Brazilian activist Sandra Moreno from Instituto Ímpar has been searching for her daughter, Ana Paula Moreno, since she disappeared in 2009. She speaks flatly and her sleepless eyes reflect her sadness. She welcomed me into her lower middle-class home in Carapicuíba, a city that forms part of the metropolitan region of São Paulo.

The Brazilian Forum on Public Security (Forúm Brasileiro de Segurança Pública) reports that close to 70,000 people a year go missing in Brazil. That’s 190 disappeared per day from 2007 to 2016. Eight people per hour.

In São Paulo alone, some 240,000 people disappeared in the last 10 years. These numbers worry Ivanise Espiridião. “What about the other 26 states and the federal district? How many are missing now?”, she asks. Espiridião runs the Mães da Sé (Mothers of Sé), a non-governmental organization she started to help others find their relatives. She notes that the figures under-represent the real dimensions of the problem. Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro and other states failed to provide full information to the survey for the past ten years.

Mães da Sé’s staff has helped 4,000 mothers contact their missing children, but Espiridião herself isn’t one of them. Despite searching for two decades, she has not found her daughter, Fabiana Espiridião, who disappeared at the age of 13. Ivanise Espiridião is a petite, middle-aged woman with bronzed skin. She stares at me with a mixture of melancholy and anger. “My life stopped on December 23 of 1995,” she explains

She says that the government bureaucracy is more of an obstacle than an aid in locating disappeared persons in Brazil. In 2009, Espiridião worked alongside a group of delegates and technicians from the Justice Ministry to establish the National Database of Disappeared Persons (Cadastro Nacional de Pessoas Desaparecidas, CNPD). It was launched Feb. 26, 2011, but according to the relatives’ organizations, its information is woefully out of date. “It has never been maintained, for lack of will or interest. The data system simply died”, comments Esperidião. She points out located youth are still in the archives as missing and many new cases have never been entered.

Every year around 40,000 and teenagers go missing in Brazil while the virtual database only shows 400 kids. From January to September of 2015 in Rio de Janeiro alone, 2,282 cases of missing persons were reported, a 16% increase in relation to 2014.

São Paulo’s “Program for the Localization and Identification of Disappeared Persons” (Programa de Localização e Identificação de Desaparecidos, PLID), which operates out of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, follows the cases reported directly to them. The Data Processing Company in São Paulo State, registered 25,486 complaints of missing people between 2013 and 2014: 15,369 (60.3%) males and 10,117 (39.7%) females. The majority of the victims (60.6%) were young people between 12 and 26 years old.

The Justice Ministry and the National Human Rights Secretary share the task of maintaining a National Data Bank. Keeping it up to date and accurate is virtually impossible due to the general lack of communication between institutions, not only in the federal sphere, but also on the state and municipal levels. For example, cooperation between military and civil police corps is fundamental for searches and investigations, yet often not forthcoming.

Congresswoman Eliziane Gamma proposed legislation to penalize states that do not update their data on disappearances. Gamma’s bill has yet to be voted on in the Senate. Esperidião has called for law enforcement agents to update the data to help mothers from poorer backgrounds and lower education, since many of them don’t have Internet in their homes. “They don’t even have money to go to an Internet café to ask somebody else to do it,” she states

Federal Prosecutor Dr. Eliana Vendramni from PLID, believes that the phenomenon of disappearance is still relatively recent in Brazil, which explains the poor reporting. She claims that much of what we know about it comes from “the relentless struggle by organized civil society via public manifestations or the digital networks”. Although very useful, Vendramni says this isn’t enough since every day the government buries unknown numbers of disappeared as nameless, homeless people without identifying them. Despite exams by Institute of Forensic Medicine (Instituto Médico Legal, IML) or the Municipal Death Verification Service (Serviço de Verificação de Óbitos da Capital, SVO) “they don’t communicate with the Civil Police before dispatching the bodies. The public services are even worse since they only answer to the State Public Security office, which fails to respond systematically to the problem.

