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from the July 2016 issue

Death in the Amazon

The Assassination


They’ve set up the ambush by a small bridge across a stream. They’ve been hiding among the trees since early morning—and they’re lying in wait. They know that José Cláudio and Maria will have to slow down here. That’s when the first shot is fired.

Discharged from a hunting rifle, the bullet hits both of them at once: it goes through Maria’s hand and lodges near the left wall of José Cláudio’s stomach. According to another theory, the first bullet only hits Maria. When they fall off their motorbike, both of them are still alive. The killers finish them off at close range, drag the bodies off the highway, and drive away toward the town.

But first they sever José Cláudio’s right ear.


Earlier that same day, just after seven, Maria’s sister, Laísa, who is an elementary school teacher, is in the classroom, getting ready to teach, when she sees her sister and brother-in-law flash past the window on their Honda motorbike. Laísa knows they are heading to town this morning.

Not long after, the cleaning woman rushes in, shouting: “He’s dead! He’s dead!” “Who’s dead?” “José Cláudio. What a terrible accident!”

On her way to the scene of the crime, Laísa tries to find words of comfort for her sister. Maria and José Cláudio were like a single soul in two bodies. “He’s not my husband, he’s my soulmate,” Maria has been known to say. “And that’s much, much more.” What can she say to ease her sister’s pain?

People from the neighborhood are already on the spot, waiting for the police. Laísa notices that José Cláudio’s ear has been cut off. Out stream the tears she’s been stifling, as she realizes this was no accident. The severed ear is proof for whomever contracted the killing that the assassins have done their job. The threats that José Cláudio has been receiving for a long time now have finally been carried out.

She starts to shoo away the flies and wasps that are settling on her brother-in-law’s bloodstained lips. Anything to put off the conversation with Maria for just a little longer. She still can’t think what to say to her sister, how on earth to comfort her.

There is a small group of people standing a few yards away; until now Laísa hasn’t noticed that there is somebody else lying there too.

“I went through two shocks, one after the other. I was mentally screaming: ‘Sister, why have you abandoned me?’”


At about 8:40 a.m., a lawyer named Batista, José Cláudio and Maria’s comrade in their common cause, receives a call from a friend: “I’ve just been listening to the radio. I’ve got bad news for you . . .”

Scenes from his fourteen-year friendship with José Cláudio and Maria pass before Batista’s eyes.


The next day, on May 25, 2011, the local paper, Diário do Pará, reports:

Ecologists killed in ambush

Two ecologists, José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, age 54, and Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva, age 53, were murdered yesterday morning at Nova Ipixuna. The assassination was most probably a contract killing. According to the preliminary findings of legal expert Augusto Barbosa de Andrade, both victims were shot multiple times, probably from a hunting rifle and a .38 caliber revolver. “But only forensic tests will be able to confirm the caliber of the weapon and to establish the number of shots fired.”

José Cláudio and Maria do Espírito Santo were ambushed by the bridge over the Cupu stream, within the territory of Praia Alta Piranheira, about 25 miles from Nova Ipixuna. Following an autopsy, their bodies are to be laid out today in the São Félix district, and then buried in Marabá. Their sixteen-year-old adopted son has been orphaned.

In 1996 they were among the first settlers in Praia Alta Piranheira, which at present is home to 440 families spread over an area of 22,000 hectares—mostly stripped of trees.

They were leading the fight against the madeireiros, the timber dealers who have been systematically devastating the region. In July last year they reported to the Pastoral Commission on Land Issues that they had been receiving threats in connection with their environmental protection activities. According to Commission coordinator José Batista Gonçalves Afonso, the authorities did not even take the trouble to verify the threats. “In the state of Pará history keeps repeating itself—our comrades make reports, nobody listens to them, and then they are killed,” he says angrily.

This view was confirmed by the president of the Nova Ipixuna Farmers Union, Edmundo Ribeira da Silva, who added: “Shedding our blood is to someone’s advantage. How many more of us have to die for the state to take steps against the destruction of the rainforest in our region?”

Councilman João Batista Delmondes (Partido dos Trabalhadores—the Workers’ Party), a friend of the murder victims, believes the assassination was the result of their activities to protect the environment. “They were genuine defenders of nature, and whoever contracted the killing most definitely has an interest in the felling of trees in this region,” he says.

