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The Weight of Inaction: The Mothers Fighting the War on Drugs

Maes de Maio movement in Brazil, protesting against state violence.

Although this article isn’t about me, I think it’s important to give you some context.

My name is Jéssica, I’m 31 years old, I was born and raised in the Complexo de Favelas do Alemão, in the city of Rio de Janeiro. I’m an LGBTQIA+ person, I have no children and I’m a human rights activist.

I’d like to start by talking about activism – more specifically, about what drives someone to become an activist. In my case, it was an almost-choice. I emphasise “almost” because, although it was a choice like many others I’ve made, sometimes that decision is thrust upon you, like a foot ramming down a door, forcing you to take part in a fight that no one would ever ask you to join.

Today, this text is not about me. I’m writing about the growing movements of mothers and other relatives who, from one moment to the next, have their lives changed and must fight for the memory and the rights of the victims of the drug war. According to the 17th edition of the Annual Brazilian Public Security Report, 83% of those killed by the police in Brazil in 2022 were Black, and 76% of these were aged between 12 and 26. These figures reveal not only a very important detail of who is executed by the police; they also show how these killings leave a trail of blood and pain on so many mothers, families and friends whose lives are violently crossed by the pain of loss.


Dealing with a lethal State

Not everyone who has a family member murdered becomes an activist. But, in many cases, the State is so effective in its execution that it kills its victim more than once. When someone is guilty of a crime – even of one as innocuous as drug possession – they take their life. And, in the process of justifying this unjustifiable action, they also murder their humanity. The State deems its victims as people unworthy of living: their guilt turns them into “killables”.

In this way, they also kill their memory: the memory of someone as a son, brother, father or professional is suppressed. For the police, the State, or for media, what mattered was not that person’s life before, but who they were in that final moment: someone committing a crime, who had to be stopped or controlled – no matter how.

It is at this moment that their mourning calls mothers to the fight. It’s not about being strong, being a “warrior”, not being afraid. It’s about mothers and family members being so wounded and bereaved that the only thing left to do is fight. They fight to recover the memory that was stolen from them; they fight for justice (which almost never comes); they fight so that their loss may be the last time that anyone feels such pain again.

How much suffering, illness and loss must a woman, a mother, endure in order to keep changing structures?

In May 2014, 19-year-old Johnatha, the son of Ana Paula Gomes, was murdered near his home in the Manguinhos favela by a police officer from the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP). At this moment, which should be one of grieving, the mourning is interrupted. It must be proven that Johnatha was not involved with organised crime; if that were the case, then society should applaud the policeman who ended his life and future. Unless his innocence was proven, his memory would be that of another thug removed from our community.

Ana Paula’s life was possessed by the urgency of the struggle. And like her, several other mothers came together to prevent more physical and symbolic deaths of several young people. She became one of the leaders of the Mães de Manguinhos movement, and has been seeking justice for her and so many other children swallowed up by the State’s machine of violence. She, like many other mothers who build the movements of victims’ families, have not had the chance to mourn or process their loss; instead, she stands as a base for others, welcoming the pain of so many, sharing the burden thrown on her shoulders.

In March of this year, almost 10 years later, the policeman who executed Johnatha will not be tried for premeditated murder; instead, he will be charged with manslaughter, reducing the seriousness of the crime, pretending that this theft of life was nothing more than an accident. And just like that, another pain, another grieving processing must begin anew.


Vigils are still held for Johnatha and other victims of state violence. Source: Mães de Manguinhos.


Mothers’ and women’s movements

When I talk about fighting for memory and justice, I include a well-defined gender. In Brazil, as in most of Latin America, the largest movements of victims’ relatives that exist today were founded by or are mostly composed of women: mothers, grandmothers, daughters, nieces.

If the “fatherland” (originallypátria” in Portuguese, meaning “nation”, a male-gendered term) is like an absent father who ignores his obligations to care for and recognise his children, pushing them to the margins of their lives as a problem; mothers become the “motherland” (meaning mátria in Portuguese), the base and pillar that reduces the harms of abandonment, mobilising to guarantee access to the most basic right of every human being: the right to life. Who hasn’t heard of the “Mães da Plaza de Mayo“, the movement of Argentinian mothers seeking answers and justice for the more than 30,000 disappeared victims of the country’s 1976 dictatorship?

Throughout history, women haven’t just had to fight for their hard-won rights, they’ve also had to look after and fight for the rights of everyone they love. That says a lot about the power and revolutionary capacity of a woman. Angela Davis spoke to this at a conference in Bahia, saying that “when a black woman moves, the whole structure of society moves with her”.

However, while this is a statement of empowerment that I absolutely agree with, it also means that, once again, the weight of changing society and all is on the shoulders of women – above all, Black, indigenous, LGBTQIA+, disabled women, among other intersectional identities.

If you feel that you were never forced to choose what kind of fight to wage, surely the privilege of your non-choice contributes to the weight, pain, blood, mourning and fatigue of women who had no choice and were forced to fight. This is the weight of inaction: if we want the systems that create violence, that execute children and young people around the world to change, we will have to bear the weight of the struggle together. This is the only way to make sure that the women and mothers of the world don’t have to fight alone.


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