The Immediate Search Law approved in 2005 under then-President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva mandates that the police station should start to investigate the whereabouts of children and teenagers immediately after being notified of the disappearance. Searches for adults are begun only after waiting 24 hours from the time the person is reported missing.

In reality, right after a child disappears the families start their own investigations and begin to feed police with the information they find. Esperidião and Moreno told me that they both encountered negligence from authorities in their response to the disappearance of their children. Esperidião states that the Immediate Search Law is only upheld in the cities of Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais state and Curitiba in Paraná state.

Sandra Moreno began collecting signatures in 2011 for a national law that would create more specialized police stations to assist in searching for the disappeared, like the one currently operating in São Paulo. Since disappearance isn’t codified as a crime and is often treated as simply someone temporarily gone missing, police do not have an obligation to investigate “so the cops won’t do it”, she explains. Moreno’s NGO has held demonstrations in downtown São Paulo and staged graffiti sessions to gather signatures for her legislative proposal in Carapicuíba.

In 2015, police headquarters in Sao Paulo responded to a request from the Public Prosecutor’s Office to decentralize inquiries on missing people presented to the specialized police station. Although it was considered a step forward to have a specialized station, “the former centralization couldn’t handle the statewide demand because it only had around 11 employees and 2 lieutenants, which means it didn’t have the physical and material conditions to carry out these tasks”, says Vendramini. She believes that decentralizing could favor the sectors most vulnerable to disappearance– children and people who are ill.

“The Civil Police force, in a bad interpretation of the Constitutional mandate, denies the vulnerability of teenagers”, she laments. Often cases of missing youth are treated as criminal disputes or hoodlums in hiding.

According to the 4th Investigation on Disappeared People Police Station, many missing youth are teenagers aged 13 to 18 who ran away from home voluntarily. In these kinds of cases, around 96% eventually return home. The most complicated cases are related to homicide, deprivation of liberty, slave work and sexual exploitation. PLID, initiated in Rio de Janeiro as a digital tool to unify and analyze data to increase localizations and identifications, has integrated international experience into establishing better direct public policies. The PLID has its own building in São Paulo since 2013. For Dr. Vendramini, what she calls the “global vision” includes tracing all that is known about the disappeared person in real time. The data bank registers personal data, place and apparent or possible motives. Today this integrated system operates in the Public Prosecutor’s offices in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Bahia, Amazonas, Piauí, Ceará, Pará, Pernambuco, Federal District and other territories.

Many experts hope someday this system can develop into a replica of the Amber Alert (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response), a child abduction alert system originated in 1996 in the United States. Under that system, a law enforcement agency investigating the case makes the decision to issue the Alert and publicize the name of child, the description of the suspect, license plate or other information relevant to the case. The Amber Alert is distributed by internet, commercial and satellite radio stations, television stations and cable TV, e-mail, electronic traffic-condition sings, commercial electronic billboards or wireless device SMS text messages, and online via Google, Bing and Facebook.

Dr. Vendramini explains that the Amber Alert is a role model, but far away due to the lack of resources available in Brazil. “These days we’re fighting for basic public services in the state of São Paulo – not to mention the rest of Brazil – such as an state database, which by law is supposed to contain even genetic information, rigorous application of investigative procedures created by the General Delegacy in 2014 after a request by the Public Ministry and PLID, investigations of the whereabouts of teenagers given their vulnerability, and special treatment for the victimized families”. The list goes on, she notes, but these are the most pressing demands. Espiridião and Moreno believe that even though it falls short, PLID has gained credibility among the families since it defends their rights to the law enforcement agencies and makes an effort to update its data.

Enforced Disappearances and missing person

According to the International Human Rights Law, enforced disappearance is “deprivation of liberty against the person’s will, direct involvement, support or complicity from governmental agents, refusal to recognize deprivation of liberty and knowledge or whereabouts of the missing person”.

