Who killed Mother Bernadette?

Image: Engin Akyurt


She died for not submitting to the armed tyranny of those who act driven by the blind and criminal pursuit of profit and power.

The murder of Bernadete Pacífico is one of the main political crimes in recent Brazilian history. Although we still don't know who killed her, who had her killed and why, there is no doubt that she died for not submitting to the armed tyranny of those who act driven by the blind and criminal pursuit of profit and power. As happened with Marielle Franco, murdered in March 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, the killers attacked her public figure in particular, in an attempt to destroy the values ​​she represents for Bahian and Brazilian society and silence the discussions and debates that her leadership provokes. .

Mother Bernadette was ialorixá, matriarch of terreiro and master of samba de roda. She kept alive the knowledge she inherited from her mother, Maria Alvina do Nascimento, midwife and samba dancer. Bernadette's actions were also political and focused on the organization of her community, located in an area of ​​840 hectares in the Quilombo Pitanga dos Palmares, in Simões Filho.

She helped create an association that allowed 120 farmers and 290 families to make a living from family farming, producing flour for vatapá, vegetables and fruits. Bernadette represented, through her actions, culture and worldview, resistance against the greed of different groups that saw her as an obstacle.

To make Bernadette's murder even more revolting, the crime occurred six years after the execution of her son, Flavio Gabriel Pacífico, which was never clarified by the police. Since then, as with other mothers who lost their children to violence on the outskirts of Brazil, she began to fight for justice.

The numerous hypotheses for the crime reveal the stage of degradation of the Bahian political and institutional framework. Bernadete reported threats from land grabbers and loggers, interested in appropriating the resources and lands of the quilombo that are in an area of ​​environmental preservation. The threats had intensified and Bernadette, according to witnesses, even reported that a man was selling lots in the region. Residents said that one of these negotiators was a police officer. The delay in obtaining definitive title for the quilombo ended up promoting pressure from land grabbers and loggers on those who lived in that area, a situation that is repeated in several areas of environmental protection in the States of the Legal Amazon.

In addition to the motivations linked to extractivism and land grabbing, Bahian governor Jerônimo Rodrigues pointed to the possibility that the crime was linked to drug trafficking. The possible reasons would be two. The ialorixá prevented the sale of narcotics in the quilombo area, which hindered profits and challenged the power of traffickers, who became part of a national network of gangs, with more armed, articulate and greedy groups. Religious intolerance is also not ruled out. In Rio de Janeiro, drug dealers began to attack terreiros and members of African-based religions, influenced by distorted views of Pentecostalism.

Bahia has experienced a disconcerting escalation of violence over the past 40 years. In the 1980s, when the first data on homicides were collected by the Ministry of Health, cases in the state varied between 3 and 5 per 100 inhabitants, one of the lowest rates in Brazil. It reached double digits only in 1993, breaking the threshold of 20 per 100 in 2005. Since then, growth has accelerated and then remained at high levels. Over the past decade until today, homicides in the state have always been above 40 homicides per 100 inhabitants.

Despite the growth of the prison population and investments in the police, the movement of the drug market intensified. Small local factions began to fight violent disputes in the State, associating with national criminal groups, penetrating small and medium-sized cities in Bahia. The government's reaction was ineffective, clumsy and counterproductive, giving free rein to the brutality of the police.

The result was the increase in lethality, which exploded in the last decade. If, in 2014, 278 people had been killed by the police, eight years later, in 2022, the total number of victims was 1.464, a growth of 427%, surpassing even the police in Rio de Janeiro in absolute numbers. The police fatality rate in Bahia reached 10,4 deaths per 100 inhabitants, which means that, proportionally, they killed more than the entire population of São Paulo, a state whose homicide rate in the same year was 8,3 per 100 inhabitants.

As happened in Rio de Janeiro, the lack of control of the Bahian police – whose concrete symptom is the scandalous lethality rates – strengthened the participation of members of the corporation in crime and in militia groups, which started to act both in the metropolitan region and in areas rural and indigenous. The same model of armed tyrannies controlling territories, backed by the uniform or the billionaire capital of drug trafficking, has become a scourge in different states of the country, passing over leaders who act politically in the struggle to strengthen the rule of law and a fairer democratic society, like Bernadette and Marielle.

In the case of Bahia, the situation is even more disconcerting due to the fact that violence has escalated over more than 16 years of PT governments, which have proved incapable of thinking of more effective ways to reduce the drama of the strengthening of the drug market. and the lack of control of the police. Throughout the PT administrations, what was seen was the reproduction of the same mistakes of the populist parties, which exploited the population's fear and bet on ostensive and truculent patrolling in poor neighborhoods, reproducing violence against the most stigmatized groups.

Instead of guaranteeing the rights and safety of the people who live in these neighborhoods, part of their population came to be considered enemies and to be eliminated. Suffice it to say that 98% of victims of police violence in Bahia are black. Instead of reducing crime, the authorities went to war against the population itself. The strategy accelerated mass imprisonment, which strengthened criminal factions and militias, inciting revolt on the part of residents and weakening the legitimacy of democratic institutions.

The picture may seem unsolvable, but it is not. All it takes is political will to set priorities: freeing these neighborhoods from the armed tyrannies that oppress them and getting the government to exercise its role as a guarantor of rights and justice; prevent figures like Marielle and Bernadette from feeling threatened and running the risk of being murdered. This is not just a security problem, but a fundamental political challenge for the future of democracy.

Political will needs to come together with rationality. There are successful policies around the world and in Brazil that have already shown their effectiveness and that can be replicated by public managers willing to lead these changes. A first step towards getting to know them and understanding how they work is in the recently released book Evidence-based public safety handbook, by Alberto Kopittke, a compendium with more than 800 pages that analyzes 170 types of programs and their results, obtained over the last 50 years.

Alberto Kopittke was director of the Department of Policies and Projects at the National Secretariat for Public Security during Dilma Rousseff's government. He had already been municipal secretary of security for the city of Canoas, when he achieved good results in reducing homicides. As a public manager, he missed having access to data on the results of programs for the area, since he needed to decide how to invest the limited public money and he had several possibilities. He spent seven years poring over the subject.

Even though it does not intend to provide definitive answers, the book is an excellent start for progressive governments, which have been omitting or failing in their quest to guarantee the safety and rights of the population, without compromising the rule of law and democracy. Progressive federal governments, instead of leading the debate and directing successful policies, have, for now, been washing their hands and avoiding debating with the populist right.

*Bruno Paes Manso is a journalist and researcher at the Center for the Study of Violence at USP.

Originally published on Journal of USP.

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