulldozers demolished the tents and bamboo huts in the settlement. Many of the residents’ belongings (clothing, food and personal identification documents) were destroyed when fires broke out in the campsite and backhoes crushed the tents. The settlers, not allowed to recover their surviving property, lost everything.
“We came here out of necessity,” said Camila Garardo, 63, a retired informal worker. “No one here is a criminal, we are families with young children. And now? How are we going to live?
“The police gave us no warning. What they did was wrong.
Many occupants of the “May 1 refugee camp” came from paramilitary-controlled areas of the western zone of Rio de Janeiro after losing their income and had been evicted from their homes amid Brazil’s uncontrolled COVID crisis. The Human Rights Commission, an autonomous government body, had more than 3,000 occupants: 993 mothers and heads of households, 1,854 children and 427 elderly people.
Almost immediately after the settlement was established, Petrobras, who had left the land vacant for more than three decades without a development plan, filed a lawsuit to evict the families. But when military police arrived to expel the settlers on May 7, Rio de Janeiro Civil Chamber judge Alexandre Scisinio overturned the repossession order. It granted settlers the right to stay on the land until Rio de Janeiro’s main human rights body, the Public Defense Bureau, issues an advisory in late 2021 on the COVID risks facing them. the inhabitants of the occupation.
Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court, the country’s highest court, ruled on June 3 that illegal occupations established before May 20, 2020 were protected from eviction. Petitions to extend this ordinance to all settlements have yet to be considered by the court and will likely remain pending for the next six months, said Brisa Lima, lawyer for the Institute for the Defense of the Black Population, a independent body, and a member of the Human Rights Commission.
But despite Scisinio’s decision protecting the colony, Petrobras filed a second repossession order “alleging new facts” to the Supreme Court of Justice, Brazil’s unconstitutional court, Lima said. The Public Defense Bureau appealed.
Under Brazilian law, it is not necessary for the court to consider an appeal before ruling. Luiz Cláudio Teixeira Martins, the occupation defense lawyer, said the Supreme Court of Justice duty judge on the evening of June 30 said she “was unaware of an appeal “and ruled in favor of Petrobras to overturn Scisinio’s decision. A few hours later, the police were at the gates of the colony.
“No one here is a criminal, we are families with young children. And now? How are we going to live?
“I am here in the forest that we were hoping to replant, we are here with our common kitchen and they are going to destroy everything. And people here are suffering, ”Lanchinho said during the raid.
According to data from the campaign for the right to housing, Despejo Zero, around 64,500 Brazilian families living in illegal settlements are at risk of eviction during the pandemic and the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend some evictions is not always respected . The court also ruled that alternative housing and support should be offered to those evicted.
In a statement, the Petrobras communications department told VICE World News that “teams in the town of Itaguaí have registered people who have expressed interest in going to the shelters. Petrobras finances food, rugs, blankets and kits with hydroalcoholic gel and masks for families sent to shelters. “
Itaguai City Hall has accommodated the families in two local schools, but these measures are only temporary. And according to their lawyer, Teixeira Martins, the “May 1 refugees” staying in the shelters face “unsanitary” conditions and do not have access to water. Others were thrown onto the streets.
“These people need to eat. They received no food. Just look at the number of children here, ”said Lima, the human rights lawyer, pointing to the hundreds of young families scattered in the streets outside the camp on the day of the eviction.
Teixeira Martins, the occupation lawyer, said the case represents a “conflict of rights”. Under the constitution, Brazil guarantees the “fundamental right to housing” and ensures that the minimum wage is sufficient to meet basic needs for housing and food.
Since Petrobras is state-run, he said, his property must perform a social function, either “to create, to plant or to live.” In the absence of any Petrobras land use plans, families should have had the right to stay.
“Unfortunately, this time the right to property was more important,” said Teixeira Martins.