Last week was an interesting one at Meninadança.
On Tuesday we released a story, via the MailOnline website, about how underage girls in a town called Encruzilhada, close to Cândido Sales, were being raffled by paedophiles. You can read it here.
Our intention wasn’t just to decry a horrific scandal, but also to begin a dialogue about the epidemic of child sexual exploitation along the BR-116, and the lack of political will to confront it.
The story was quickly picked up by national media and caused a huge stir in the region. By Wednesday the phones at our office in Belo Horizonte were ringing off the hook, and we conducted numerous interviews with some of the country’s biggests news outlets, as well as local journalists from around the town.
The exposure, we thought, might force local authorities to act, ensure those involved are prosecuted and put policies in place to reduce the high incidence of abuse and sexual exploitation of children.
And it wasn’t long before they began to act – but not in the way we had hoped.
First, the military police department in Cândido Sales released a statement warning newspapers that if they continued to report the story, they would face legal action, “because of the negative repercussion propagated by the story”.
The civil police also released a statement, saying the case had been investigated but amounted to nothing more than “a bad taste joke between three teenagers”.
But just three days earlier, the town’s civil police chief had sent us a written message saying “the case has been sent to the court so that the authors of the crime can be duly condemned”. The sudden change in their story seemed breathtaking.
Later, the local public prosecution service made a pronunciation, saying that their investigation “has not found evidence of sexual exploitation” and the case has now been “archived”.
But just a week earlier, the children’s council in the town, a body linked to the prosecution service, told us: “Yes, there were raffles of girls in the town of Encruzilhada. This was known about by the police chief, the public prosecutor, and the judge. The police found out, but afterwards everything was forgotten about, and yes there was a numbered raffled tickets for players to win these girls.”
Finally, on Thursday afternoon, the lawyer who first informed us about the case, who worked closely with the town’s children’s council as they investigated, also made a public denial.
He told a local journalist: “What I said was only that I had heard that some girls were offering a raffle ticket around in which they would be the prize.”
In fact he had given us detailed information about the case, that a gang of men made money from the raffles, that when virgin girls were raffled the price of the tickets were higher, and that the police investigation had even apprehended a raffled ticket sold by the gang.
And on Wednesday, when questioned by a local radio station, he had confirmed all the details published in the original story.
Clearly, he – and the other public bodies which went out of their way to try to trivialise this case and convince the press it was not worth reporting – had been put under pressure to suppress the story and prevent bad publicity for the town and region.
Perhaps most shocking have been the attempts to blame the victims themselves, claiming three girls, aged 11-13, had raffled themselves, and no adult was involved in the “game”.
And if the prosecution service, as it appears, did move quickly to archive the case in the wake of the publicity, this is a further injustice and an insult to those their function is to protect.
In an interview with a local newspaper on Thursday, Matt Roper said: “Since the story was published, I see the authorities trying to distance themselves from the case. But maybe it would be better if put this same amount of effort in protecting the victims.
“We are talking about girls who for many people are worth nothing. It’s much easier to archive the case than to investigate and take it to a prosecution.”
Meninadança has often spoken of how girls living in poor, remote regions of Brazil become victims many times over. From the book Highway to Hell: “Prosecutors and judges quietly bury cases of sexual abuse or exploitation, policemen conveniently sweep the problem under the carpet, and those who are courageous enough to speak out are told to keep quiet.”
What we saw last week is another example of the deplorable way young victims along the BR-116 are often viewed and treated, and the challenge faced by those trying to defend them.
There is hope, however, that the story may still bring about a positive outcome. Both the human rights secretariat of the state of Bahia, and the human trafficking commision based in Sao Paulo, contacted us following publication, congratulating us on the story and vowing to investigate.
The human rights secretariat has privileged access to police investigations and have promised to find out the truth, and if necessary, bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice.
We will continue to speak out on behalf of girls who are victims of exploitation and impunity in Brazil.