Leaders from the renowned capoeira group Cordão de Ouro, which has accredited schools in more than thirty countries, accused of abusing children and adolescents since the 1970s

Leaders from the renowned capoeira group Cordão de Ouro, which has accredited schools in more than thirty countries, accused of abusing children and adolescents since the 1970s

1 de julho de 2021
14:59
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Capoeira masters from Cordão de Ouro, one of Brazil’s biggest groups, have been denounced by at least fifteen people for sexually abusing children and adolescents between the ages of 11 and 18. Agência Pública had exclusive access to criminal proceedings and spoke to men and women who had witnessed or suffered abuse.

Accounts and documents collated by our reporters have shown how capoeira masters from Cordão de Ouro, which has academies in more than thirty other countries, took advantage of the vulnerability, admiration and trust of students who viewed them as their idols in order to commit acts of sexual violence.

Text and audio messages seen by Agência Pública’s reporters indicate that, in some cases, the abuse was covered up by the group’s leadership. 

Since last year, the Public Prosecutor’s Office for the State of Ceará (MPCE) has been investigating leaders of the Cordão de Ouro capoeira group for accusations of the abuse and rape of vulnerable persons – the term used in Brazilian law to characterise sexual relations with minors under the age of 14. According to the public prosecutor Joseana França, five victims made accusations “against a number of capoeira masters”. The names of all of those involved were not disclosed by the public body in order to avoid compromising the investigations. However, the founder of the group, Reinaldo Ramos Suassuna, better known as Master Suassuna, is one of the accused, according to victims who gave statements to Agência Pública.

Master Suassuna, founder of Cordão de Ouro, has been named by people who gave evidence to the Public Prosecutor’s Office

“The victims’ stories are awful,” Prosecutor França said, “one of the people we heard from started being abused when they were between 10 and 11 years old. We believe that the overall number of victims could be much larger, as there are people who are afraid to speak out. Another factor is the relationship of loyalty that exists between capoeira students and their masters.”

According to França, children and adolescents were co-opted by Cordão de Ouro’s masters with promises of trips to other states in Brazil and/or abroad. “The students were submitted to a type of testing, which was called ‘passport stamping’, which in reality was sexual abuse,” she explained.

The capoeirista Rildo da Silva, or Master Penteado, told Agência Pública details about how the alleged scheme worked. Now 50 years old, he says he built up the courage to speak out about the abuse he suffered over so many years after he found out about the Public Prosecutor’s Office for the State of Ceará’s investigations. “I don’t want other children to go through what I had to go through.”

According to Rildo, he started practicing capoeira in Fortaleza, the capital of Ceará state, at the age of 15 with one of the main leaders of the group, Marcos Antônio Lopes de Souza, also known as Master Espirro Mirim.

Coming from a poor background, Rildo saw capoeira as a means of improving his life and helping out his family. According to him, Espirro Mirim took advantage of his vulnerability with promises of taking him on trips around the world. In exchange, however, the boy would have to have sex with him.

“He said that if I had sex with him I would rise up through the ranks of the capoeira school and become famous, be able to travel the whole world. And, you know, as a child you are easily led, you dream of travelling, you dream of making it somewhere and being able to help your family. We weren’t mature enough and he preyed upon us,” he recalled in an interview with Agência Pública’s reporters.

The abuse, according to Rildo, also used to happen in exchange for food. “He bought things for us. He used to buy food because we didn’t have any money to do so, since we all came from poor families.”

The capoeira master, he says, threatened him with expulsion from the group if he didn’t do what he asked. “We were forced to sleep in his house and he would try to do all sorts of things to us. He wanted us to have sex and penetrate him, and he wanted to do things to us too.”

Now away from capoeira for five years, Rildo says that Espirro Mirim “had him in his hands” between the ages of fifteen and thirty-two, when he left for the United States.

