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Where’s Amarildo? How the disappearance of a construction worker taken from his home by police has sparked protests in Brazil

In Rio state, official figures suggest more than 5,000 people have been killed for resisting arrest in the past five years

Father-of-six Amarildo de Souza was once one of the most visible and respected residents of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest favela complex.

The assistant bricklayer, known to his friends and neighbours as “Bull”, earnt his nickname for his strength on the building site and his Stakhanovite work ethic. He was also something of a local hero, having once rescued a four-year-old child from a burning shack when he was just 11. But three weeks ago Bull was arrested. Police say they released him soon afterwards, yet no one has seen him since.

Amarildo, who is in his early forties, grew up in the Rocinha favela as one of 12 siblings. So, when he failed to return home after being questioned, his disappearance came as a shock to the community and sparked protests and a campaign for answers for his family.

The labourer was called in for questioning by police on Sunday 14 July during Operation Armed Peace, a crackdown against drug traffickers in Rocinha that saw 300 officers flood the favela over the weekend.

The raid was intended to target the drug dealers who continued to operate in the favela after it had been “pacified” and occupied by police as the authorities tried to improve security in the city. It took place a week before the high-profile arrival of Pope Francis, whose visit to the Varginha favela in the north of the city once again shone a spotlight on the parts of Brazil facing the greatest social inequality and poverty.

Security forces have entered and installed special police units in 33 favelas, including Rocinha, since 2009. Before next year’s World Cup, the target is to pacify 40 favelas, including those between Rio’s international airport and the south zone, which is popular with tourists.

 “This is a different moment for public safety,” said Major Edson Santos, commander of the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in Rocinha. “There’s a very big fall in [drug] trafficking in Rio de Janeiro. I believe the criminals will feel a big impact. The 104 cameras installed in the community were very important in this operation.”

Amarildo was approached by a UPP officer around 8pm and, despite showing his documents, was told he must attend a police station, according to witnesses.

His wife, Elisabete Gomes, known as Bete, arrived at the station in time to see her husband go inside.

“He looked at me and said the police had his papers,” she told O Globo newspaper. “They said that Bull would return home and we couldn’t wait for him at the police station. We went home and waited all night. Then my son went to the commander, who said Amarildo had already been released, but you could not see that from the images of the UPP cameras because they had broken down. They think the poor are stupid, too.”

In the wake of his disappearance, which was formally reported on Tuesday 16 July, there have been viral campaigns on social media asking “Where is Amarildo?”, as well as several street protests.

Last Thursday night hundreds of Amarildo’s friends and relatives demanded answers from the police, closing down a major road linking Rio’s south zone with the neighbourhood of Barra da Tijuca for more than two hours. The people believe that Amarildo will not be found alive. Paulo Lins, the author who wrote the novel City of God, on which the famous Brazilian film about drug crime and gang culture was based, and who also grew up in a favela, said: “The police are always like this. It’s one of the forces that kills most in the world, according to statistics, including those from the UN. This man who disappeared in Rocinha is only one among many.”

William de Oliveira, a blogger who lives in Rocinha writing on the Viva Favela website, added: “The disappearance of a resident from the Rocinha community of Rio de Janeiro is a mystery.

“Amarildo’s wife, Elizabete Gomes de Souza, does not have any hope left in finding her husband alive, adding to the suffering and hurt for the entire family.”

There had been grim hope of getting closer to an explanation when Rio authorities collected DNA samples from two of Amarildo’s sons to match against blood found in a UPP police car but the results were negative.

Amid community-organised searches for Amarildo, a body was also discovered but was later identified as a woman.

The government has insisted it will investigate Amarildo’s disappearance thoroughly.

José Mariano Beltrame, the security secretary for the state of Rio de Janeiro, said a reconstruction of Amarildo’s movements could be carried out.

“People can trust the police work,” he said. “All avenues shall be retraced and exhausted. Every scenario will be reconstructed.”

Sérgio Cabral Filho, governor of Rio, added that “nothing justifies the disappearance of a person understood by the UPP to be a worker.”

Jacky Caetano, who was Amarildo’s neighbour, said there would be more protests as the community continues to wait for answers.

“I think what happened was the UPP officer was rude and Amarildo must have retorted, and then the cop wanted to show courage and killed him because this is how the police act here in the community, showing power with blazing guns and attacking mainly black people,” she said.

“Since this happened, I’ve lost all confidence in the authorities because those of us in the community are afraid of everything and the police continue to brutalise.”

To date, four police officers involved in the operation in Rocinha have been suspended while the investigation takes place.

Prosecutors claim two seized mobile phones used during the weekend of the operation could hold clues to Amarildo’s case.

But the reputation of Brazil’s police inspires little hope in the residents of Rocinha.

Police in Brazil are responsible for around 2,000 deaths a year, according to Amnesty International.

“Our police still have blood on their hands, and are allowed to act with impunity as extra-judicial killings remain rife in Brazil’s major cities,” Atila Roque, director of Amnesty International Brazil, said last week, as the organisation marked the 20th anniversary of the killing of eight street children.

In Rio state, official figures suggest more than 5,000 people have been killed for resisting arrest in the past five years.

“It’s hard to say, but I think my brother is dead,” Amarildo’s sister Eunice Maria Dias, 52, told the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

“He always said he would fight back if assaulted by a police officer.

“He said a worker cannot take a slap in the face and be quiet.”

Not the first Rochina raid

With 70,000 residents, Rocinha, where Amarildo lived, is the largest favela in Brazil. While undoubtedly impoverished, its buildings are largely concrete or brick-built and are connected to amenities such as power and water.

The operation in which Amarildo was held is an echo of a similar raid in 2011, which saw hundreds of troops and police sweep through the area in armoured vehicles, rounding up suspected gang members. One was Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, leader of the local Amigos dos Amigos gang, which sold a reported $100m worth of cocaine and marijuana a year in Rocinha and the neighbouring Vidigal favela.

Lopes attempted to flee in the boot of a car driven by a man claiming to be the honorary consul of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Military police chief Alberto Pinheiro confidently told the media afterwards it was his pleasure to tell the world that the favela was now “under control”.