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Santa Maria nightclub fire: Some Brazilians question 'culture of impunity'

Andrew DownieThe Christian Science Monitor

Authorities buried the first victims of the Santa Maria nightclub fire this morning, and while Brazil is still in shock over its worst disaster in more than half a century, some are shifting their focus toward the investigation and future prevention.

There is widespread hope that Brazil can overcome its long-standing culture of impunity and bring those responsible to justice.

Some 233 people died after smoke engulfed the Kiss disco in southern Brazil during the early hours of Sunday morning. More than 100 people are still hospitalized, 80 of them in serious condition, Brazil’s Health Minister Alexandre Padilha said.

Police, based on numerous eyewitness accounts, believe the fire was started on accident by the live band on stage. Over-size sparklers ignited the highly flammable acoustic foam that lined the ceiling and within minutes the club was engulfed in smoke. The vast majority of those who didn’t make it out in time died from asphyxiation.

Those errors, allied to inadequate emergency lighting and insufficient emergency exits inside the club, are similar to those that caused other deadly nightclub fires, including the famous 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, which killed 100 people.

Safety consultants say the lack of sprinklers, adequate illumination, smoke detectors, and fire exits is tragically common in Brazil.

“This club got absolutely everything wrong,” says Orlando dos Santos, owner of Abafire, a Brazilian fire security consultancy firm. “There are laws but they didn’t follow them.”

“That is so common,” Mr. dos Santos says. “Here in São Paulo I’ve seen big companies, multinationals, hotel chains, shopping centers and even hospitals and they don’t have the proper security procedures in place.”

Corruption, dos Santos says, was one of the main reasons, along with a lack of trained personnel to check safety installations and make sure they meet requirements.

Another issue bubbling to the surface today is impunity. Police and judicial authorities will be under pressure to identify those responsible for yesterday’s disaster and bring them to justice, and not just for the band members accused of lighting flares in an enclosed space (which is illegal in Brazil). Police and local politicians have also said they will investigate whether the club had the proper security certificates and that authorities signed them.

If it was operating without the proper permits, as some news outlets have reported, police will want to know why and how such a popular club was allowed to open its doors without them.

Impunity in Brazil

The question of impunity is a sensitive one in Brazil and Latin America, where justice is slow and the rich and well-connected can call on powerful lawyers to work the system.

In one emblematic case, a newspaper editor used appeals and habeas corpus to avoid jail for a decade after being found guilty of murdering his former lover. Only a fraction of crimes are solved here, and Brazilians have a low opinion of their law enforcement. Police are considered the third most corrupt institution in the country after politicians and congress, and 54 percent of Brazilians believe efforts to fight corruption are ineffective, according to the latest transparency international statistics.

There are encouraging signs, however, that might be changing. Some of Brazil’s best-known and most powerful politicians were found guilty of political corruption last year and they face jail time.

The fact that the Supreme Court was willing to sentence such well-known figures up to 40 years behind bars for crimes that ranged from money laundering to tax evasion sent a refreshing signal that no one is above the law.

Often in the past, investigations have petered out and no action was taken after the initial public uproar died down.

“We await judicial decisions leading to the convictions of the guilty parties and compensation of material and moral damages for the families, even from the responsible public agencies, but as always we will be surprised by events like this simply because we haven’t learned to be citizens who demand our rights,” lawyer Isabel Cochlar wrote about the nightclub deaths in Zero Hora, a newspaper based close to Santa Maria.

Brazilian police announced today they have detained two members of the band and two of the club owners for questioning.