A 22-year-old rancher’s son confessed Wednesday that he killed famed rain-forest activist Chico Mendes, bringing a surprising end to the opening session of a closely watched murder trial.
Darci Alves Pereira stunned a packed courtroom by admitting he shot Mendes on Dec. 22, 1988, shortly after dark outside his home in this remote Amazon town near the Bolivian border, 2,650 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.
Pereira’s confession came minutes after he had twice denied shooting Mendes, who was one of Brazil’s most outspoken critics of development of the Amazon basin. Mendes’ case has reached such proportions that film producers and authors have besieged his widow with competing offers to tell his story.
Pereira, whose father also is charged with plotting the murder, faces a 12- to 30-year sentence. Sentencing is expected today.
The trial has drawn worldwide attention as a test of Brazil’s commitment to protecting its rain forests against encroachment and to meting out equal justice for rich and poor.
Mendes, who defended the rain forest from landowners and ranchers who want to cut it down to develop the fragile basin, has become a symbol of Brazil’s poor and landless.
Ilzamar Mendes, widow of the activist, was sitting in the gallery when the confession occurred. She clapped her hands in surprise.
“He confessed?” she asked incredulously. “It’s hard to believe.” She added, “He’s probably doing it to protect his father.”
Pereira’s father, rancher Darly Alves da Silva, also is on trial on charges of planning the shooting. He has pleaded innocent.
Mendes had repeatedly told police that Da Silva was plotting to kill him, after rubber tappers prevented the rancher from clearing a tract of rain forest.
The trial began at 9 a.m. A boy picked the names of seven jurors out of a hat containing 21 slips of paper with local residents’ names on them.
Outside, two dozen state police troopers in army camouflage pants and bulletproof vests stood guard with submachine guns and pistols. Officials feared violence between rubber tappers and gunmen reportedly hired by ranchers.
Da Silva, 54, wearing an unbuttoned blue shirt, slacks and thick glasses, was called to the bench. He denied accusations he had plotted Mendes’ death and had ordered his son to carry it out.
Then Pereira approached the bench and also denied the murder charge against him. He claimed he was in another town when Mendes was killed.
The short, muscular Pereira was shown evidence found by police near where Mendes’ killer hid: a 16-gauge shotgun, a black nylon raincoat, a burlap sack, two bottles and cigarette packs. Asked if he recognized the items, Pereira shook his head.
Then, as bailiffs were leading Pereira from the courtroom, Judge Adair Longhini leaned over the bench and asked once again if the defendant had committed the crime.
Pereira paused, stared at Longhini and said, “I confess.”
“What?” said the judge. “You killed Chico Mendes?”
“I shot him, yes,” Pereira said.