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English Report

In the state of Pará, in the last 33 years there have been 772 murders of rural workers and of people who supported them.  Only in three of these cases the people who ordered the killings were sentenced.

Smoke Screen: measures announced by the government to prevent violence against rural workers

Antônio Canuto*

The year 2005, like those preceding it, was marked by violence in the countryside.  From January to August, the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) recorded 28 murders of rural workers. During the same period in 2004, 27 murders were recorded.

One of these cases, in the beginning of the year, had an unusual result.  On February 12th, in the distant and unknown town of Anapu in the state of Pará, Sister Dorothy Stang, a North American missionary and naturalized Brazilian, was brutally murdered at the age of 74.  Since 1974, she had worked with peasants in Pará. She supported them in their struggle for land and for environmental protection. They created PDS –Projects of Sustainable Development.

The fact that the missionary was American, female, and elderly, and the circumstances surrounding her death, after having read gospel verses to her murderer, provoked general commotion. Her case was presented in the annual publication of the CPT, “Conflicts in the Brazilian Countryside –2004”:

“This murder provoked a gigantic wave of indignation, both nationally and internationally.  Like a “tsunami,” this tragedy provoked reactions from the center of power in Brasilia, the National Congress, and the Federal Supreme Court. It received wide coverage by the media all over the world. Sister Dorothy’s death caused so much debate that we felt her presence again. Her work, humble and unknown, in an isolated Amazon region, multiplied itself all over Brazil, conquering hearts and minds, also gaining international attention and recognition.

The government’s reaction was swift. Some Ministers came all the way to Anapu.  Authorities from all levels gathered to condemn the violence. The Brazilian Army sent detachments to the region.  Promises of unforgiving punishment for the guilty were repeated.  Measures to regulate land rights were announced, and environmental protection zones were created.

There was little delay before the two gunmen were detained.  Afterward the intermediary who contracted their work was arrested, and, after that, two plantation owners were identified as the crime’s organizers. The Federal Police’s investigations pointed, however, to a larger plan involving a consortium of plantation owners and loggers interested in the killing. 


The Legal System

The legal system in Brazil represents a serious difficulty in punishing these crimes.  In the state of Pará, over the last 33 years there have been 772 murders of rural workers and of people who supported them.  Only in three of these cases there was a trial against the people who ordered the crimes – in the cases of Expedito Ribeiro, of João Canuto and of Eldorado do Carajás. These trials happened after a lot of mobilization, with several denunciations sent to national and international human rights bodies.  And even so, in all of these cases, the people accused did not stayed in jail. 

In Expedito Ribeiro’s case, the man who ordered the killing, Jerônimo Alves de Amorim, completed his sentence in home confinement at his luxurious residence in Goiânia.  The organizers of João Canuto’s murder, though guilty, have waited for two years in freedom for their appeal, and the legal process still is tied up in the courts. In the case of Eldorado do Carajás, in which only two leaders of the police operation were charged, Colonel Pantoja and Major Oliveira, the first obtained habeas corpus through the Supreme Court in order to await appeal in liberty.  Major Oliveira’s attorneys are going to request the same treatment for their client.

Other judicial actions to review crimes of great consequence continue to be held up.  These cases include the murder of lawyer Gabriel Pimenta, in Marabá – held up for 24 years; the slaughter of eight workers in the Ubá Plantation, in São João do Araguaia -- 20 years ago; the slaughter of five workers in Princess Plantation, in Marabá – 19 years ago; the murder of union member Braz, in Rio Maria – 15 years ago; the murder of union member Arnaldo Delcídio, in Eldorado – 12 years ago; and the murder of Onalício Barros and Valentim Serra, in Parauapebas – 7 years ago.

Onward from this situation, how can a serious and just judgment of those involved in the murder of Sister Dorothy be guaranteed? The approach of human rights organizations to prevent impunity in this case was to ask that the legal process be carried out at the federal level.  We received support from members of the federal government, such as the Special Secretary of Human Rights, and the Agricultural Development Ministry.  Unfortunately, an agreement was made between the state government and sectors of the federal government to guarantee that the trial would take place in Pará.  Even so, Attorney General of the Republic, Cláudio Fontelles, sent a request for the federalization of the legal process to the Superior Court of Justice (STJ), with solid documentation, based on Constitutional Amendment no 45.  The Federal Supreme Court, however, in evaluating the request on May 8th, decided against it, without justification.

This decision was criticized by the CPT in a note dated June 10th:

“This is a historical tragedy. At the same time the session of the Supreme Court proceeded, Antônio Matos da Silva, father of a premature baby who was still with his mother at the hospital, was murdered in Paraopebas, Pará.  The large part of the magistrates’ argument was the speed at which the judicial process in the murder of Sister Dorothy proceeded.  What won, then, was the expertise of the Pará Judiciary in freeing itself, in a way, from the embarrassment of federalization.  Aside from this scene, three days after Sister Dorothy’s death, two rural workers were murdered, and these cases continue to be ignored by Justice.

