Amarildo: The disappearance that has rocked Rio
- 18 September 2013
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
Forty-seven-year-old Elizabete Gomes da Silva has been reliving the same day for the past two months.
Her husband, 43-year-old bricklayer Amarildo de Souza, had gone fishing, as he usually did on Sundays.
He returned home with ten big fish - enough to feed her and their six children.
He left their one-bedroom shack in Rio's sprawling Rocinha favela to buy some garlic and lime to season his catch.
But he was stopped by police officers on the way and summoned for questioning at a police post in the shanty town, never to return.
That was on 14 July 2013.
Most cases of disappearances among poor, black slum residents, go unnoticed in this country. But that of Mr Souza - better known just by his first name, Amarildo - has gained unprecedented attention.
Since his disappearance, the question "Where is Amarildo?" has been everywhere.
It has been scrawled on placards at demonstrations in Rio and cities across Brazil and abroad, posted on social media, sprayed as graffiti on walls and added as a slogan to pictures people from around the world uploaded of themselves demanding an investigation into his disappearance.
"We've been screaming out ever since [he disappeared] and we're not going to stop. I want to know where my husband is. Where is his body?" asks Ms Silva, who has met Rio's governor and mayor and asked them the same question.
Amarildo's case became emblematic not only because of allegations of police involvement in his disappearance, but also because officers of Rio's much praised police "pacification" units have been accused of being behind it.
Best known under their acronym UPP, the "Pacifying Police Units" were created to regain state control of favelas run by drug lords ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
The UPP set up permanent police bases in troublesome favelas and patrol the communities.
They are keen to promote an image of a new, honest police force. They have recruited newly graduated police officers thought to be less likely to have become entangled in corrupt police networks.
So the fact that UPP officers in Rocinha are now under investigation over the Amarildo case can only be seen as a severe blow to Rio's "pacification" policy.
Police officials say there is no indication there was any police involvement in Mr Souza's disappearance.
They say he was taken to the UPP post for "identification verification" and was released after being questioned.
But many doubt this version of events. They point out that Mr Souza was last seen getting into a police car taking him from one police post to another.
They say the fact that neither the police car's GPS nor the security cameras outside the police post were working on the day of Mr Souza's disappearance only heighten their suspicions that the police were involved.
Lack of investigation
Four officers have been temporarily suspended from their duties. The unit's commander has been replaced, but officials say the move was part of wider reshuffle and not related to the Amarildo case.
Critics say it is symptomatic of a large number of disappearances in Rio and the lack of investigation into them.
From 2007 to 2013, 35,000 people went missing in Rio, according to figures from Rio state's Institute of Public Safety.
Public safety experts point out that the figures are very vague as they include people who were killed, had accidents, ran away, and also those who disappeared for a time, but later returned home.
Analysts agree there is little or no investigation work going on.
"This [Amarildo's case] is not an isolated incident. There are other disappearances with police involvement that don't get any visibility," says Joao Trajano Sento-Se, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
"The problem is there's no effort by police to clarify these cases and missing people are treated as if they were disposable," says Mr Sento-Se.
Rio's Civil Police says all cases of disappearances are investigated. In the Amarildo case, an inquiry has been going on for a month and a half.
Investigators are following two leads: that the bricklayer was either killed by police officers, or by drug dealers after leaving the UPP station.
Pillar of the family
Ms Silva is determined not to let her husband's case remain unsolved. Her family believes the police killed him.
She says it is not the first time something like this happened, but that usually favela residents are afraid to speak out against police violence.
"They did this to my husband and thought we would shut up and this would go unpunished. But we're not afraid of speaking out. We're not going to let that happen."
She says police officers in the favela do not like her attitude. She says she has been called names and booed by some of them in the streets.
Her family members have been avoiding walking around the favela on their own and they have moved to her sister-in-law's house in another part of the favela to be around other relatives.
They all sleep crammed together on a double bed and a narrow mattress on the floor of a small back room.
She has been relying on other people's help to make a living and feed the children, aged 6 to 21.
"My youngest keeps asking me when her daddy will be home with her birthday cake", she says, while her daughter Milena keeps tugging at her shirt.
"They took away the pillar of my home, my husband. He was the one that worked and brought food back home while I took care of the kids. Now our life is in shambles."
Ms Silva prays that at least his body will be found so they may bury him with dignity.
"Otherwise, the wound will never heal," she says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an erroneous name for Mr Souza, calling him Amarildo Gomes da Silva.