In the flurry of blue and white that lit up Rio de Janeiro’s vast Sambadrome last week, black bands could be spotted on some of the wrists of those who marched to the driving beats.
It was an uncharacteristically sombre touch for the prestigious Beija-Flor samba school, 12 times winners of the city’s carnival parade, whose symbol is a gigantic hummingbird. The black bands worn at a rehearsal for the carnival, which begins on Friday, were a tribute to a dancer who had been killed the week before.
Claudio da Silva, 25, a transvestite who lived as a woman and was known by the name Piu to those in the school where she danced, had often joked to the “queen of the drums”, Raissa de Oliveira, that she would one day steal her crown and take her place as the most prominent woman in Beija-Flor’s parade. That ambition was never to be realised as Da Silva’s tortured corpse was discovered on 23 January, a few weeks before the carnival.
It was a murder that provided macabre confirmation of Brazil’s homophobia and transphobia problem, as well as shining a light on the criminal underworld that lurks behind the happy-go-lucky carnival facade.
The alarm had first been raised the week before, when Da Silva failed to turn up for a rehearsal at the samba school’s quadra, or main hall – she never missed a practice, so her relatives and friends became concerned.
Next day a shocking video surfaced on social media, purporting to show her being tortured to death in a nearby favela known as Morro da Mina. Da Silva lived in the neighbouring district of Anchieta, which is close to both the samba school headquarters and Morro da Mina.
The footage showed Da Silva pleading with unseen aggressors while they grilled her about what she was doing there. Her face and body were already covered in blood. Frantic relatives searched the area after the video was released and found her body, disfigured and riddled with bullets. There has since been wild speculation about what caused her tragic death.
The most obvious motive appeared to be transphobia. The world of carnival is defined by its high camp, and in recent years a gay soap actor had appeared on a strawberry-scented float to rapturous applause. Men dressed as women fill the streets of Rio as part of the celebrations.
Yet homophobia is also entrenched in Brazil, with one gay, trans or bisexual person killed on average every 28 hours. Some of the online comments seemed to back this up, condemning the wristband homage and using derogatory homophobic slang such as bicha (animal) to describe Da Silva.
On 29 January, six days after Da Silva’s body was found, a National Trans Visibility day was held in Brazil, with transvestites and transsexuals descending on Rio’s city hall to raise awareness of violence and prejudice against trans people.
Beatriz Cordeiro, 28, from Projeto Damas, which works to get trans people into employment, said: “Foreigners come to carnival expecting free sex and love, but the image Brazil exports of freedom and liberty is false. There is a lot of prejudice in society still.”
Murders of transsexuals and transvestites are common, with 312 trans, gay or bisexual people murdered in 2013, according to a report by Grupo Gay da Bahia, Brazil’s most established gay rights group. There were clues, however, that other motives could also have contributed to Da Silva’s murder – ones related to the organised crime that is pervasive in places like Morro de Mina. One indication was the wall of silence that greeted her death from many quarters.
“People are afraid to talk. You never know who is listening or watching, and they don’t want to get involved,” one member of Beija-Flor said, in reference to the climate of fear surrounding the dancer’s murder.
The samba school would not respond to media requests, and many members refused to even confirm that they knew Da Silva, despite her attendance record and reputation as one of the most lively members of the Beija-Flor school.
“I only knew Piu by sight, as she was in the quadra every Wednesday and Thursday,” one woman told the Extra newspaper. “The story made me sad, so I came to show my support.” Others refused to speak at all.