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Police massacre case turns back tide of injustice in Brazil

Nineteen sharecroppers demanding land were gunned down by police in 1996. In a stunning result, two top officers involved have been imprisoned, signaling a shift from impunity to accountability.

October 06, 2012|By Matthew Teague, Los Angeles Times
  • At the scene of the massacre, 19 burned trunks of Brazil nut trees stand as a roadside monument to the dead.
At the scene of the massacre, 19 burned trunks of Brazil nut trees stand as… (Matthew Teague, Los Angeles…)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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