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World & Nation

Police massacre case turns back tide of injustice in Brazil

Police massacre case turns back tide of injustice in Brazil
At the scene of the massacre, 19 burned trunks of Brazil nut trees stand as a roadside monument to the dead.
(Matthew Teague, Los Angeles Times)

ELDORADO DOS CARAJAS, Brazil — At 4 in the afternoon on April 17, 1996, a 13-year-old girl with blond hair climbed onto a truck stopped on a road in the Amazon basin. From the top, Ana Paula Silva — known for a long time after as “the girl” — could see everything.

More than a thousand protesters had gathered on the road outside a village called Eldorado dos Carajas. People called them the sem terra, the landless. They sharecropped for large landowners, and they were among the poorest people in a country of very many poor and very few rich.

They wanted to make their way to Belem, the capital of Para state, to contend for land of their own, but the horizon seemed to retreat forever. When a pregnant woman could go no farther, they stopped to devise a new plan.

The women sat along the shoulders of the road and tended to the children, washing, nursing, rocking them to sleep. The men stood in the road and stopped trucks passing on the highway. That was the plan: They would block the road with the trucks to get the attention of the military police.

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The police soon arrived in the form of Col. Mario Pantoja. He had a congenial, hangdog appearance, and met some of the leading protesters to hear their demands. They wanted buses to the next city, Maraba, if not all the way to Belem. And they wanted water.

Fair enough, the colonel told them. You’ll get water and buses.

From the policeman’s perspective, some of the landless men cast impressive shadows on the road. Josemar Pereira was an ox of a man. Everything about him stood broad, from his forehead to his boots. He wore canvas trousers, a shirt open to his torso, and a flopping felt hat. With his scythe in his hand, he was the archetypal South American peasant.

Less so Jose dos Santos. The thin 16-year-old hovered, listening in on the men’s negotiations. He had no great stake in the sem terra cause, but a protest sounded like fun, and fun was hard to come by in the Amazon basin.

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From her perch, the girl watched as the buses arrived from north and south. When they came to a stop, scores of policemen poured out with weapons drawn. Friendly Col. Pantoja led them, along with a major called Jose Oliveira.

The workers held up their machetes, their pitchforks and their fists. In the chaos, Jose noticed that one officer had torn his name tag from his uniform.

As he watched the officer lift his rifle and level it at his face, he wondered: Why would he remove his name?

***

In Brazil, land has always meant power.

Back in the country’s colonial days, the Portuguese king owned it all. He gave enormous tracts to loyal nobility, creating an elite class of landowners. But poor people could legally win small plots by farming a fallow patch. If they could make it productive, they could claim it.

Later, when the first rumblings against slavery reached Brazil, the landowners realized that abolition would create a whole population of squatters, each looking to make a piece of land his own. Landed men controlled the government, so in 1850 they passed a law: Land could only be acquired through purchase.

Rich plantation owners bought up and consolidated their holdings. Today — in a country where the state of Para alone is the size of Western Europe — almost half the arable land belongs to 1% of the population.

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Consolidated land brought concentrated power. The elite controlled the authorities — the police, the politicians — and the authorities controlled everyone else. Punishment for misdeeds, when it came, came with a wink. In 1994 in Sao Paulo, for instance, one police corporal stood accused of at least 49 homicides. Finally charged with killing an acquaintance, he received 80 days in detention. A week after his release, he was named Officer of the Year.

So when Col. Pantoja and Maj. Oliveira stepped onto the road outside Eldorado dos Carajas, they arrived in the fullness of Brazilian impunity.

But unknown to anyone on the road that day, Brazil was shifting beneath their feet.

***

An underground resistance movement had tried, for decades, to rally against the Brazilian axis of land and power.

In the 1950s, ligas camponesas, peasant leagues, began to stir across the countryside. By 1962, a CIA officer sent home a report labeled top secret, and under the heading “Peasant Leagues” he wrote: “Hunger riots have broken out, and there has been some looting of food stores.”

Still, the system held for decades longer.

In 1988, Brazil rewrote its constitution, and in an apparent victory for the rural landless, it reversed the old law regarding acquisition. Undeveloped, unproductive land could once again be secured by farming.