Claudelice Silva dos Stanos, sister of José Cláudio, said she would fight for justice, and for her brother and sister-in-law’s death not to be forgotten.

“In the state of Pará over the past fifteen years twenty-five rural activists have been murdered, and in the past four decades, more than eight hundred. Fewer than five of those who commissioned the killings are in jail,” says Batista.


On the day of the assassination the Brazilian Congress was debating a new legal code for forestry.

The code defines new limits for the felling of the Amazonian forests (read: it allows for more felling) and introduces an amnesty for all those who have cut down the jungle illegally. When news of the murder of the two ecologists from Nova Ipixuna reached the capital, a deputy for the Green Party (Partido Verde—PV), Sarney Filho, stood up to speak.

“I’m taking the floor to tell you about a tragedy that occurred today. But first I want to read you an extract from an interview by journalist Felipe Milanez with the murder victim José Cláudio:

I went to see Her Highness—an enormous chestnut tree on the farm of José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo. In all my life it’s the biggest chestnut I’ve seen, and the biggest José Cláudio has ever seen as well. This couple live by gathering the chestnuts, and on what the forest provides. They oppose the felling of trees by timber traders . . .

Q: When a tree as fine as this one is cut down, doesn’t it make you think of bloodshed?

A: My friend, when a tree like this is cut down, it gives off an odor that you can smell. When it’s about to topple, you can hear its groan: the creaking of its trunk. And you can see the leaves falling from it, like a farewell gesture . . .

Q: And does it feel to you as if someone were dying?

A: It feels as if someone were being killed. It’s a living creature . . .

“Mr. Chairman, this morning this man was murdered, both he and his wife were murdered . . .”

From the assembly came sounds of discontent.

“Show some respect for the memory of these heroes who have been assassinated!” cried deputy Sarney Filho.

Loud boos rang out.

“Silence, please,” appealed the man chairing the congressional debate.

“Yes, assassinated,” shouted the outraged Sarney Filho. “This is no joke!”

I watched the recording of the Congress session with Laísa at her cottage in an impoverished district of Marabá.

Who had the gall and the insolence to boo the news of somebody’s death? Someone whose way was blocked by the victims? Had they brought it on themselves?


The burial. The funeral procession—several thousand villagers—marches in stuffy air and scorching heat. They walk about six miles. They start from the house of one of Jose Cláudio’s brothers and head toward the Cemitério da Saudade (“Cemetery of Longing”) in Marabá. On the way they make a stop—on the bridge over the river Tocantins, on the highway that runs along the railroad tracks (the Ferro Carajás).

They’re carrying placards that say: A FLORESTA CHORA (“The forest is weeping”).

Peasant leader Charles Trocate climbs onto the roof of a Fiat Uno and makes a speech. “This march is the best thing we can do today. We demand justice!”

A woman takes the microphone and says: “The deaths of Maria and Jose Cláudio will not be in vain. In their place a hundred new Marias and a hundred new Jose Cláudios will step forward.”

At the cemetery, over the coffins of the murdered ecologists, local politicians, officials, congressmen, and men in uniforms grab the microphone from one another. (“Where were they when Jose Cláudio and Maria reported the illegal felling of trees and when they asked for protection?” one of the victims’ friends then asks.)

A police helicopter hovers over the procession, and then over the cemetery.

There are tears at the graveside. The loudest mourner is Laísa. Jose Cláudio wanted his body to be burned and his ashes scattered at the foot of Her Highness. But the family cannot afford a cremation, so instead there’s the traditional burial.

Journalist and friend of the victims Felipe Milanez can’t help noticing an atmosphere of fear, almost panic, among the locals. People are saying to each other that the killer could be in the crowd. The tension and anxiety are palpable.

Suddenly in this sea of people somebody spots a landowner called Gilzão. This man has threatened Jose Cláudio before now, and in the people’s eyes he is one of those suspected of ordering the killing. Someone shouts: “Sheer insolence!” Someone else cries: “He’s a dick!” Felipe Milanez looks around, wondering where to fall to the ground if it comes to shooting.