This decision has serious consequences.  It was undoubtedly a bolster to the Judiciary’s and Public Ministry’s “corporativism”, which has come to place great pressure against federalization. It showed that constitutional amendment no. 45 will not be respected. This decision demonstrated support for the Pará Judiciary, which is now free to continue making alliances with squatters, loggers, cattle raisers, and large agribusinesses, continually denounced for their crimes. It can affect the credibility of the Supreme Court, which did not recognize the symbolic drama surrounding the death of Sister Dorothy Stang.”


The legal process against the five people involved in the killing of Sister Dorothy advances at a pace that is fast even for Pará's parameters, in an attempt to respond to public opinion. But it does not happen in similar cases in the region.


Impunity and animosity of the courts, above all when it treats crimes committed against workers, are not limited to Pará.

In 2004, two massacres in Minas Gerais made the headlines in major media outlets:  the massacre at Unaí, with the murder of three of the Ministry of Labor’s inspectors to denounce slave labor and their driver, and the massacre at Felizburgo, with the death of five landless workers connected to the MST.

In the case of Unaí, seven people ended up being arrested for their involvement in the deaths, not including those accused of being the ringleaders, the two brothers Antério and Norberto Mânica, who were also arrested.  Antério Mânica, though being arrested on September 16th, was elected mayor of the city of Unaí.  Soon after the beginning of October, he was granted habeas corpus.  On December 10th he returned to jail under judicial mandate expedited by the 9th Court of Federal Justice in Belo Horizonte.  But, on December 16th, the 1st Regional Federal Tribunal of Brasília, granted him a new habeas corpus. 

His brother Norberto, after a little more than a year in prison, obtained a habeas corpus through the Supreme Court on August 16th, 2005.  The deliverer of the order, Sepúlveda Pertence, in a vote in favor of the authorization of the habeas corpus, said that preventative imprisonment could not apply anticipatory punishment to cases not yet judged.  Nine other people accused of the massacre were identified in December of 2004 and, should arrive before a popular jury.  Antério Manica, for being a mayor, shall be judged by the Regional Federal Court.

In the case of the massacre at Felizburgo, of the 16 implicated, six people were arrested. Three of those were released days after for lack of evidence of their involvement.  Plantation owner Adriano Chafik Luedy, who participated in the massacre, and was arrested in December, obtained habeas corpus from the Supreme Court on April 8th.  On May 20th, a new preventative imprisonment was decreed against him. He remained a fugitive from justice until August 28th, when he was captured and arrested.

Another case in which the justice acted favorably toward those who committed crimes against workers occurred on September 23rd.  Minister Cezar Peluso of the Supreme Court granted habeas corpus to colonel Mário Colares Pantoja, who was condemned to 228 years of prison for leading a troop of Military Police in the massacre of Eldorado do Carajás, which resulted in the death of 19 landless workers. 

Prison is for the poor
Different from what is shown above, workers who are accused of a crime, many times without proof or motive, have difficultly obtaining the benefit of a habeas corpus.  A group of eight workers from Paraíba remained imprisoned for 18 months, under accusation of homicide.  Without evidence against them, many of their requests for habeas corpus were rejected.  Jailed in May of 2002, it was only at the end of 2004 that they were permitted access to this benefit.
Three landless workers from Itararema, Ceará, were jailed for a year and eight months, accused of a gunman’s death, and the trial still was not set.  The landless workers’ lawyer requested a habeas corpus at the end of September to the Supreme Court, so that the same benefit granted to colonel Mário Pantoja could be applied to the workers.
So many other cases can be shown in which the workers are systematically denied habeas corpus, under many different allegations.  It becomes clear that in the Brazilian Justice System not all people are equal under the law. 



After a death of Sister Dorothy, the government promised to implement several measures. One was the creation of five Amazonian forest reserves, comprised of an area of about eight million km².  The creation of these reserves did not include effective measures to prevent invasion and environmental destruction. At the same time, the development of an effective plan for agrarian reform did not happen.

In reality, until the end of September, a series of announced measures had not produced practical effects, and cases of violence continued. The situation in the region is still extremely tense.  Squatters and loggers act with total lack of restraint and with police support.  At the end of August, the civil police of Anapu, allied with the plantation owner and logger Luiz Ungaratti, who came to be named as one of those involved in the death of Sister Dorothy, and using a car of the same plantation owner, apprehended two agricultural workers, brothers Miguel and Francisco Valentino dos Santos, in Plot 53, inside the area of the Project of Sustainable Development (PDS) Esperança.  The police affirmed that the workers were being arrested because they were “very violent” and because they had weapons in their possession.  Afterward, the police want back to PDS Esperança, advising that people should abandon the camps in 15 days, and that their houses will be burnt down.

After the murder of the Ministry of Labor’s auditors in Unaí, the government promised  to implement a Constitutional Amendment establishing that land may be seized when there is evidence of slave labor.  The project, which had already been approved in the Senate, generated debates and was approved in the Federal Chamber.  Almost two years after the crime, this law has not been approved.

Also, the expropriation of land for the settlement of workers, promised after the massacre at Felizburgo, moves ahead very slowly. What we see is only a smoke screen to hide the lack of courage from the part of the government to take effective actions to prevent the slaughter of rural communities.

* Antônio Canuto is the Secretary of the National Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).