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That was the theory. According to Catholic Land Pastoral, a watchdog group, more than 1,100 rural activists have been killed in the last two decades.

The people protesting on the road outside Eldorado on that April afternoon in 1996 — men, women, children — were organized by a league called the Landless Workers’ Movement, known by the Portuguese acronym MST.

Today the MST uses a mixture of communist militancy, Catholic fervor and legal savvy to pry little chunks of land from the hands of important owners.

Typically the group picks a plot it regards as fallow, and sets up an encampment. It moves workers and their families onto the land, where they begin small-scale farming. Meanwhile the MST’s lawyers petition Brazilian courts to grant the squatters collective ownership, citing the 1988 constitution.

When the protesters started to gather outside Eldorado that day, according to civil rights groups here, several landowners from the area held a meeting with the governor of Para and the secretary for public security, and presented them with a list of landless organizers they wanted “removed” from the area.

As police arrived on the scene they tore off their name tags to be able to deny the act they were about to commit. Their orders had come directly from Paulo Camara, the state secretary for public security: Clear the people from the road “at any cost.”

***

The killing started like a footrace, with an initiating gunshot. Francisca Jura, who lived in a small house next to the road, screamed for her children, all eight of them, and sprinted with them out her door and into the surrounding wooded land.

She tripped and lost a shoe — one pale blue rubber flip-flop — but she kept all her children, and she hurried them into a thick section of bush. But then the police saw her, and waved her out of the woods. They put her and her children into a van and drove them to Eldorado, two miles away. When she stepped out of the van in the town center, half an hour after that first shot, she could still hear the police rifles firing.

The four buses and 155 armed police had come from both directions, trapping the workers and their families.

Josemar Pereira — the ox of a man — stood stunned when the police opened fire. His scythe dropped from his hand, clattering on the pavement. He took a step, and collapsed. A bullet had entered his calf and exited his shin, shattering the bone.

His mind reeled but his body lay flat, with the asphalt pressed to his face. The authorities had paved this road to accommodate a big ore-extraction company. The road felt hot on his skin.

The teenage boy, Jose dos Santos, watched the nameless officer raise his weapon. He was middle-aged, on the short side, balding with a ring of hair. He squeezed his trigger, and sent a bullet directly into the boy’s right eye socket. The impact crushed the outer edge of the socket, which pushed the eyeball out. The bullet lodged itself between his brain and cranium.

Pereira came to his senses, lying on the pavement. The police kept firing but slower, he remembers, moving among the wounded and finishing some of them with leisurely shots. He dragged himself on his elbows into the scrub, where he lay hiding for hours. Eventually he crawled down the road to where a passenger bus had stopped. Its driver let him crawl on and took him to Maraba — the bus ride the protesters had asked for.

Jose wandered with the serenity of deep shock. He raised his right hand to cup his displaced eyeball, and finally found his mother, who embraced him, weeping. His father guided them away, and eventually the family found a ride to a hospital.

The girl watched it all from the top of the truck, frozen by fear until an older boy — he was 17 — called to her. “Come down! They’re killing us!”

The boy took her to a shack along the road, where she dropped down and hid. Then he ran back into the chaos, and was killed moments later.

As the shooting wound down, she emerged from hiding and walked among the bodies on the road. She found a police-issue hat and rifle lying on the ground. She picked them up and took them to an adult. Then she looked for someone to take her someplace safe.

As the police rolled away in their buses, a driver later testified, Col. Pantoja addressed his troops.

“Mission accomplished,” he said, according to the testimony. “No one saw anything.”

Of course, many people — hundreds of people — had seen everything. So Pantoja’s statement carried two implications. The first was an order — an omerta — directed to any police who felt shaken by what they had seen: Stay silent.

The second was that the hundreds of landless witnesses wouldn’t matter.

***

After the massacre, the MST erected a monument of 19 burned trunks of Brazil nut trees, one for each of the dead. The trees loom a dozen yards over the site of the shooting, haunting the road.