First accusations

The statement made by Luciana* in September 2019 to the Legislative Assembly of Ceará’s Special Prosecutor’s Office for Women was one of the first accounts that prompted the Public Prosecutor’s Office to open investigations. Luciana is married to a capoeira master who has been part of Cordão de Ouro since his childhood, and has therefore hosted many capoeiristas at her house over the years. She reported to the public body that two capoeira masters, one of whom was a member of Cordão de Ouro, had abused her daughters on separate occasions while they were still children.

On 13 August 2017, capoeira masters from other states in Brazil came to Fortaleza for an event and stayed at her house. According to Luciana, her eldest daughter caught one master – who doesn’t belong to Cordão de Ouro and cannot be named in this report for legal reasons – trying to rape her younger sister, who at the time was 5 years old.

“She saw her sister standing in front of this man’s room, he was holding her arm and saying the following: ‘Do you want to play with me? Let’s play a little boys and girls game, you’re going to like it, I’m going to make a little hole in you’, my daughter heard that and was shaking,” Luciana said. The family told the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Women that they started criminal proceedings against the master involved in 2020 and are currently awaiting a hearing.

After what had happened, the eldest daughter, already married and 22 years old, decided to tell her family that she had experienced something similar, in 2009, with Eliomar Vale de Lima, or Master Paiakan, from Cordão de Ouro’s Ceará branch.

13 years old at the time, Denise* had accompanied Master Paiakan to his house by motorbike, in order to collect some instruments that her father had ordered. The master took a diversion and led her to a patch of scrubland, where he started to harass her “telling her that she was very sexy, that he liked to think of her dancing samba,” her mother reported. According to Luciana, the capoeira master then threatened her daughter, telling her not to tell her family.

Master Paiakan has been accused of sexually harassing a 13-year-old girl by her family

After this day, Luciana said, her daughter stopped playing capoeira and began to develop a number of problems related to her mental health.

Just like Denise, the capoeirista Gabriel* told the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Women that it took him years to be able to get his life back on track and he ended up getting involved with drugs after being abused by Master Espirro Mirim – the very same master who abused Rildo – as a child.

Gabriel told Agência Pública what he had reported to the Prosecutor’s Office: that he went through three horrifying hours from 9pm to midnight trapped inside a room with Espirro Mirim. “He only let me leave his house when I said that if he didn’t let me go, my mother would come and look for me there.” He told our reporters that he was only 12 years old when the capoeira master tried to rape him, in January 1997.

According to his statement, the abuse had started hours earlier, at the start of the afternoon, following a capoeira game outside Espirro Mirim’s house. The master invited Gabriel inside to watch a video. As soon as they were alone in the kitchen together, Espirro Mirim, 32 years old at the time, forced oral sex upon Gabriel. “I felt a mixture of disgust and fear,” Gabriel said, adding that he was left in a state of shock and didn’t know how to react. At the time, Gabriel says, Espirro Mirim was already a world-famous capoeira star.

Two years later, in 1999, Master Suassuna, one of the pioneers of the Cordão de Ouro capoeira group, also tried to sexually abuse Gabriel. “It was at the end of an event,” Gabriel said, “I went out the front of Espirro Mirim’s house to talk to some capoeira masters and, when I walked past Suassuna, he tried to grope me. I got out of there as quickly as I could.” On that occasion, Suassuna was in Fortaleza to mark the twentieth anniversary of Espirro Mirim’s involvement in capoeira.

The public prosecutor Joseana França revealed that they were looking into cases in which “stamped passports” – abuses enabled by promises of travel and progress through the ranks of the capoeira school – brought capoeiristas from Ceará to São Paulo for private classes with Master Suassuna. “These boys were sent to Suassuna’s house, where they suffered further abuse.”

Master Espirro Mirim was filmed masturbating on a bus

Allegations against the founder of Cordão de Ouro

Born in Itabuna, in Bahia state, Reinaldo Ramos Suassuna, or Master Suassuna, moved to São Paulo in the 1960s, where he founded the Cordão de Ouro capoeira group. Currently, the group has academies in almost every state in Brazil, as well as affiliates spread across five continents. Cordão de Ouro also runs social projects that assist children and adolescents in disadvantaged communities.

The internationalisation of the group began in the 1980s, when students from Bahia began to be sent abroad to promote capoeira in other countries around the world.

