Murdered for four trays of meat: The uncle and nephew killed in Brazil for shoplifting

Bruno Barros and Yan Barros were caught stealing last month in the city of Salvador. But rather than call the police, supermarket management and security guards handed them over to a gang who tortured them to death

Bruno and Yan Barros in an image shared on social media before they were murdered.
Bruno and Yan Barros in an image shared on social media before they were murdered.

The death sentences of Bruno Barros, 29, and his nephew Yan Barros, 19, were signed on April 26 in the supermarket Atakadão Atakarejo. The pair tried to steal four trays of meat and were caught in the act, and staff did not hesitate to hand the two men over to a notorious criminal gang, who tortured and murdered them. Their bodies were left in the trunk of a car, echoing the words of Brazilian artist Elza Soares on her 2002 album Do Cóccix Ate o Pescoço: “The cheapest meat in the market is Black.”

Violent deaths linked to supermarkets are far from unusual in Brazil. João Alberto and Pedro Gonzaga died last year at the hands of security guards in Porto Alegre and Rio de Janeiro from the Carrefour and Extra supermarket chains respectively. In all three cases, the victims were Black. But the incident at Atakarejo has another component: the link between the company and a gang allegedly involved in drug trafficking.

Family and friends don’t know why Yan and Bruno left the Fazenda Coutos neighborhood of Salvador where they lived and went to the Nordeste de Amaralina area that day. But the first sign that something was amiss came around 1.30pm. Bruno sent a WhatsApp audio to a friend asking her for 700 Brazilian reals (about $130 or €110) to pay for the meat he had stolen in Atakarejo. But she was at a beauty salon at the time, and didn’t see the message.

These people condemned them to death. My son lost his life, just 19 years old, for four trays of meat
Elaine Costa Silva, mother of Yan Barros

Bruno then called her at 1.46pm and managed to speak to her. He and his nephew had been caught trying to steal meat, he said, and the manager and security guards had taken them to the supermarket parking lot, where they were assaulted. The employees were demanding they pay the 700 reals the meat had cost to let them go. If they did not, they would be handed over to gang members in an area dominated by Comando da Paz (or Peace Command), which is allegedly associated with the Rio de Janeiro outfit Comando Vermelho (or Red Command), a known criminal arms and drug trafficking organization. The local security forces in Bahia deny this link.

Bruno’s friend contacted relatives and friends to raise the money. She managed to scrape together 250 reals ($46 or €39). “I called him and asked one of the guards to send the account number to deposit the money, while we tried to get the rest. It would be a guarantee that we would pay. But the employees didn’t accept it, they wanted everything at once,” the friend tells EL PAÍS. Bruno got desperate and contacted other people to ask them for money. In an audio message shared with this newspaper, he can be heard saying: “She already has 200 reals, see if you can get the money.” His friend recalls him saying: “Time is passing, they’re going to turn me in, they’re serious. If they turn me in, I’m going to die.”

Despite their efforts, they did not have time to raise all the money. At 2.02pm, the friend received another call, and Bruno told her the employees had decided to hand them over to gang members. It was the last time they spoke. “He told me, ‘Call the police to arrest me, the security guard is handing me over to the dealers in the parking lot. I’m going to die.’ I went so far as to call 190 [Brazil’s police emergency number], and reported that there were several armed men in the supermarket, but that didn’t achieve anything,” she says.

Eyewitnesses told relatives that the young men were dragged through the streets of Northeast Amaralina while being beaten. Meanwhile, photos of the victims circulated on WhatsApp groups. Their family had no news but were forced to watch the pair suffering in public on phone screens. The images circulating on social media showed the uncle and nephew in three distinct moments. The first, just after they were caught stealing meat, portrays them crouched down inside the building next to the stolen items, as a man identified as a security guard watches them. Then the two are seen seated with the gang members. The final images show their dead bodies, their faces deformed by gunshots.

Photo of Bruno and Yan Barros taken by workers at the supermarket.
Photo of Bruno and Yan Barros taken by workers at the supermarket.Reprodução

The bodies of the young men were abandoned in the trunk of a car. Yan’s mother Elaine Costa Silva says that rumors of their murder appeared on social media, and a search began. “First we called the DPT [Department of Technical Police], but they hadn’t found any bodies at the Institute of Forensic Medicine. I got the number of the DHPP [Department of Homicide and Protection of the Person], and they told me that there was no news in Nordeste de Amaralina, but that they had found two bodies in the trunk of a car in Polêmica,” she recalls. Elaine identified her son’s body only by the clothes he was wearing, and Bruno by a scar on his abdomen. Their faces were so badly disfigured that the wake was held with the coffins closed, which is not customary in Brazil.