“The confederacy of violence in this part of the Amazon resorts to the strategy of terrorism,” he will later write. “It doesn’t strike openly, straight out. It works covertly, in a cruel manner, penetrating the imagination of people who are intimidated. The panic among the villagers proves that it’s an effective strategy.”

At about three in the afternoon, just as the funeral proceedings are at midpoint, unknown perpetrators kill twenty-five-year-old Herivelton Pereira. People speculate on whether he was killed because he knew something about the killers of Jose Cláudio and Maria. His body is found that night in a clump of bushes—in the very same settlement where the murdered ecologists lived.

The officer conducting the inquiry will curtly declare over his corpse: “Madeireiros.”


I found out about the killing of Jose Cláudio and Maria on the Internet. It was reported by the major newspapers and sites that I regularly read.

I had been to Marabá seven years earlier, in similar circumstances, a few days after the assassination of the American nun Dorothy Stang. She had lived in Brazil for over three decades. She used to help the peasant farmers to achieve agricultural reform, and took care of those who had no land, demanding on their behalf and alongside them the right to a decent life on a piece of their own field. Just like Jose Cláudio and Maria, she was involved in the campaign to defend the Amazon rainforests from felling. These forests are being devastated by dealers in timber and charcoal, and also cattle farmers, who aim to sow grass instead of the trees and transform the jungle into pastureland. As a result, each year thousands of square miles of the rainforest known as the “lungs of the Earth” are vanishing.

They had been threatening Sister Dorothy for a long time, but nobody in Marabá believed an American woman could be assassinated with impunity. On the morning of Saturday, February 20, 2005, not far from the town of Anapu in Pará state, someone proved the opposite.

There was an uproar. For a long time the killing of the ecologist nun was the main item on the TV news, and also featured on the front pages, and later the inside pages, of the newspapers. It was reported in the United States and in Europe, too. Brazil’s President Lula sent two thousand soldiers to the state of Pará. It looked as if he were reenacting the Spanish conquest, but on territory that was part of his own country, infamously dubbed “the land of lawlessness,” “no man’s land,” and “the Brazilian Wild West.”

In these circumstances I bought a ticket from Rio de Janeiro to Marabá, leaving some of my things in a friend’s apartment—this part of my trip was totally unplanned—and ended up in “the land of lawlessness.” One of the first people I met was Francisco da Costa, a local peasant activist, who immediately told me that sending in the troops was a fatal error.

“As soon as the soldiers go back to their barracks, things’ll be worse here than before the intervention.”


“Because the cattle farmers and timber dealers will take their revenge and will start to kill anyone they deem inconvenient.”

Never before in the history of Brazil had the central authorities sent troops to put a stop to the crimes of powerful landowners, cattle farmers, and people with plenty of money. Until now the security forces had only ever appeared in the interior on the orders of the latifundiários (private landowners) to suppress the landless peasants occupying their terrain. Or in the days of the military junta, to crush communist guerrillas.

“The army won’t win this war,” repeated Joelma, a well-known peasant activist in the region, whose husband had been the victim of a contract killing, too. “War?” I asked. “Yes, what’s happening in the state of Pará is a tacit civil war. Sending in the troops is a propaganda gesture, a TV show. For the ‘occupation’ to have any effect,” Joelma continued, “the soldiers would have to be stationed here for years. The government hasn’t got the money for that, or the will either, despite dressing itself up in the robes of progress and social justice.”

Soon the military commanders began to mutter, because there wasn’t enough money for fuel for their vehicles or food for their units. The people who put out the contract on Sister Dorothy must have been laughing their heads off—they probably drank more than one glass of champagne to celebrate.

Now I know for sure that Joelma was absolutely right. The army didn’t win that war, it achieved nothing at all. In the Amazon history keeps repeating itself—Batista, the lawyer and friend of the murdered ecologists, whom I had also met in 2005, was right. It’s always the same: somebody reports on the illegal destruction of the rainforests, the state authorities don’t react, the threats start. Then finally the hired guns appear . . . and the jungle goes on being devastated.

Joelma prophesied that if nothing changed in the Amazon, soon I’d be back to write a report on her death.

Seven years later I was back to write about the death of her comrades.


From Death in Amazonia. © 2013 by Artur Domosławski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. All rights reserved.

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