Master Suassuna is considered one of the foremost capoeiristas in the country. He created the Miudinho game, a distinct style of Brazilian capoeira, the sport which is a symbol of slaves’ resistance and was declared as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2014.

The capoeira master has recorded albums, participated in famous television shows and was awarded the title of Citizen of São Paulo by the São Paulo City Council. 

Today Suassuna lives on a farm known as the “Sítio do Vovô” in a district of São Paulo. According to people interviewed by Agência Pública, he uses the space – which lies at least 30km from the centre of the city of São Paulo – to sexually abuse his students.

“I’ve seen very depressing scenes involving Suassuna. I saw him drinking [alcohol] with boys, children, and then going to bed with them,” Bernardo*, an ex-student told Agência Pública. He said he caught Suassuna attempting to abuse a boy during a capoeira event in 1971. “He threw himself on top of the boy, pretending to be drunk, the boy was trying to push him away but he forced himself on top of him,” he said, outraged. “He abused a lot of boys, he ruined the lives of so many young people. He needs to pay for what he’s done,” said Bernardo, who has known Suassuna since the start of his capoeira career.

Saulo* says he had a similar experience as a 14-year-old, when he was training with Suassuna. He had been involved in Cordão de Ouro for about three months when Suassuna invited him to sleep at his house. At the time, in 1978, Suassuna lived in an apartment close to the group’s academy, in São Paulo. “We used to train on Fridays, and on this occasion there was also a Saturday training. So the master [Suassuna] said, ‘Ah, since we have training on Saturday, come and sleep at my house’. I was with a friend.”

According to Saulo, the capoeira master asked for the three of them to sleep together in his double bed. Durante the night, as Saulo lay between Suassuna and his friend the capoeira master tried to touch his thigh three times. Feeling uncomfortable with the situation, he took advantage of the fact that the instructor’s car keys were on the tabletop, took them and went to sleep in the car.

The video that encouraged the first allegations 

The first allegations of sexual abuse made against Cordão de Ouro came to light in 2019, after a video of Master Espirro Mirim masturbating on a bus in São Paulo was shared on social media.

Agência Pública spoke to the young man who recorded the video. He couldn’t begin to imagine the repercussions that his video would have, since he didn’t know anything about who the man was nor his fame in the world of capoeira.

Pedro* said that as soon as he boarded the bus he felt uncomfortable with the insistent gaze of Espirro Mirim. “I went to the back of the bus and sat down on the back row. Straight after that, he [Espirro Mirim] got up out of the spot where he was sitting and came towards me. That was when he started touching himself. I couldn’t believe what was happening and that I was the only one who seemed to notice. There were a lot of people on the bus but nobody saw what was happening. My only way out was to film it. 

According to Pedro, after posting the video of what had happened on the bus online, other victims of Espirro Mirim’s abuse started to get in touch with him on social media and via WhatsApp. “Not just people here in Brazil, but in various places around the world. There were several people who he had taken to capoeira championships that he had groped and abused as they slept at night.”

“He was my guardian”

It was also in 2019 that Aline Hidalgo de Faria and Jorge* decided to report their old teacher, Lúcio Flávio Campos Torres, known as Master Quebrinha, to the Public Prosecutor of São Paulo for rape and sexual abuse.

Aline was only 9 years old when she started going to Cordão de Ouro’s academy in the city of Taubaté, in São Paulo state. Quebrinha, the leader of the academy, became a paternal figure for the girl, whose parents were separated. “He was my guardian,” Aline said. She accompanied the capoeira master to events and shows and dedicated many hours of her time to training because she wanted to make a career abroad as a capoeirista – a dream that was incentivised by Quebrinha.