Food for food

Bruno’s friend believes he wanted to sell the meat to buy food for himself, as the 29-year-old was unemployed and struggling. He borrowed money from friends to pay his bills and could not pay the child support for his 12-year-old daughter. If he ate three meals a day, that was thanks to his mother, who always fed him whatever she was cooking. Bruno had lived in a house owned by his nephew Yan’s grandmother since he separated from the mother of his daughter. With a police record, again for stealing food, Bruno struggled to find a job. That situation was made even worse with the coronavirus pandemic. He hoped to get the 600 reals ($110 or €94) emergency basic income from the government, but he never received it.

Elaine still doesn’t understand why Yan participated in the theft, nor can she say what he would do with the meat. She had never known her son to be involved in any kind of crime, but the family’s financial situation is difficult. Elaine had to raise her four children alone, and she lives in a house built of plywood and recycled materials in a slum area of Fazenda Coutos. Her main source of income comes from selling cleaning materials at traffic lights, but her work was also affected by the pandemic.

Yan was still finishing high school and was a member of Projeto Axé, an NGO internationally recognized for its work in education and children and adolescent rights. He sold peanuts on public transportation to help out at home, but had to stop because of the pandemic. His mother says he was always hungry: “He was always texting me to check if I had made something to eat, to know when the food would be ready. I would send him lunch boxes. His grandmother helped, too.”

The teenager lived with his uncle and older brother in his grandmother’s house, a precarious place with five rooms and little furniture. The paint on the walls was coming off in the humidity, and the smell of mould permeated the house. Elaine shows EL PAÍS one of the rooms, where two pairs of shorts were laid out on a stained mattress where Bruno slept.

“Atakarejo are killers”

Yan and his mother were in contact primarily via their cellphones. Her WhatsApp is full of pictures and videos of her son, and voice messages saying hello. “I have to use this to see his smile now,” she says, pointing at her phone. It had been a long day of interviews as Elaine raises awareness of her fight for justice. Bruno’s mother declined to be interviewed for this article, and is taking medication following the brutal murder of her son, and the circulation of images of his torture and murder.

There have been protests over the death of the young men, and one took place in Fazenda Coutos, organized by the favela itself. Amid cries of “Atakarejo are killers!” the demonstrators blocked off the street and demanded arrests and a trial as soon as possible. Several groups held a rally at the gates of the Atakarejo supermarket in Nordeste de Amaralina, where the men’s ordeal began.

As Yan’s mother, Elaine feels pain and anger, shifting between the two. She asks why the supermarket employees did not give the men a chance to pay for the meat. “Was it wrong what they did? Yes, no one should do that. But what is the point of the police if these people can just send others off to be murdered? These people condemned them to death. My son lost his life, just 19 years old, for four trays of meat,” she says.

Elaine says she will never be able to erase the images from her mind of her son’s panicked face, and his hand bathed in blood: “I can’t cry anymore from so much rage. They ended my life on that Monday. They have destroyed me.” She has not received any kind of aid from Atakarejo, whether financial or psychological. Back on WhatsApp, she shows videos of her son joking around at his last birthday party on April 4. “I will never see that again,” she says.

The faces of the victim were so badly disfigured that the wake was held with the coffins closed, which is not customary in Brazil

Atakarejo, the supermarket chain, is owned by Teobaldo Costa, a businessman who ran for mayor of the city of Lauro de Freitas, in Salvador, in the last election. He declared 341,286,567 reals (about $62,750,000 or €53,756,318) in assets to the electoral authorities, and is also well known for advertising his own supermarket chain on television. Atakarejo says in a statement that it does not tolerate “any type of violence” and is “committed to human rights and the defense of dignified human life.” The retail group is collaborating with the police investigation, and says it has handed over security camera footage and relevant documentation. The statement does not say whether the employees involved have been fired. “[We] comply with legal regulations and do not consent to any criminal action [...] The company stresses that it vehemently repudiates any kind of violence and sympathizes with the family of the victims at this very difficult time. The group hopes that the investigations to clarify the case and punish all the culprits will be resolved,” the statement reads.

According to a statement from Brazil’s police, several witnesses have already testified and investigations are at an advanced stage. The statement explains that more details cannot be given without interfering with the progress of the investigation.

Jacó Lula da Silva, president of the Human Rights Commission of Bahia’s Legislative Assembly, wants the supermarket to explain if it has a relationship with drug traffickers or gang members. “If the manager called them, it’s because there was some kind of authorization from Atakarejo,” he says. “This incident occurred, and the management took a cowardly stance. Had it been the owner of some bar, he would have been arrested by now, but it’s the owner of a supermarket chain who refuses to comment on the case. Atakarejo is pretending it doesn’t exist. So, are drug traffickers informally in charge of Atakarejo’s security?” The commission is following the case and has requested the Bahia Public Security Secretariat assign a special commissioner to direct the investigation.

Meanwhile, Elaine Costa Silva is readying herself for another battle, this time with the justice system. “I want everyone at Atakarejo to pay,” she says.

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