Amazon Diary 2: In the shadows of the dictatorship

Dan Baron Cohen meets talks to a Bolsonaro-supporting fellow-passenger on a flight to Belém

A Special Missions base. The name carries similar associations to that of the notorious BOPE in Rio de Janeiro and police comandos and special operations groups in other cities in Brazil.

This is the second of three Letters from the Amazon, written in recent weeks by LAB collaborator Dan Baron Cohen. Further letters will be published in the next few months. You can see them all here.

Cabelo Seco, Marabá. 2 October 2018. The motorcycle-taxi slows to a halt beside me on the Trans-Amazonia highway, in front of the Headquarters of the 4th Battalion. ‘Where to?’ asks the taxi-driver. I’m in shock. No one had warned me that just two days earlier, a new coronel from Special Missions had replaced the previous regional commander of the Military Police, a key figure in community policing. This first dawn ‘intervention’ instantly erased mutual respect and trust built up over seven years of cultural collaboration between our Afro-Indigenous community of Cabelo Seco and a Military Police that in previous decades had executed social movement leaders and black youth with impunity.

The 4th Batallion of the Policia Militar, on parade

Now, with a jolt, we were back to the bad old days. ‘They broke into that house, masked, with no identification’, explained Maria, the neighbour, pointing at the flat from her home across the square. ‘They woke and tortured two seventeen year old kids, then murdered them in their beds. They herded us indoors at gunpoint, ordered us to lock our windows and doors, but we heard everything.’

Press report in Correio de Carajas. “Two arrested, two dead and four still being sought. That was the result of operation PAC carried out by the Civil Police, supported by the Polícia Militar, via their 1st Independent Company of Special Missions(CIME). The operation was named after the housing estate built with funding from the PAC, in Bairro Cabelo Seco, Marabá Pioneira. In this area the criminal gang Comando Vermelho [Red Command] (CV) had begun to gain strength.
I listened to the traumatized neighbours as they took me through the smashed door of the flat to photograph the drying blood on the floors where the youths had been dragged, and their blood-stained mattresses. When I’d mentioned these photos to the new commander, he explained that Special Missions was now an independent company, no longer his responsibility, being installed in every major city in Pará. An environment of panic was being created to justify the need for a populist civilian dictatorship. Bolsonaro had already won.

The previous afternoon, in Marabá’s #elenão (#nothim) national action by Women United Against Bolsonaro, a grandmother from Cabelo Seco called for an end to all violence. But the same night, regional TV reported the death of two alleged leaders of a local wing of the Red Command[1] in an exchange of gunfire with the Special Missions police. ‘We know the machine guns the police claimed they found in the flat were planted, to mask their error’, Maria told me. I make a note to remember to make sure the community speaks to the press and the new military police commander.

‘Senhor?’ The motorcycle taxi driver holds out his passenger’s helmet. ‘O Senhor é Bolsonarista?’ I look at the timid young taxi driver, and manage a smile. ‘Of course not.’ He belts his passenger helmet back onto the seat behind him. ‘Make your own way then, and fuck off back home.’

Just a month ago, such aggression had been unimaginable. #elenão, the most radical women’s movement in Brazil’s history may have energised social movements and created a celebratory space for diverse minorities to cry out. But it has clearly not touched a huge majority whose centuries of unresolved visceral anger and self-hatred have found an authentic voice in the compulsive, unmediated accusations of the ex-army officer. And it didn’t begin to reassure the same majority living in fear, at home, in the workplace and the street, imprisoned in chronic shyness, that reflexive empathy and self-determination need to be learned..

[1] The criminal organization commanded from Rio de Janeiro.

Dan Baron Cohen is a performance educator, living in the Amazonian afro-indigenous community of Cabelo Seco, Pará. After doctoral research into ‘theatre as education’ at Oxford University, Dan began his ‘transformance’ project in Manchester, moving to Derry in 1988, to the Rhondda in 1994. and, in 1998, to Brazil. Collaborations with at-risk landless, indigenous, trade union and school communities, generated collective performances, murals, sculptures, and in 2008, the Amazonian Rivers of Meeting project. In 2012, Dan co-founded its Community University of the Rivers with the AfroRaiz Collective. As Chair of the World Alliance for Arts Education (2006-10), and member of the World Social Forum international council, Dan advocated arts education for sustainable futures. Dan’s publications include ‘Theatre of Self-Determination’ (Derry, 2001), ‘Cultural Literacy’ (São Paulo, 2004), ‘Harvest in Times of Drought’ (Marabá, 2011), and numerous essays.



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