The remembrance became something other than catharsis, though. It became a means of political exploitation. After the shooting, the MST toughened its tactics — critics called it thuggish, destroying private property and occupying public buildings — and its propaganda.

The group held up “the girl” as the embodiment of their movement: innocence violated. She went on a media tour, retelling the painful story until one day she mentioned picking up the rifle on the street. Local reporters seized on it — A landless child with a gun? Was it a protester’s gun? Had they armed a child? — and the idealized narrative went askew.

Infuriated MST leaders shuffled her out of sight, refusing to let her return home. She says today that they put her, in effect, under house arrest.

Federal authorities did investigate the massacre, but forensic evidence went uncollected, witnesses shrank away when threatened, and the state secretary of public security — who gave the direct order to clear the road “at any cost” — was exempted from any inquiry or charge.

In 2002, prosecutors finally brought charges against 127 police and 19 higher-ranking officers. All charges were quickly dismissed except those against Col. Pantoja and Maj. Oliveira.

Not that it mattered, at the time. No one arrested them. Even though the court found them guilty of killing 19 people, the men remained free while they formulated their appeals.

The two officers were protected by a system of exemption as old as the country itself: Brazil has a 20-year statute of limitations on murder. Once it came into effect, the case would simply disappear. All they had to do was keep appealing.

They moved to Santa Isabel, a village outside Belem, where their reputations would silence any discussion of the massacre. At the police station there recently, the department commander froze at the mention of Eldorado dos Carajas: “Yes,” he said finally. “I know of these men. But I don’t know of the case. Perhaps you should ask in Belem.”

But other forces are at work now in the country. Brazil has transformed itself economically — now the sixth-largest economy in the world — and it wants political clout to match. It will host soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics two years later, so authorities have enormous incentive to clear the national stage of any lingering injustice.

This May the announcement came, a thunderclap after years of drought: A judge in Belem ordered the arrest of Col. Pantoja and Maj. Oliveira.

The judge, Edmar Pereira, has never discussed why he issued the order, beyond “the exhaustion of any legal ways.” People in Para say undercurrents of modernization are tugging at Brazil: an unusually honest judge, maybe, and pressure from the federal government. Whatever the reason, it marks a moment of change for Brazil. A shift from impunity to accountability.

Pantoja is serving a 258-year sentence, and Oliveira 158 years.

***

With her long blond hair, Ana Paula Silva stands out among the women of Para.

She has not spoken publicly about the massacre since she was a girl.

“I ran away,” she says. The MST kept her tucked away for a while, she says, not allowing her to go to school or see her old friends. So one day she sneaked away and has never returned. Even though she stays in touch with the survivors of the Eldorado massacre — among whom 69 were wounded — she has worked to move past the trauma. She is married now, she says proudly.

She has heard about the arrest of the colonel and the major. She wishes they could all go to prison, from the politicians who authorized the mission to the policemen who ripped off their name tags before shooting. But this is a start.

“It makes me very happy,” she says. She looks up toward the ceiling, to keep tears from spilling onto her cheeks.

She sits in the main room of a simple stucco house in a settlement near the massacre site. The house belongs to her old friend Josemar Pereira, the drum-chested protest leader. Like a bull perched in a sapling, he sits on a fragile wooden chair and listens in silence to Silva. He has his own stories and scars, including a fist-sized one in his right leg, but he stopped looking at them long ago.

He stands, and puts on his old black felt hat. He needs to tend his cattle. After the massacre, the government set aside plots for people injured that day, and he keeps a few cows. On the way to see his animals, he stops to knock on the door of another home, and a young man comes to the door.

It’s Jose dos Santos, no longer a thin 16-year-old but a grown man. The side of his face seems crumpled where it cradles a glass eyeball. His manner is still that of a teenager, joking and teasing. “I still have the bullet,” he says.

Where? He taps a thick forefinger to his temple, and grins.

Farther down the road, Pereira opens the gate to a rough ramble of land, and walks along a path toward half a dozen lowing cattle. Halfway down the path he stops, gives a quick wave of his hand, and interrupts his characteristic silence.

“This is mine,” he says. It’s all he ever wanted.

matthew.teague@latimes.com

Twitter: @MatthewTeague


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