ITAGUAÍ, Brazil — Ana Maria Carvalho was huddling with her daughter and grandson in their plastic tent on the coldest night in a decade when she was awakened by shuddering footsteps and the shrieks of her neighbors. Her community was under siege.
She ran outside, following the flickers of phone flashlights to the front gates of her sprawling encampment to block the police entering in the predawn darkness.
“The police didn’t give us any warning. What they did was evil. It was terrible, terrible, terrible,” said Carvalho, 62.
In a surprise raid last week, police forcefully evicted several hundred Brazilian families who had occupied a long-vacant site owned by the state-run oil giant Petrobras in Itaguaí, on the western edges of Rio de Janeiro. The court-ordered move shocked the community, which had been told in May, after several thousand people took control of the land on May 1, that they would be safe from eviction until at least the end of the year.
Nobody had proposed an alternate permanent and COVID-safe solution either, Fernando Lanchinho, 37, from the People’s Movement (MPB), which led the occupation, told VICE World News.
“We’re isolated,” he said.
Clad in black camouflage riot gear, more than 30 Rio de Janeiro state military police officers from the Shock Battalion and Special Resources Coordination unit stormed past the human barricade and campfires blocking the camp’s entry at 7:50 a.m. on July 1 after peaceful negotiations between the police and the camp’s leaders stalled.
Faced with resistance, the police released thick clouds of tear gas and fired water from an armored truck to disperse the occupants. An elderly woman died in the scramble, and at least two children and a pregnant woman were seriously injured, according to those impacted. Members of the LGBTQ+ community were verbally abused, and Erick Vermelho, the leader of the movement, was arrested.
The two-month old occupation had become a lifeline for the pandemic refugees who had grown increasingly desperate as the government’s emergency aid packages were slashed in April and inflation climbed. They had set up their own cistern, a recycling plan, and a communal kitchen that guaranteed three full meals for the residents. The camp also operated on a zero alcohol or drug policy.
“I lost blood, I’m three months pregnant,” said China Cristavo, a 35-year-old single mother about the attack.
Tractors and bulldozers demolished the settlement’s tents and bamboo huts. Many of the inhabitants’ belongings—clothes, foods and personal identification documents—were destroyed when fires broke out across the campsite and backhoes crushed the tents. The settlers, not allowed to retrieve their surviving possessions, lost everything.
“We came here out of necessity,” said Camila Garardo, 63, a retired informal worker. “Nobody here is a criminal, we’re families with young children. And now? How are we going to live?”
“The police didn’t give us any warning. What they did was evil.”
Many of the occupants of the “May 1st Refugee Camp” had come from paramilitary controlled regions in Rio de Janeiro’s West Zone after they lost their income and had been evicted from their homes amid Brazil’s uncontrolled COVID crisis. The Human Rights Commission, an autonomous government body, counted over 3,000 occupants—993 mothers and heads of the family, 1,854 children, and 427 elderly people.
Almost immediately after the settlement sprang up, Petrobras, which had let the land lie vacant for more than three decades with no plan for development, filed a lawsuit to evict the families. But when the military police arrived to remove the settlers on May 7, Rio de Janeiro Civil Chamber Judge Alexandre Scisinio overruled the repossession order. He granted the settlers the right to remain on the land until Rio de Janeiro’s main human rights body, the Public Defense Office, issued an opinion at the end of 2021 on the COVID risks faced by the occupation’s inhabitants.
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 that order to all settlements have yet to be taken up by the court, and will likely remain pending for the next six months, said Brisa Lima, a lawyer from the Defense Institute of the Black Population, an independent body, and a member of the Human Rights Commission.
But despite Scisinio’s ruling protecting the settlement, Petrobras filed a second repossession order “alleging new facts'' to the Supreme Court of Justice, Brazil’s non-constitutional court, Lima said. The Public Defense Office appealed.
Under Brazilian law, it is not necessary for the court to consider an appeal before ruling. Luiz Cláudio Teixeira Martins, the occupation’s defense lawyer, said the Supreme Court of Justice judge on duty on the evening of June 30 said she “had no knowledge of an appeal,” and ruled in favor of Petrobras to overturn Scisinio’s decision. Hours later, the police were at the settlement’s gates.
“Nobody here is a criminal, we’re families with young children. And now? How are we going to live?”
“I’m here in the forest that we had hoped to replant, we’re here with our communal kitchen and they're going to destroy it all. And the people are here suffering,” said Lanchinho during the raid.
According to data from the housing rights campaign, Despejo Zero, around 64,500 Brazilian families living in illegal settlements are at risk of eviction during the pandemic and the supreme court decision suspending some evictions isn’t always obeyed. The court also ruled that alternative housing and support would need to be offered to those who are evicted.
In a statement, Petrobras’s communications department told VICE World News that “Teams from the city of Itaguaí registered people who expressed interest in going to the shelters. Petrobras is funding food, mats, blankets and kits with alcohol gel and masks for the families sent to the shelters.”
The Itaguai City Hall has provided shelter for the families at two local schools, but these measures are only temporary. And according to their lawyer, Teixeira Martins, the “May 1st refugees” staying in the shelters face “unsanitary” conditions and have no access to water. Others have been thrown onto the streets.
“These people need to eat. They’ve received no food. Just look at the sheer amount of children here”, said Lima, the human rights lawyer, pointing to the hundreds of young families strewn across the streets outside the encampment on the day of eviction.
Teixeira Martins, the occupation’s lawyer, said the case represents a “conflict of rights.” Under the constitution, Brazil guarantees the “basic right to housing” and assures that the minimum wage is enough to meet basic needs of housing and food.
Given that Petrobras is state-run, he said, its property has to serve a social function, either “creating, planting or living.” In the absence of any Petrobras project to use the land, the families should have had the right to stay.
“Unfortunately, this time, the right to property was more important,” Teixeira Martins said.