The term “missing person” is more inclusive than “enforced disappearance”, explains Argentine lawyer Ariel Dulitzky, former member of UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) and law professor at the University of Texas. “Missing people” can be citizens displaced or scattered by bombings or in a zone struck by a natural disaster. In cases of enforced disappearance, Ariel Dulitzky says that the UN tries to keep in touch with the families and follow what happened to the disappeared while working with governments and associations searching for answers. The lack of governmental data causes troubles for non-governmental organizations attempting to address the issue. Amnesty International’s Human Rights consultant, Alexandre Ciconello, explains that it is hard to accurately gauge the dimensions of the problem in the country although Brazil has adopted international legislation that condemns “enforced disappearances”. The nation in fact adheres to two definitions: the international Palermo Protocol on human trafficking and the definition in the country’s penal code.This protocol is backed up by Brazilian law enforcement and the country’s 2006 National Plan to Fight Against Human Trafficking, or Plano Nacional de Enfrentamento ao Tráfico de Pessoas. But still disappearances can often fall through the cracks. The Brazilian justice system’s interpretation exclusively addresses the facilitation of national and international transportation of people for the purposes of prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, independently of coercion.

Where is Amarildo?

Amarildo de Souza, an African-Brazilian man with thick curly hair, mustache and big eyes, disappeared in 2013 in Rio de Janeiro. His sudden absence changed the lives of his wife, Elizabeth Gomes da Silva, and their six children, who all shared a shack in the Rocinha favela.

The community had always regarded De Souza as a serene worker who sustained his family on his meager salary as a bricklayer’s assistant. He was the seventh son of twelve children born to a fisherman and a maid, an illiterate man who started working at 12 years old selling lemons.

On July 14, 2013 De Souza was detained by members of the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Pacifying Police Unit, UPP) in the Rocinha favela where he was born and never appeared again. First he was conducted to one of the UPP’s stations in the lower levels of the favela where a camera registered his entrance at 7 PM. He later was taken in a Military Police car to UPP headquarters in Rocinha. UPP commander Major Edson Santos steadfastly claims that Amarildo was interrogated for a few minutes and left on his own by foot, but the bricklayer’s assistant never arrived home and the police video is the last sign of him.

In October of the same year, Civil Police Force investigators concluded that Amarildo was tortured behind the UPP’s intermodal containers. Sworn testimonies said he was subject to electric shocks, choking with plastic bags and waterboarding for around 2 hours.

Twenty-five Military Police (MP) officers were charged with torture and murder. Among them, Major Edson Santos, four MP officers active in the torture, and 12 others acting as observers. Eight other people within the area did nothing to stop the attacks.

Officers that collaborated with the investigation said that Major Santos was in one of the containers where the screams could be heard and when Amarildo de Souza stopped screaming a police officer went to the stockroom and came back with a black cloth used to cover motorcycles. The prosecutors affirmed that the body was wrapped in it. Among the 25 defendants, 16 plead guilty to concealing a body. Civil Police searched the woods for De Souza’s body, but found nothing.

The Amarildo de Souza disappearance developed at the same time as demonstrators took over Brazilian streets calling for greater political representation. Daniel Cerqueira, economist and researcher at the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada, IPEA), considers this a moment that awakened the society, especially the middle class, “who discovered the brute force and disrespect to the rights of the citizenry perpetuated by cops”. Such behavior was already part of the daily life of the poor, but de Souza’s case touched the elite. He became a catalyst for a widespread rejection of the current police model. “The matter of the disappearance, torture, slaughter and kidnapping of citizens by crooked cops isn’t a new issue in Brazil, but it was invisible to a certain point, as it was only victimizing the poorer classes in regions far away from opinion leaders”.

Rute Fiuza, a housewife, began her search on Oct. 24, 2014 when her son Davi, 16 years old, was detained by agents of the Operational Tactical Employment Squad (Pelotão de Emprego Tático Operacional, PETO) and Special Patrol (Rondas Especiais, Rondesp) in the neighborhood of São Cristóvão in Salvador, the capital city of Bahia State.

