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The Brazilian Issue

Plowboys And Indians

Rita, an indigenous Piripkura Indian, speaks only rudimentary Portuguese, and I can’t understand her native language, Tupi-kawahib, any better than I can pronounce its name.
May 2, 2009, 12:00am

By Felipe Milanez

Photos By Araquem Alcantara

Rita, an indigenous Piripkura Indian, speaks only rudimentary Portuguese, and I can’t understand her native language, Tupi-kawahib, any better than I can pronounce its name. But over the course of our first hour together, we pieced together the story of the massacre of her tribe. It started one night, some 30 years ago, when a group of men invaded their land brandishing pistols and wooden bats. The murderers, known as



and hired by farmers eager for Piripkura land, chased down unsuspecting members of Rita’s tribe and shot or bludgeoned them to death. Her father was decapitated, as were dozens of children and seniors. Her aunt, asleep in a hammock, was shot point-blank and tossed into a large pile of burning bodies. Rita was raped. Maybe they just forgot to kill her. Surveying her village in the aftermath, she assumed she was her tribe’s only survivor.

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for more photos by Araquem Alcantara As she told me her story, Rita and I were sitting face to face in a dilapidated wooden hut deep in Brazil’s Amazon forest. We were somewhere between the states of Mato Grosso and Amazonas, in the city of Colniza. The surrounding region is acknowledged as the most violent in the country, which, given Brazil’s surging homicide rate, makes it among the very worst of the worst. We also happened to be sitting on the plot of land where her friends and family were killed.

In Brazil, stories like Rita’s are routinely covered up or completely ignored. The truth is, similar acts of genocide have been carried out since the region was colonized during the military dictatorship in 1964. The root cause of the violence against Brazil’s indigenous people is nearly always that of encroaching timber interests—soulless and aggressive pricks eager to meet an ever-increasing market demand for raw lumber. Small, displaced groups of survivors like Rita, unable and unprepared to defend against arbitrary raids, are left to roam the jungle like ghosts.


More than a year after the attack, Rita was found wandering alone in the forest. Her discovery was the result of persistent search expeditions organized by FUNAI, the government agency established to protect indigenous people. Left without options, Rita was abruptly immersed in Brazilian society. She got the worst possible reception: In each passing city, she suffered physical abuse and bigotry and was eventually enslaved on a farm. She did house chores and was forced to provide sex services. She later ran away and married an Indian man from another small tribe, and today she lives a quiet tribal existence deep in the forest. Rita told me this in the same sweet manner she has told me things in the countless conversations I’ve had with her since: shy and reserved but with a polite, if untrusting, smile.

In the late 1990s, more than 20 years after the slaughter of Rita’s relatives, two fellow Piripkura tribesmen, Tucan and Monde-I, emerged from the jungle. It caused a minor and short-lived media stir. Tucan was in need of medical assistance. His attending nurse told me he was “pissing Coca-Cola” and needed his gall bladder removed. Monde-I got impatient or annoyed or bored—the two are renowned as the second and third coming of John Rambo—and headed back into the thicket while Tucan recuperated. Three months or so later, Tucan disappeared to rejoin Monde-I in the forest. So Rita was technically not alone, but today the Piripkura tribe still totals just three.


The eradication, in whole or in part, of indigenous tribes is certainly the goal for some farmers. Rita’s tribe was massacred because they happened to occupy land claimed by timbermen—and there are several other tribes that continue to suffer similar fates for similar reasons. Less than a thousand yards from the farm where I met Rita, I spent an afternoon with a Kanoe Indian family. Purá was happily teaching his seven-year-old nephew Bakwa to hunt with a bow and arrow, while his mother, Tiramantu, fastened a bracelet onto my wrist in silence. These three are all that remain of the Kanoe tribe after yet more unprovoked mass killings. They share a 150-square-mile stretch of land called Terra Indígena Omere with the Akuntsu clan, which today consists of just six people. Popak, one of the tribe’s four men, spoke quickly when we met. He also gave me a nasty face when I pointed to a scar on his back, explaining that he was shot during an attack on his tribe. Sometimes I forget that even as a nonmurderous fair-skinned Brazilian, I’m still the asshole.

Filmmaker Vincent Carelli, himself a nonmurderous fair-skinned Brazilian, spent 20 years investigating and documenting the massacre of the Akuntsu Indians, collecting evidence of the participation of local farmers (complete with damning testimonials from the timber-company workers who actually perpetrated the murder). His resulting movie,



, premiered in São Paulo this March and is quite possibly the only beautiful thing involved with this story. Because certainly nothing has changed. In fact, things are worse. Since making his film, Carelli has actually witnessed the massacre of another group so remote that they were never assigned a name. It is widely accepted that attempts to oust the tribe were first made with arsenic-and-sugar cocktails. When that didn’t work, a pack of murderous


took over. The sole survivor lives undisturbed, alone, in a hole in the jungle.

“No one was sent to jail—they weren’t even indicted. Not one of those bandits,” said Marcelo dos Santos, the man who first made contact with the tribe and organized a search for those responsible for killing them. Santos has suffered numerous threats and prefers not to identify the people he suspects are guilty. In nearby cities, the citizenry is not so tight-lipped: local high-profile influence peddlers Antenor Duarte, Antônio Vilela Junqueira, former senator Almir Lando, and the infamous Dalafini brothers are all suspected of involvement. As coincidence would have it, they own the farms nearest to where the unnamed tribe lived.

In Colniza, the violent city in northern Mato Grosso where I met Rita, I ran into a timberman, Julio Pinto. His father, Renato, and 70 of his associates spent some time in jail accused, variously, of either killing or ordering the killings of Piripkura Indians. True to form, Pinto and Co. were of the mind that the tribe was on their land. These were Rita’s relatives. All the suspects were ultimately set free, and Pinto told me with a straight face: “I never saw Indians in the region.” As in, How could anybody kill a person they’ve never even seen? (Hint: They order or pay someone to do it for them.) One of Pinto’s partners, Luiz Durski, also owns farms near Piripkura land. In an interview in São Paulo, he had assured me that the case against Renato was “madness” on behalf of the federal prosecutor, Mario Lucio Avelar. Practically as an afterthought, Durski remembered to say that he too has never seen an Indian.

Characterizing these crimes as genocide, convicting offenders, and determining sentences are the primary obstacles for authorities. Well, those and also fear and bribes and the matter of just not giving a shit. The legal system in the Amazon is a quagmire of local colonels wielding political influence. It’s nearly impossible to enforce laws that nobody really cares to have enforced in the first place. The principal offenders are loggers, miners, and farmers, and few outside that circle are willing to tackle some of Brazil’s most fruitful industries. Particularly not on behalf of a few ghosts hoofing around in the bush.