Rua Potengi is like many other residential streets in the working class suburbs of Goiania, the capital of the state of Goias in the flatlands of central Brazil – low-lying houses hidden beneath high walls and fences, a cracked sidewalk dusted with the red earth of the country’s agricultural heartlands, the rumble of traffic on the avenue.
On Jan. 28, Rua Potengi's peace was broken. Arlete Carvalho, a 14-year-old student, was killed with no apparent motive. Her killer, a man on what the police report described as “possibly a green Honda Titan motorcycle” gunned her down as she walked home. There was no evidence of a robbery.
“She was a good, quiet girl,” Arlete's stepmother Rita Fernandes told the Brazilian media. “She loved music. She wanted to be a lawyer.”
Arlete's murder came just 10 days after 14-year-old Barbara Luiza Costa was killed under similar circumstances in the neighborhood of Lorena Park, just a few miles away from Rua Potengi.
On Aug. 2, Ana Lidia Gomes, also 14, was murdered as she waited for a bus in the neighborhood of Morada Nova, not far from where Arlete and Barbara were killed. She was on her way to the Feira da Lua arts and crafts fair to help her mother, a stall-owner. Police security cameras recorded her walking down a bright street, followed shortly afterwards by images of her killer speeding away on a motorcycle.
Then there was 15-year-old Carla Barbosa Araújo, who was murdered on May 23 as she sat on a bench chatting with her sister. A few weeks later, Isadora Aparecida Cândida dos Reis, also 15 and a champion at the Brazilian martial art of capoeira, was killed as she walked home with her boyfriend. Two weeks after Isadora’s death, Thamara da Conceição Silva, 17 and five months pregnant, was walking to church with her husband when she was shot and killed, again by a man on a motorbike, this time in downtown Goiania. In total the recent murders of 15 or more young women in similar circumstances are currently being investigated by police in the city.
At first blush, the killings may appear unremarkable. A report released last September by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), a government-led research agency, said there were 16,900 femicides in Brazil between 2009 and 2011, a rate of 5.8 killings per 100,000 women, while the annual “Map of Violence” study, a report of murder rates in the country, revealed in 2012 that Brazil had the seventh highest rate of women murdered among a group of 84 countries.
“A woman is murdered every two hours in Brazil,” said Flavio Crocce Caetano, the secretary for judicial reform in the country’s Justice Department, at a public hearing in the national capital Brasilia last year. Those present were debating a proposed amendment to the country’s penal code to reflect the findings of a 2013 parliamentary committee that reported that 43,000 women were murdered in Brazil between 2000 and 2010, and that 41 percent of those killings took place in the women’s homes. The committee recommended stiffer sentences for the crime of femicide, which it defined as “the murder of a woman practiced by someone with whom she has an intimate relationship.” Goiania, where 45 women have been killed this year alone, provides a chilling reflection of these statistics.
Yet the apparently motiveless, unsolved murders of young women in the city by an unidentified motorcyclist or motorcyclists stand out from the statistical picture. A great many of Brazil’s 50,000 or more annual homicides involve a robbery gone wrong, drugs, or domestic abuse. None of these archetypes seem to apply in Goiania’s motorcycle killings.
The similarities between the murders have led to speculation that a serial killer is on the loose in the city. But local police, who have created a special task force to investigate the killings, have said they believe that multiple killers are involved, claiming that the models and colors of the motorbikes involved in the cases are often different. Despite the arrest of at least two suspects, investigations have so far led nowhere. “We haven’t given society a satisfactory answer yet,” admitted police chief Waldir Soares last week. “I don’t believe the serial killer, if there is one, has been arrested.”
Police skepticism over the serial killer theory has frustrated friends and relatives of the murdered women. Clayton Cesar, who witnessed his girlfriend Isadora’s death in June, believes that the killer was similar in appearance to a computer generated sketch of the man who killed parliamentary assistant Ana Maria Victor Duarte, 26, in March. “His visor was open and I could see his face. He looked a lot like the guy in the photo. His eyes, his features, his skin color, even his green shirt,” he said.
The crimes reflect the continuing security challenges Brazil faces. The 56,000 murders registered in 2012 (the most recent year for which figures are available) was the highest total since 1980, making Brazil the 11th most unsafe country in the world, according to a study by a US NGO.
A recent survey by the Mexican research group Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice placed 16 Brazilian cities among the world’s 50 most violent urban areas. Goiania was 28, with 44.56 murders per 100,000 people.
Violence in Brazil also reflects the country’s massive social and ethnic inequality. While the young women killed in Goiania were from a mix of ethnic and social backgrounds, 71 percent of the 49,300 murder victims in the country in 2011 were black.
The same story plays out along social lines. “For those who live in a favela, the risk of being murdered is seven times greater than those who live in middle- or upper-class neighborhoods," wrote the sociologist Ignacio Cano, coordinator of the Analysis of Violence Laboratory at Rio de Janeiro State University and author of a study on the relationship between income inequality and murder rates.
While poverty and social inequality are major reasons for Brazil’s skyrocketing murder rates, there are other factors. Police ineffectiveness is one – 90 percent of murders in the country go unsolved, while legal impunity and a sluggish justice system is another obstacle – cases can take years to reach court, and no matter the severity of their crime, offenders younger than 18 receive only “social-educational” punishments or short custodial sentences.
Frustration at the inability of the police to tackle crime has led to a recent increase in examples of vigilante violence. In Rio de Janeiro an alleged gang member was tied naked to a lamppost by a group of local residents before a passerby came to his assistance and called the police.
At the same time Brazil’s overcrowded prisons are in critical condition. A recent prison rebellion in Parana in the south of the country left five inmates dead, two of whom were decapitated, while there were 60 deaths inside the Pedrinhas prison in the northern state of Maranhão last year.
Meanwhile the authorities in Goiania seem as far away as ever from solving the cases of the city’s murdered women. Hopes of a lead were raised recently when a black motorbike and helmet were discovered abandoned in the suburbs, but the police have not said whether the find is connected to the crimes.
Of the two suspects arrested, delivery man Leandro Cardoso de Oliveira, accused of the attempted murder of an 18-year-old woman also under investigation by the task force, was released this week due to a lack of evidence. The other man, suspected of involvement in two of the murders, remains in custody, although no charges have yet been brought. There have been a number of public demonstrations to protest about the lack of developments.
“We feel like our hands are tied. We want justice, but we need the police to get it for us. We can’t do it ourselves,” said Rossilda Gualberto da Silva, whose witnessed the murder of her sister Rosirene, 29, on July 19. “The fear won’t leave me,” she told the Globo website, “because I survived, and now he might come after me.”
“It seems like everything has stopped,” said Ana Lidia’s mother, her voice hoarse and weary, of the police’s lack of progress. “The media has forgotten about the case already. I don’t know if it was a serial killer or not. We’ll just have to keep waiting.” The friends and relatives of many of Brazil’s thousands of murdered women will understand her pain.