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The murders go on in Amazonia.

When a cattle rancher and his son were convicted last December for the murder of Chico Mendes, some believed justice had come to the Amazon. It didn't take long to be disabused of that idea. On the night of February 2, Expedito Ribeiro de Souza-president of the local Rural Workers Union, member of the Communist Party (P.C.doB.) and author of the verse above-was slain in the small southeastern Amazon town of Rio Maria. Ribeiro was walking home from a union meeting when a hired gunman shot him in the back and then, as he lay on the ground bleeding, fired two bullets through his head.

Like Mendes, Ribeiro was internationally known. He'd been dead for five hours when an Americas Watch report, in which he featured prominently, was released in the United States. Otherwise, Ribeiro's death might have been another obscure entry on the list of nearly 1,600 killings of rural activists that have taken place in Brazil since 1964, when the military seized power and began its twenty-five-year rule.

The root of the violence is a pattern of landholding that ranks with Guatemala's as the most miserable in Latin America. Less than 2 percent of farms occupy more than half the land, while millions of impoverished peasants try to subsist on plots too small to support their families. Those without land are forced to work for local property holders (many of whom acquired their farms illegally) at a monthly wage often less than $30. Almost all the rural poor live in mud-and-wattle huts, and most, like Ribeiro, have no more than a grade-school education. Those bold enough to challenge this system are harassed, threatened, have their homes and crops burned, or, in the case of the truly stubborn, are killed.

The landowner who wishes to dispose of a political enemy has little difficulty. He need only contact one of the agencias de pistolagem-rent-a-killer agencies-which operate semi-openly in many areas. They have names like The Sheik's Clique, Snake-Killer and The Colonel's Mafia, and employ mostly retired and off-duty policemen to carry out the hits. Many agencies offer a sliding scale for their services, depending on the target's prominence: roughly $600 for a peasant, the cheapest price; $2,000 for a priest; and $4,000 for an elected official.

In southern Pard state, where Rio Maria is located, the ground is watered with the blood of unionists. Raimundo Ferreira Lima was killed in mid-1980, and 172 other activists in the area have suffered the same fate since. In the town itself the bodies of Bras Antonio de Oliveira and Ronan Rafael Ventura were dumped in the middle of a road last April 4. Eighteen days later Paulo and Jose Canuto were kidnapped and killed. Their brother Orlando was also abducted but escaped after being shot in the stomach. Their father, Joao, had helped found the Rural Workers Union in 1983 and was its first president. Two years later he was cut down by fourteen bullets.

As Ribeiro's coffin was lowered into the ground-his wife, mother, nine children and two grandchildren facing a grim future without income-several thousand mourners cried out, "Justice, justice, justice!" It is a cry mostly ignored in Brazil. Only eight killers of rural activists have been convicted in the past twenty-seven years; not a single pistoleiro has even been tried for the murders of the 173 activists in Pard. Even in the Chico Mendes case only one of the group of landowners believed to have planned the murder was brought to trial. None of the others were even charged. As Osmarino Amancio Rodrigues, one of Mendes's successors, said, "The head of the snake was not cut off:' Official nonchalance toward these crimes was perhaps best stated by a judge in Rio Maria, Jose Candido de Moraes, who shortly after Ribeiro was shot expressed surprise about the commotion caused by his killing and that of other recent victims. "They were only peasants," he said.

There is no reason to believe that those behind the violence will be satisfied until the last spark of peasant resistance has been stifled. After Ribeiro was killed, a note was delivered to his house saying Roman Catholic priest Ricardo Rezende and leftist congressman Waldir Ganzer would be the next to die. Since then, a gunman opened fire on Roberto Silva, a past president of the Rio Maria union-the only one to survive his term in office-and Carlos Cabral, Ribeiro's replacement, who was hit in the thigh. (Silva escaped injury.) Others living under death threats are Orlando Canuto, now in hiding; Cabral's wife and Orlando's sister, Luiza; and several other local activists. Nor has Rio Maria been the only site of violence recently. On March 8, in the town of Tailandia several hundred miles north, Sebastiao Ribeiro da Silva, a director of the local union, was murdered in his home. A day earlier unionist Jose Alves de Souza was shot in the arm, back and leg as he stepped out of his house in the tiny village of Sao Pedro, across the border in the state of Tocantins.

Father Rezende attributes the murders in Rio Maria to a group of area landowners. Last year, as de Oliveira was being buried, some wealthy farmers were overheard chatting at a local bar. They boasted, All the communists will die." More broadly, the government of Fernando Collor de Mello is also to blame for the violence, having reneged on a promised agrarian reform program and having failed to provide police protection for those who have received threats. " Last year a group of congressmen and I met with Justice Ministry officials to request protection for Expedito," Father Rezende recalls. "They promised to take action, but nothing was done." Once, Ribeiro went directly to federal police headquarters in the state capital of Belem. Officers there confirmed they had an order to protect him but said they were too busy and had no men available to assign to his case. In Tocantins, Souza's local union requested police protection for him in February after he received a series of death threats. The Justice Ministry did nothing.

As Americas Watch points out, the Chico Mendes trial showed that international attention and public pressure can move the justice system to action. The uproar following Ribeiro's slaying resulted in the dispatch of a respected special police investigator to Rio Maria, who has arrested Jose Serafim Salles, believed to be the trigger man in the case. The man who shot Cabral is also in custody, and the Justice Ministry has belatedly agreed to provide protection for Cabral and several other unionists.

That is good news but hardly definitive. The landowner suspected of having paid Salles has disappeared. And arrests in Pard have never led to prosecutions. When the initial furor dies down, local police end their investigation and suspects are released by judges claiming there is not enough evidence to proceed. Father Rezende has asked that people help keep the pressure on by sending a letter or fax immediately to President Collor, demanding investigation and prosecution in the cases of Ribeiro and other victims, and police protection for all those under threat. The President's address: Palacio de Planalto, Brasilia, Distrito Federal 70150. The fax number: (55) (61) 224-7442.
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Title Annotation:rural activists killed in Brazilian Amazon
Author:Silverstein, Ken
Publication:The Nation
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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