The capoeira practices happened on the academy’s premises, and the most dedicated students were invited to the master’s farm, where he ran a social project that taught capoeira to children and adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Two former students have opened proceedings against Master Quebrinha for instances of sexual abuse and rape

It was common for the most promising students, such as Aline, to help out with organising the social project’s training sessions and even in cleaning the small rural property. Because of this, Aline, then 18 years old, didn’t think anything of it when he invited her to make berimbau instruments one weekend. “When I arrived there, I realized I was alone with him.” She told how she was raped by the master on this day. “He took me to his bedroom, where there was a computer, and asked me for my help so he could learn how to use the internet. I only started to become suspicious of him when he closed the door. I froze. I said that I didn’t want this, but he wouldn’t stop.”

The incident occurred in 2012, but Aline said that the fear and shame over what had happened stopped her from telling anyone about the abuse she had suffered. She continued going to practice capoeira, which she saw as a professional commitment, but she didn’t feel safe at the training sessions. “I wore shorts and a swimsuit because I thought that wearing any more layers than that would make it difficult to train. I avoided him the entire time.” She said that Mestre Quebrinha started threatening her. “He used to say that I should keep quiet because he knew my family, he knew where I lived. I was so stressed by it all that I ended up running away from home. I left with nothing, except my mobile phone. I ended up in Tremembé [approximately 140 kilometres from Taubaté].”

The young woman confided in another teacher from Cordão de Ouro about what had happened to her, in the hope of receiving support, however she was instead told that she had probably “caused the situation herself”. The trauma and harassment Aline suffered triggered severe depression, ultimately leading to a suicide attempt. “I wanted to get back involved in capoeira, but I just couldn’t. It was only in 2016 [four years after the abuse] that I managed to find a new group in which I felt safe. Just one year later, though, Quebrinha’s son appeared at a capoeira event I was at and he sat there watching me train, which really unsettled me.”

Some time later, Quebrinha started to stalk Aline again, after she had suffered an accident that had left her with facial injuries and temporary memory loss. “I went back to Taubaté, to my family’s house, while I was receiving treatment, and he saw this as an opportunity. He created a fake profile on Facebook and tried to make contact with me again, but I soon started to remember bit by bit everything that had happened.” In 2019 Aline and Jorge*, a former student who attended training sessions at the same time as her, felt encouraged to speak out and denounce their former teacher.

Although the allegations of sexual abuse were made by Aline and Jorge at the same time, against the same person, the two cases ended up being treated as two separate police investigations. Aline’s case was dismissed by the São Paulo Court of Justice on the grounds of extinctive prescription – or that too much time had passed since the abuse took place –, failing to take into account how the threats Aline received could have prevented her from speaking out.

“It’s frustrating. What happened did me so much harm. I had to defer my university studies because of it”, Aline vented.

The investigation into the accusations of rape and abuse made by Jorge was also shelved.

Capoeira master got close to a woman in order to abuse her son

Jorge started taking capoeira classes with Master Quebrinha in Taubaté’s Cordão de Ouro academy when he was 5 years old. After his parents separated and his mother, Andressa*, was diagnosed with lupus, the capoeira teacher started to become close to the family. “It was as though he was looking out for us. He used to say that Jorge was like a son to him”, Andressa told Agência Pública.

According to Andressa, the capoeira master used to do shows and events abroad, and promised to take Jorge with him on his travels. She said that although Jorge was only 15 years old at the time, he practically became Quebrinha’s right-hand man, taking care of the academy when the master was away on trips. During this time, Quebrinha also grew close to Andressa herself, and the two of them were in a romantic relationship for four years.

In 2011, when Jorge was 11 years old, he stayed on Quebrinha’s farm with other capoeira students and masters who were there to participate in a capoeira initiation ceremony. In a statement Jorge made to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for the State of São Paulo (MPSP), which was seen by Agência Pública, he told how, on the day of the ceremony, the capoeira master invited him to come and relax on a hammock with him, and then started to touch his private parts. “As he caressed him, Lúcio [Quebrinha] said that he loved the victim like he was his son, that he only wanted to look after him, and that he was doing what he was doing because he wanted what was best for him,” states a excerpt of Jorge’s testimony. The capoeira student didn’t want to be interviewed as he prefers not to talk about the topic, however he agreed to allow for the police records on the case to be reprinted, with the proviso that his identity be protected.

