Members of the Ferraz family rally around Oscar Ferraz, its candidate for… (Matthew Teague, Los Angeles…)
FLORESTA, Brazil — The little priest leans in, as though to make a confession. The subject is forbidden, but tonight he will talk. "A violencia," he says.
The violence of his account seems impossible.
This small town, called Floresta, blooms in Brazil's sertao, a wild and arid land. On its surface, Floresta is all pinks and yellows and purples, its facades covered with thick layers of paint. The houses stand in rows around a tree-lined square, and in the center sits a church.
But a decades-long feud between two powerful families here has killed scores of residents, young men trading their lives away one at a time for bits of family honor. There's an invisible line through the town that marks each family's territory, and it runs through the church sanctuary: on one side, Ferraz; the other, Novaes.
There's a noise at the door. The priest sits upright.
A squad of elite federal troops, wearing black body armor and toting assault rifles, enters the rectory. The men nod to the priest, then walk toward the rooms they have commandeered for sleeping each night. They traipse through, letting their weapons hang slack, relieved to have survived another patrol. The government sent them to this far-flung town as a buffer, a walking demilitarized zone.
After they close their doors, the priest nods and whispers, "Violencia."
It's hard to say when the feud began. The people involved rarely speak of it, even among themselves. A man with blood from both sides — a Ferraz-Novaes — shrinks away from discussing it in public. He echoes the priest: "Forbidden."
But after midnight, he says, he will meet for a drink and talk about A Luta, The Struggle.
Some say it started about a quarter of a century ago; others say its origins are older than the country itself.
To visit the sertao is to travel into Brazil's history. Modern Brazil has big plans; it will host soccer's World Cup in two years and the Summer Olympics two years after that. The sertao, or backlands, doesn't feature in tourism literature. It encompasses parts of eight states in the country's northeast, isolated and far from the famous southern cities. But its harsh terrain and sunburned people are far more entwined with Brazilian identity than are the beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the skyscrapers of Sao Paulo.
Brazil is larger than the contiguous United States, which made it an unwieldy colony for the Portuguese crown. To fend off the encroaching Spanish and Dutch, the king assigned vast tracts of land to nobles and endowed them with the military rank of capitao and eventually coronel. Soon each of these landowners became a kind of rural king.
After Brazil won its independence in 1823, the inaccessibility of the sertao insulated it from the reach of the law. The towns and villages of the region continued to live by the word of the landowners, a system still called coronelismo.
As time passed and more patriarchs divided the land, two contending families often emerged in a single town. In Exu, in Belem de Sao Francisco, in Patos, revenge became a slow-motion epidemic, killing men in single file.
In Floresta, the rivalry started as merely political and remained peaceful for a long time. In 1913, the town set out to elect its first mayor, and each of the two ruling families, Ferraz and Novaes, put forward a candidate. The Ferraz man won, setting the conflict in motion.
At City Hall, rows of portraits of politicians line the walls; every mayor has been either a Ferraz or a Novaes.
Beyond politics, the two families worked together against a common enemy: their environment. Floresta has a population of 26,000, but it is scattered over more than 1,400 square miles. A spiny brush called caatinga covers the countryside, clawing at cattle, horses, men. Cowboys stitch together leather armor to protect their bodies. The sun beats down, boiling their blood, whether Ferraz or Novaes.
But then the rivalry took a turn toward death.
One day in 1991, a young Ferraz man discovered that someone had stolen his custom-made saddle. A few days later, he encountered a Novaes man using the fateful saddle. He pulled the rider down from his horse and called him a ladrao, thief.
The accused Novaes gathered a few well-armed relatives and returned to kill the Ferraz accuser, setting off the complex machinery of revenge and counter-revenge. When a man was slain, the responsibility to find and kill the perpetrator fell to his nearest male relative. If no one could identify the exact perpetrator — if he had hired a hit man, for instance — the avenger would kill the most likely suspect. Sometimes that might happen quickly; sometimes it might take years.
Women did play a role in feuds throughout the sertao, refusing to leave their homes for months or years after a killing, lamenting the loss of their fathers and brothers, displaying the dead man's blood-stained clothes. But assassins never targeted women, the elderly or children. Only the men.