The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A young Congolese refugee demanded his back pay, his family says. He was beaten to death.

People on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 20. (Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO — He came to Brazil fleeing the violence that had consumed his country. A tribal war in the Democratic Republic of Congo had killed his grandmother and relatives — but his life in Rio de Janeiro was supposed to be far removed from bloodshed.

After a decade here, Moïse Mugenyi Kabagambe, 24, was fluent in Portuguese. He had learned to thrive in Brazil. He worked at a popular beach stand in Rio de Janeiro.

But his family’s hopes that their life here would be free of violence cratered last week, when they say Kabagambe was savagely beaten to death beside the stall where he worked. He had gone to demand two days of back pay, which they say sparked an argument that turned violent.

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The autopsy report said Kabagambe was killed by blunt trauma to his chest, the newspaper O Globo reported. He died with a lung contusion.

“From the day we arrived, Brazilians have always been good people,” his mother, Lotsove Lolo Lavy Ivone, wrote in Epoca. “But, today, I don’t know anymore. Moïse worked at this stall before the pandemic, during the pandemic. He knew everyone there. They knew him, and they took away his life.”

The family did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Police told The Washington Post they’ve obtained footage of the killing and are interviewing witnesses. “Police are working to unravel the case, identify and arrest the people who committed this crime,” the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police said in a statement.

Even in a country accustomed to random spasms of extreme violence, the alleged savagery of the beating has left many Brazilians shocked and at a loss for answers.

“The murder of Moïse Kabagambe is unacceptable and revolting,” Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said Tuesday.

Video of the beating has not been made public. Family members have told local media that it’s too violent for television. Relatives who have seen the video told Brazilian media that after Kabagambe complained to the stall manager, the boss grabbed a piece of wood and started to threaten Kabagambe.

“Then the manager called out the guys in front of the stand,” Kabagambe’s cousin Yannick Kamanda, 33, told the news outlet G1.

The relative said the video, which The Post was unable to independently verify, shows Kabagambe surrounded by at least five men. They wrestled him to the ground, then hit him with pieces of wood and a baseball bat. Another grabbed a cord to tie him up, looping it around his neck. They beat him until he passed out, the relative said the video shows.

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No suspects have been formally identified or charged.

Some say racism underpinned the killing, fitting into what human rights defenders called an uptick in violence against groups that have suffered historic oppression in Brazil.

“In recent years we’ve seen a surge in human rights violations, especially against Black people, and people who are poor and live in impoverished communities,” said Álvaro Quintão, president of a local human rights commission representing the family. “This has happened with greater frequency.”

Others viewed the killing as the product of anti-immigrant sentiment.

“Rio de Janeiro is the No. 2 recipient of immigrants in Brazil,” tweeted city council member Tainá de Paula. “This was xenophobia! This was racism! Justice for [Moïse]!”

The killing reflected other acts of mob violence that swept the beaches of Rio in the summer. In a report published Monday, O Globo counted 12 acts of mob violence against individuals on beaches in three weeks. Several of the videos cited by O Globo and on the Internet show crowds gathered around people accused of petty theft, kicking and punching them.

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“In 28 years on the job, I’ve never come across such savagery,” police officer Elias Pedro da Silva told O Globo, citing one recent instance of mob violence.

And now it has also taken Kabagambe, his relatives say.

“They broke my son’s back,” his mother wrote. “They broke his neck. I fled Congo so that we wouldn’t be killed. But they killed my son here like they killed my parents there.”

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