Paramilitary terror in Brazil

On Nov. 16, Brazilian landless workers Vanderlei Macena Cruz and Mauro Gomes Duarte, residents of Accampamento Renascer (Rebirth Encampment), were assassinated while riding a motorcycle to work near Gleba Gama, in the Nova Guarita region of Brazil’s Mato Grosso state. According to information released by the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), the two men were found dead on a road that divides the properties falsely claimed by local landowners Silmar Kessler and Sebastiao Neves de Almeida known by the nickname Chapeu Preto (Black Hat). Another rural worker heard the shots and quickly gathered other residents to find the bodies on the road; the Military Police did not arrive at the scene until late in the evening.

Gleba Gama is an 16,000-hectare area of public land owned by the federal government; in February 2002 the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) ordered the land distributed for agrarian reform settlements for 336 families. But more than 40 local landowners—including Neves de Almeida—have created false documents claiming to own these lands. On June 2, 2003, nearly 350 families—members of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST)—occupied the land claimed by Neves de Almeida and established the Accampamento Renascer. The rural workers living in this area have faced constant threats of physical violence by the landowners and their private militias, made up of masked gunmen and local police.

On Oct. 11 and 12, members of Neves de Almeida’s private militia attacked the Accampamento Renascer, threatening residents and beating some with barbed wire. The Public Ministry of Labor is also investigating Neves de Almeida for his use of slave labor on his lands. Nova Guarita mayor Antonio Jose Zanatta says six rural workers and human rights activists have been murdered in the region. Sister Leonora Brunetto, the CPT’s regional representative, was forced to leave the area recently because of death threats. Mayor Zanatta has also received death threats. (Friends of the MST—FMST, Nov. 17 with info from Brazil’s National Network of Popular Lawyers)

On Nov. 16, an armed assailant shot rural unionist Pedro Laurindo da Silva twice in the head, killing him. The shooting took place 100 meters from the office of the Union of Rural Workers of Maraba, in southern Para state. Da Silva was linked to the Federation of Agricultural Workers (Fetagri) of Para state. He was a leader of the Zumbi dos Palmares encampment of 150 families on the Cabo de Aco estate. Da Silva had just attended a seminar on violence and human rights in Maraba and was heading to the union office to spend the night there when he was killed. The assailant, Valdemir Coelho de Oliveira, was spotted by police while fleeing the scene and was apprehended. He claimed he killed Da Silva because he had paid the union leader 500 reais for a plot of land and had never received the land. The CPT and local rural workers’ unions dispute the claim, saying that Da Silva had received death threats from local landholders and that the alleged owners of the Cabo de Aco estate are likely behind the murder. Silva had also been vocal in protesting abuses committed by the Military Police against rural workers. (O Povo, Fortaleza, Ceara, Nov. 18)

On Nov. 8, rural unionist Domingos dos Santos Silva died after being shot five times in the head point-blank by a gunman who had been circling his home for several days. Dos Santos was a leader of a group of landless families who several months ago occupied the Mineira estate in Itupiranga, in southeast of Para state. He was also linked to Fetagri. Police have no leads in the case. (Agencia Estado, Nov. 9)

Between Oct. 28 and 31, three rural workers were murdered in Pernambuco state. Anilton Martins da Silva, leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Landless (MLST), was shot 18 times in the face in the town of Itaiba. Antonio Jose dos Santos, encamped with the MST in Tacaimbo, was tortured and stabbed 14 times after he left a party where people were celebrating the government’s expropriation of land they had occupied since 2000. Luis Manoel de Menezes, president of the Rural Workers’ Union of Taquaritinga do Norte, an affiliate of the Federation of Rural Workers of Pernambuco (Fetrape), was shot twice and died. Also, on Oct. 28, a group of about 10 hired gunmen ambushed a number of encamped MST families in Altinho.

In Buritis, Minas Gerais, Miguel Jose Caetano of the MST died on Nov. 1 after being wounded in a conflict with families affiliated with the Federation of Workers on Family Farms (Fetraf) over a plot of land within the MST’s Mae de Conquistas settlement. According to INCRA, violence erupted when some of the Fetraf families tried to force the MST families out of the settlement.

On Oct. 28, in the Pontal de Paranapanema region of Sao Paulo state, judge Teodoro Sampaio sentenced MST leaders Cledson Mendes, Sergio Pantaleao, Jose Rainha Jr. and Manuel Messiais Duda to 10 years in prison each. The four were convicted of crop burning and theft during an occupation of unused land in 2000. As of Nov. 1, only Cledson had been arrested. MST lawyers plan to enter a habeas corpus plea because in such cases, defendants must remain free until the appeals process has been exhausted.

In Nova Santa Rita, in the metropolitan region of Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, 12-year old MST activist Marisa Cardoso Lourenco died on Oct. 30 after being run over by a speeding vehicle on Interstate 386 (BR-386) in front of the encampment where she lived. The MST says it has made numerous requests to the Federal Highway Police to post appropriate traffic signs in the area, but has yet to get a response. (FMST website from Brasil De Fato #140, Nov. 3-11)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 20

See our last post on Brazil.