In Brazil, bereaved parents bury their children killed in an ax attack

BLUMENAU, Brazil — They sent their seven-year-old to daycare on Wednesday and plunged into the deepest nightmare of any parent’s life.

A hatchet-wielding man jumped over a wall and burst into the Cantinho do Bom Pastor children’s center in southern Brazil, killing Larissa Maia Toldo and three other children who were buried on Thursday. Before her burial, Larissa’s parents held her white-draped coffin, decorated with a few bouquets, by the hand.

They and other parents remembered the small joys of children’s lives.

Five-year-old Bernardo Cunha Machado loved pets and his family brought his toy turtle to his funeral. He was talkative and had many boyfriends, relatives remember. At his funeral, Bernardo’s distraught mother closed her eyes and leaned her head and hands in prayer against the metal door of the vault behind which her son was buried.

Five-year-old Bernardo Pabst da Cunha loved Spiderman. His father came to his funeral wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the superhero.

Relatives and other mourners at São José Cemetery barely spoke to the press as they wept. All of Brazil was struggling to find answers to the violence against the most innocent.

On Thursday, mourners had to either drive or climb a steep ladder to the burial site in a private room in the cemetery. A middle-aged woman cried as a coffin passed into a black van.

“My nephew! My nephew! My nephew!” She cried.

Enzo Barbosa, 4, was buried in another cemetery on Thursday afternoon. He had been adopted, friends said.

Dozens of mourners also gathered at the daycare center in the neighborhood of ethnic German families to pray, lay flowers for the victims and grieve.

“I will never forget that father in tears shouting: ‘Wake up, Bernardo, it’s time to go to school!’ said Rose Silva, a daycare worker at the funeral. “Why did he do that to the kids who were just playing at school?”

The assailant, who jumped inside by jumping over a wall, drove to a police station, officials said. He does not appear to have any connection with the centre, which offers daycare, preschool education and after-school activities. Police say the 25-year-old will be charged with murder and attempted murder. Police believe the attack was unrelated to any other crime.

Santa Catarina State Court said in a statement that the suspect confessed. The case is closed because minors are involved, the court said in a statement.

“My daughter thinks a thief came in and got away without hurting anyone,” Carlos Kroetz told The Associated Press while holding his 6-year-old’s Minnie Mouse bag. He and other parents collected backpacks left at the center during the chaos.

“She knew children who died. We still have to find a way to tell him. Right now she’s afraid to go to the bathroom alone because she thinks the thief will be there,” he said.

At least four other children were injured in the attack. Last week, a Sao Paulo student fatally stabbed a teacher and injured several others. Attacks on schools have happened in the country with greater frequency in recent years and authorities have struggled to muster responses to a problem no one seems to understand.

Image: Parents sit next to the coffin which contains the remains of their seven-year-old daughter, Larissa Maia Toldo, who was killed by a man with an outbreak inside a daycare centre, during a wake at the Sao Jose cemetery, in Blumenau, Santa Catarina State, Brazil, on April 6, 2023.
Parents sit next to the coffin which contains the remains of their seven-year-old daughter, Larissa Maia Toldo, who was killed by a man with an outbreak inside a daycare center, during a vigil at the cemetery in Sao Jose, in Blumenau, Santa Catarina State, Brazil, on Thursday.Andre Penner/AP

From 2000 to 2022, there have been 16 attacks or violent episodes in schools in Brazil, according to a report by researchers led by Daniel Cara, professor of education at the University of Sao Paulo.

The mayor of Blumenau said the municipality will install 125 security cameras in all schools and daycares. Education Minister Camilo Santana announced the creation of a group to combat violence in schools. Justice Minister Flávio Dino said he was directing 150 million reais ($30 million) to strengthen school security. He said the money will pay for both enhanced monitoring and the expansion of a team to monitor places on the internet where hate speech and violence can be glorified.

“Anyone who has lost a loved one knows there are no words,” President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said with tears in his eyes at the start of a ministerial meeting on Wednesday. In 2019, a bacterial infection claimed the life of Lula’s 7-year-old grandson.

Often the killers are young people who engage in misogynistic or racist speech, employ neo-Nazi and fascist symbols and enter online communities where violence is praised, Cara told The Associated Press.

The attack took place on the playground of the center, according to the local subsidiary of the Globo television channel. NSC, the affiliate, showed a photo of the suspect with a clean-shaven head.

Rodrigo Raitez, chief police investigator in Blumenau, told the AP that the suspect “is most likely a lone wolf” with no clear motive for the attack. Raitez said police plan to analyze data from the man’s cellphone.

“Most cases like these are stopped by the police. But some are impossible to block,” Raitez said.

Troubled young people often seek refuge in online communities, said Cleo Garcia, a member of the GEPEM research group which investigates bullying and violence in schools.

“In the United States it’s already considered an epidemic and we hope it doesn’t reach that point here,” Garcia said.

Simone Aparecida Camargo, a teacher at the daycare center attacked on Wednesday, told the AP she was skeptical of any attempt by authorities to increase the number and frequency of patrols around schools.

“How long can we have police near the schools? One week? They have to look deeper,” she said.

“We didn’t think there was a massacre there,” said Camargo, who has worked at the daycare for five years. “We see this overseas and we never thought it could happen here.”

April marks the anniversaries of the 1999 Columbine school shooting in the United States and a school shooting in the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area that killed 12 students in 2011, events that are glorified in some communities prone to violence, Cara said.

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