Davi’s disappearance ignited the community, with concerned neighbors and area church-goers taking up the call to bring the popular teenager back alive. More than three years later, Fiuza still roams the streets looking for her son, on an endless round of police stations, hospitals and illegal burial sites.

The UN asked the Bahian government for information on Davi’s case in 2015 after being notified by Amnesty International. This launched an urgent international campaign that monitors progress in the case.

The UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported in February 2015 that the cops tied Davi’s feet and hands and covered his head with a cloth. They then put him in an unidentified automobile. The report also states that two months before the incident the teenager was assaulted by one of the agents of the Special Patrol. Ciconello recalls that in 2014 Amnesty held a meeting requested by relatives of victims of enforced disappearances allegedly perpetuated by law enforcement agents.

Rute’s routine has changed completely. She works at a supermarket, uses sleeping pills to rest at night and struggles to pay for therapy sessions. Her four daughters help out but are also traumatized by their brother’s disappearance. Elizabeth Gomes da Silva, Amarildo’s widow, fears for the safety of her family and her own, but continues to fight for Justice.

Sergio Cabral, Rio de Janeiro’s former governor now jailed for corruption, never kept his promise of “finding Amarildo’s whereabouts” or even of investigating the case. In February 2016 Judge Daniella Alvarez from Rio’s Criminal Forum condemned 12 military police officers for torture and concealment of a body. All involved were expelled from the Military Police Force.

The sentence named Major Edson Raimundo dos Santos as responsible for the electrocution, waterboardings and asphyxiation. After Amarildo’s death at the Police Station, Major Dos Santos issued instructions to conceal the body. In July 2016 the State of Rio de Janeiro was ordered to pay an indemnity and allowance to Amarildo’s family. Currently the state is appealing.

Legacy of the Dictatorship

Stories like those of Amarildo Dias de Souza and Davi Fiuza are a grim reminder of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1984, when people where regularly picked up and taken into interrogation, never to be heard from again.

“I believe that the militarist and warlike vision, — where the objective is not the preservation of citizen rights but the destruction of the other — permeates even the Civil Police Force and is a remnant of the dictatorship,” Cerquiera asserts. “The opaque culture of secrecy and lack of transparency that block the evaluation and control of law enforcement organizations is another element. And last, the common use of torture as a work method still prevailing inside and outside the prisons is a barbaric legacy from the basements of the dictatorship.”

The Leaden Years (1968 – 1974) spearheaded by General and President Emílio Garrastazu Médici marked Brazilian history by its virulent persecution of opposition. Many acts of violence propagated by the dictatorship are being questioned by the Commission of Truth (Comissão da Verdade). In those years, enforced disappearance became public policy in the country.

Much of the work done by UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances in Brazil refers to the years of the dictatorship. The group works closely with the Commission of Truth, but so far have not been able to access further information. Dulitzky believes the cases that came to prominence are just a small fraction of the problem as many people don’t report out of fear, not knowing how to do it, or social-economic issues.

The Argentine lawyer points out that the nation must hold responsible those who committed these acts. The Working Group continues to follow the cases and analyzes Brazilian policies and practices in anticipation of a a fact-finding mission to visit the country and meet with the authorities to make further recommendations.

Amnesty International found in a recent survey that the poor neighborhoods and favelas are the main victims of police violence, including the use of disproportional lethal force. These areas are mainly composed of black inhabitants. Amnesty is studying whether there is a correlation between the use of lethal violence against the poor and African-Brazilians and enforced disappearances. They have already found some elements from the military dictatorship such as extra judicial executions, enforced disappearances and tortures in Salvador, Bahia.

Life goes on. Sandra Moreno is still collecting signatures to help find Ana Paula. Ivanise Esperidião is pleading for information on the whereabouts of Fabiana. Rute Fiuza believes Davi is dead and is asking for his body. The country is still standing alongside the bricklayer’s family, demanding to know what happened to Amarildo. His  face has become the face of the hundreds of missing people in Brazil.