RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Crosses dotted the sand in a single row. Red flowers were at one end, an American flag at the other.
It was an uncommon sight this weekend on the city’s iconic Copacabana beach.
The memorial was the work of Brazilian peace activists, who had been preparing for their annual demonstration for Brazilian murder victims when the world was shaken by a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The group, Rio de Paz (Rio or river of peace), placed a cross for each Sandy Hook victim, and mailed another cross, and American and Brazilian flags, with a letter to the people of Newtown.
It’s a poignant symbol of shared grief. Brazil is marked by obscene killing sprees of its own, and the US has capped off another violent year of inexplicable massacres, including at a Colorado cinema, a Wisconsin Sikh temple and, last week, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.
American victims’ families “have endured the same suffering as [families of Brazilian murder victims] who were with us in Copacabana,” said Pastor Antonio Carlos Costa, president of Rio de Paz.
“We wanted to express solidarity. It is a pain that we know very well in Brazil,” he said.
The numbers here are indeed staggering: Brazil has the highest total of murders of any country, with 43,909 in 2009, ahead of India (40,752) and Russia (15,954), according to the most recent United Nations Global Study on Homicide. Half a million Brazilians have been murdered in the past decade. The state of Rio de Janeiro has a homicide rate of about 28 per 100,000 residents; the global average is fewer than seven per 100,000.
It’s difficult to compare crime statistics between countries or cities due to problems with data collection, transparency and reporting. Behind too many of the numbers lie innocent child victims.
Rio was the site last year of a horrific school shooting. In April 2011, a 23-year-old gunman walked inside Tasso da Silveira Municipal School and shouted, “I’m going to kill you all.” Carrying two guns, he shot 11 students dead and injured more than a dozen others, ages 12 to 14.
That set off hysteria, as a mourning nation searched for answers about why the killing happened. After rumors and wild speculation, answers never came.
Another prominent child murder case in Rio is known as “Caso Juan.” Eleven-year-old Juan Moraes went missing in June 2011. Rio de Paz organizers called for action to find him, holding rallies and putting up “Where is Juan?” banners on the beach.
More than a week later, Juan’s body turned up in a river near a police station. The corpse contained a bullet that traced back to the gun of a cop who already had 13 on-duty killings to his name.
Brazil’s largest city Sao Paulo is also notoriously deadly. In just two weeks in November, 140 people were killed in a spate of murders widely reported to be part of a flare-up between the city’s biggest drug gang and the police.
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Some Brazilians complained their country has enough overlooked problems of its own, so why should a rights group be preoccupied with a tragedy already drawing massive global attention in America?
But Pastor Costa says, no matter the location, the Newtown shooting was a violation of human rights.
“Do people not have the right to express solidarity with another population simply because they are Americans?” he said. “It's the pain of families, of real people.”
Full GlobalPost coverage: Sandy Hook shooting