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Brazil seeks to halt Amazon killings
by Staff Writers
Nova Ipixuna, Brazil (AFP) June 24, 2011

Brazil's government has deployed soldiers and police to the Amazon jungle aiming to halt a spike in the murders of environmental activists opposed to illegal logging and ranching.

The operation in the Amazon state of Para, which has long been the scene of violent disputes over land use and ownership, was ordered by President Dilma Rousseff in early June, after the murder of a couple of environmental activists which remains unsolved.

Since their slaying in May, three other small farmers have been killed in similar circumstances, shot by what appears to be guns for hire.

"It's a big and significant action with the clear aim of not only preventing more murders, but also accelerating the investigations underway," Justice Minister Jose Cardozo said when the operation was launched.

The joint operation involves soldiers, and federal and local police and could be extended to other regions of the vast Amazon.

The squads are generally discreet. On the road linking Maraba, the second-biggest city in Para, to the small town of Nova Ipixuna where the activist couple were gunned down, AFP journalists encountered just one police road checkpoint.

"We're not doing patrols here. We have orders from Brasilia to protect the other families under threat," one military member of the force in Maraba told AFP.

Last weekend the special force, without warning, removed two families from their homes and put them under protection in an undisclosed location. The families had received death threats similar to those sent to the activist couple before their murders.

A local prosecutor, Marcio Cruz, said authorities were evaluating the risk to the families and were deciding "whether they will remain in their old home under police protection or if they will be transferred to another state."

Poor residents in Para state place limited trust in their officials though, because of the "high degree of impunity" that killers enjoy, according to Jose Batista, a lawyer for the Land Pastoral Commission, a group linked to Brazil's Catholic Church that has long monitored land disputes in the Amazon.

"Over the past four decades, there have been more than 800 murders in Para's countryside, most of them by hired killers," he said.

"Out of all of those, only nine suspected perpetrators have been brought to justice, resulting in eight being convicted, of which just one is in prison."

The killings also highlight a gross imbalance in land ownership in Brazil, a vast country nearly as big as the United States where just one percent of the population controls 46 percent of the arable land.

The Land Pastoral Commission has published a list of 125 activists and Amazon residents said to be on a death-threat list. The couple killed in May, Jose Claudio Ribeiro and Maria do Espirito Santo, were on the list.

Although the government has taken urgent measures to protect the others, it has admitted that it does not have the means to guard all of them. Thirty on the list live in Para.

The local police chief in charge of the investigation into the Ribeiros' murders, Jose Humberto de Melo, said he was surprised the threats that prompted the protective custody of the families had not been communicated to his unit.

"We have a 24-hour team in Nova Ipixuna and I don't understand why the threats weren't communicated to the police station, only to Brasilia," he said.

"We are now collecting all evidence possible to investigate and verify the truth of these threats."

But, he added: "The truth is we don't believe very much in them, because the person said to be behind these threats is no longer in the area."

Local authorities have also voiced skepticism that all the recent murders were related to land disputes.

"One has to do with drugs, another was score-settling. Not all the murders out there are linked to land disputes," said De Melo.

The fresh wave of murders in the Amazon came as Brazil's lower house in congress approved a bill changing the forestry law that would weaken preservation protections in favor of encouraging farm activities. The Senate is still to vote on the text.

earlier related report
Neighbors, kin of slain Amazon couple flee homes
Maraba, Brazil (AFP) June 24, 2011 - Days before she was gunned down with her husband last month, Maria do Espirito Santo told her sister "I know I'm going to die."

Since then many of her neighbors have fled their homes in the Brazilian Amazon frightened by the murders of Santo and her husband, Jose Claudio Ribeiro, as well as four other residents of the Brazilian Amazon who had been fighting to preserve the forest from illegal loggers and ranchers.

Laisa Santo, Maria's sister, is one of them.

Together with her husband and four children, the 45-year-old teacher has been holed up for the past three weeks in a "safe house" in Maraba, the closest town to her small plot of farming land abutting the jungle.

"Welcome to my hiding place," she greets AFP journalists with a laugh that belies the unease that pushed her to move.

"I had to leave my home after the murders of my sister and brother-in-law. I couldn't stay, I didn't see how -- there was no sleeping soundly," she said morosely.

Laisa's sister, Maria, and her brother-in-law Ribeiro were slain on May 24, shot dead with two bullets in what looked to be a professional hit as they drove their motorbike along the dusty track near their farm.

Those close to them said they had received several death threats before they were killed, warning them about their activities denouncing those illegally chopping down trees.

"The last time I heard from her, I remember her calling me in desperate straits and telling me, 'Laisa, I know I'm going to die'. It was a death just waiting to happen, I too knew that it would happen sometime soon, only I was never ready for it," Laisa said.

The head of the local police unit in charge of agricultural disputes, Jose Humberto de Melo, told AFP the killers were wearing black hoods and jumped out as the couple's motorbike slowed to navigate a makeshift bridge.

"Both Jose Claudio and Maria received shots to the left side that perforated various vital organs," he said.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff ordered a complete investigation in the days following the murders and sent soldiers to bolster police and protect others who were also on a list of those receiving death threats.

Last week, two families who had received threats were abruptly moved out of their homes and put under protection in a secret location. The groups, totaling 10 people, are being watched over by 30 soldiers.

"All of them are very afraid," one source close to the protection squad told AFP.

Jose Claudio's sister, Claudiaelise, also left everything to live in the relative safety of Maraba, like Laisa and her family. They moved out of general fear, not because they had received any death threat themselves.

"I want to go back to our little plot. In town I can't find the peace that was part of my natural environment," she said, before returning with AFP reporters to visit Nova Ipixuna.

Laisa's house is separated by just a few meters (yards) from the Ribeiros' place, now occupied solely by the couple's dog, Hulk, which shuffles around despondently waiting for his masters who will never return.

Laisa calls the dog over. He waves his tail briefly, then, seeing his owners are not in sight, disappointedly skulks off to wait.

"The poor thing doesn't want to be with anyone. He will die here alone," Laisa said.

She added that everything in the house was as the couple had left it: clothes drying, a machete on the table, a bottle of Brazilian rum.

In the past three weeks, another three people have died in similar hits in the state of Para, which is rife with violence tied to land disputes. Another was murdered in the state of Rondonia, also in the Amazon.

Authorities though are cautious about saying all the killings were over land, or of accepting accusations that powerful property barons were ordering the murders.

"One has to do with drugs, another was score-settling. Not all the murders out there are linked to land disputes," said Jose Humberto de Melo, a local police chief heading the investigation.

He said his unit, which specializes in land disputes, recorded five murders in 2011 related to conflicts over land.

An observer body linked to Brazil's Catholic Church, the Land Pastoral Commission, estimates that 800 people have been killed in Para state over such disputes in the past four decades.

Police have still not made any arrests in the case of the slaying of the Ribeiros.

Their bodies were buried in Maraba's rundown cemetery two days after their deaths. On their simple graves are wooden crosses with no markings. Plastic flowers left during the funeral service are still there.

"Death is part of life, but nobody deserves to die in that way," said Laisa.

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