Jorge continued going to capoeira training along with the other students, however, in his testimony he stated that Quebrinha always found a way for the two of them to be alone together, using his relationship with Andressa and his mother’s trust in order to get the boy to sleep at his farm regularly. The testimony also states that Quebrinha took advantage of one of these opportunities to sexually abuse him. At the time, Jorge was only 14 years old.

According to his account, he was raped and abused over the entirety of his teenage years. Jorge says that whenever he tried to wrestle free from the abuse, the capoeira master would turn violent. This cycle of abuse was only broken when Jorge stopped going to capoeira training sessions at the age of 17. At the time, however, Quebrinha was still dating his mother and came to his house regularly.

“At this point, Lúcio started to suggest the idea of us moving in together,” Andressa recounted. “When I told my son about the decision, he fell to pieces. He was usually so calm, so it was only then that I began to realise that there was something wrong. When he [Jorge] finally told me everything, I had never felt so much pain in all my life. Lúcio had blackmailed him, telling him that he couldn’t say anything to me because my health was fragile.”

The police investigation that looked into the rape accusations made against Lúcio by Jorge was dropped in October 2019. The public prosecutor involved claimed that “the body of evidence leaves us with more doubts than certainties,” even though “several witnesses corroborate the victim’s testimony”. The public prosecutor considered the witnesses’ statements to be flawed because “none of them directly witnessed what took place.” He also added that there was no proof that Jorge had not consented to the sexual activity.

“You’ve got to cross the line”

Wilton Rocha, or Master Caboclin, also told Agência Pública how he was another victim of Espirro Mirim, when he was 16 years old. He trained at Cordão de Ouro from the age of 13 to 22, when he became a teacher.

Wilton recounted how the capoeira teacher always invited his students to come and stay at his house, but Wilton never went, despite being skeptical of the rumours that went around Cordão de Ouro about Espirro Mirim abusing his students. His admiration for his teacher – who had free access to his house at the time – was so great that, Wilton said, “he would fight with people who said that the capoeira master liked abusing children.”

One night, though, Wilton accepted Espirro Mirim’s invite to spend the night at his house. Several other capoeiristas went with him, he said. He recalls how he went to sleep on the floor when the teacher lay down next to him and tried to touch him. “He put his hands all over me straight away. He waited for everyone to go to sleep and for it to get dark, then immediately tried putting his hand on my genitals. I punched him.”

He recalls how he went to bed feeling “suspicious” since only a few hours before a fellow student had told him that he had been abused by Espirro Mirim in the bathroom.

After telling his father the next morning about what had happened, Wilton Rocha distanced himself from the capoeira master, but continued his involvement with Cordão de Ouro until, at 22, he became a capoeira teacher. It was at this moment that Espirro Mirim told him that, in order to earn the capoeira master’s cord, “he had to ‘cross the line’”. “I didn’t want to ‘cross the line’ with him, as this meant spending the night with him there.” After this, Wilton decided to leave Cordão de Ouro.

Joaquim*, another capoeirista, still believe to this day that he never earned the master’s cord – which is the grading system in capoeira, similar to coloured belts in other martial arts – because he didn’t want to subject himself to sex with Espirro Mirim. He said that he has had the blue cord – the colour for instructors – for 12 years. “People who I first taught how to gingar [one of capoeira’s most basic moves] are now more qualified than I am.” His encounter with Espirro Mirim was, according to Joaquim, similar to those described by other victims. The two of them were in the same event when, at bedtime, “he [Espirro Mirim] came all over me, looking for something,” said Joaquim, who was 17 years old at the time.

Agência Pública heard other allegations made against Espirro Mirim and Master Suassuna of a similar nature: students, generally underage and from socially vulnerable situations, who wanted to make a career out of capoeira and were harassed, suffered abuse, or led to believe that they would only be able to travel and become capoeira teachers if they consented to the sexual exploitation scheme.

Silence in the world of capoeira

Cordão de Ouro’s silence when faced with the accusations of sexual violence carried out by its masters was something that was mentioned by all the people that Agência Pública spoke to about the matter. “People I would try to speak to would tell me: ‘The capoeira master is crazy, don’t get involved with this, seriously, don’t mess with this, don’t,” Gabriel said. He claims that he received threats from other members of the group after he had testified against Espirro Mirim.

Joaquim also recounted how he had spoken to Master Suassuna about the abuse he had suffered at the hands of Espirro Mirim. “He stayed quiet, just saying that Espirro Mirim owed me an apology,” he recalled.

Thiago Ferreira, a student and a teacher at Cordão de Ouro for more than fifteen years, stated that, after seeing the video of Espirro Mirim masturbating on the bus, he alerted the students’ parents, telling them to take extra care with their children. “Suassuna then came looking for me, trying to convince me to keep quiet and not say anything else. He even insinuated that by keeping quiet I might guarantee my graduation to the level of master. That’s when I decided to get out”, he told Agência Pública, adding that he left the group in 2019. “I even received death threats,” he claimed.

“Capoeira is about fighting against oppression. You can’t struggle against racial oppression then keep quiet about other forms of oppression, such as sexism”, says Christine Zonzon, from the Marias Felipas Group for Studies and Feminist Intervention in Capoeira. She highlights how the cases of sexual violence in capoeira have nothing to do its traditional practice methods, but rather with power structures and machismo. “The corporatist model, which often exists in capoeira groups’ hierarchical structures, allows crimes to be covered up and for leaders of the groups to see themselves as untouchable.”

Hugo Narciso, or Master Gavião, the president of the Union of Capoeira Federations of Brazil (UFCB) emphasized that “capoeira is a fight for freedom and freedom of expression”. “This freedom must not harm those next to you,” he said. For him, it is important to support the work of capoeira’s representative bodies as a way of preventing further abuses.

The other side

When contacted by Agência Pública, Reinaldo Ramos Suassuna (Master Suassuna), said that he had never been approached by any of Cordão de Ouro’s members seeking to denounce sexual abuses made by other capoeira masters in the group. With regard to the allegations of sexual assault concerning himself, he said that “these rumours always exist”, explaining: “it’s because I give classes to a lot of young people, I’m very involved with them and them with me, so people always get this impression,” adding that he couldn’t say anything else about the case and that he was going to contact his lawyer, then subsequently hanging up the call.

After finding out about the Public Prosecutor’s Office for the State of Ceará’s investigations and before the publication of the report, Suassuna recorded a video with a message directed at Cordão de Ouro’s members. “In light of recent event that you may have already heard about, I’m just here to say that I really appreciate all of your support, all of you who have been with me at Cordão de Ouro’s events, and at its affiliates’ events,” he said in his video message, which has been seen by Agência Pública. “I also want to say to you all that you shouldn’t be afraid to start your own projects, if everything that has been happening has made you feel uncomfortable,” he added.

An “official statement” from the Cordão de Ouro Capoeira Association about the investigations, signed by Suassuna, was also shared with members of the group. “First and foremost, even without knowledge of the aforementioned case currently taking place in the legal confidentiality, the Group vehemently repudiates any and all kinds of activity relating to paedophilia and, in the event of being contacted, puts itself at the disposal of the authorities to clarify any doubts,” the text states. In the statement, the group also informed that “those suspected of involvement will have their activities suspended until the end of investigations.” 

After the allegations of abuse were published by Agência Pública, the capoeira masters accused of sexual crimes were definitively suspended from the group.

Agência Pública’s reporters tried to contact Marcos Antônio Lopes de Souza (Master Espirro Mirim), on two separate telephone numbers, however their attempts were unsuccessful.

Lúcio Flávio Campos Torres (Master Quebrinha), informed our reporters that he would pass on their questions to his lawyer, but he subsequently failed to answer any more calls or respond to messages.

Eliomar Vale de Lima (Master Paiakan), denied the allegations made against him, and said that he was never officially notified about ongoing investigations in the courts.

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* The names used in this report were changed in order to protect the identity of the victims.

Guilherme Peters/Agência Pública
Guilherme Peters/Agência Pública
Guilherme Peters/Agência Pública

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