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No Justice No Trees

Last week, as the town of Marabá, Brazil, geared up to celebrate its centennial, it was also wrapping up the trial of the killers of environmental activist couple Zé Claudio and Maria do Espirito Santo. But instead of closing the book on this violent...

by Paulo Padilha and Felipe Milanez
Apr 10 2013, 5:53pm

Judge Murilo Lemos reading the sentences at the conclusion of the trial of the men who killed Zé Claudio and Maria do Espirito Santo. Photos by Marcelo Lacerda

The city of Marabá was founded on April 6, 1913, in the southeastern edge of the Amazon rainforest on a narrow strip of land where the rivers Tocantins and Itacaiunas meet. For the first several decades of its existence, the city’s economy was dependent on the abundant Brazil nut trees in the surrounding forest, but starting in the 1960s, the forest was cut down to make way for pasture. Since then, Marabá’s main claim to fame has been as one of the most violent places in Brazil. Last week, as the town geared up to celebrate its centennial, it was also wrapping up the trial of the killers of environmental activist couple Zé Claudio and Maria do Espirito Santo, the case VICE covered in Toxic: Amazon. But instead of closing the book on this violent chapter of the region’s history, Marabá’s justice system has given the green light to those who think murder is the best way to solve a problem.

Zé Claudio and Maria came from generations of nut foragers, people who made a meager living selling Brazil nuts in Marabá while getting most of their food from the forest. In the late 90s, the couple settled in a newly created extractive reserve called Praia Alta-Piranheira. The reserve was made exclusively for extractivists like them; logging and ranching the land is illegal and its occupants are expected to make a living collecting rubber, nuts, fruits, and other forest products in a sustainable fashion. However, from its inception the reserve had been the target of loggers and ranchers hungry for one of the few remaining patches of forest in the region. As a result, Zé Claudio and Maria became increasingly active in protecting the area, constantly reporting illegal activities to the authorities, receiving threats from loggers, ranchers, and charcoal producers—and eventually being murdered for their defense of their land. Their deaths would have gone unnoticed had they not happened on the same day Brazil's congress was voting on revisions to the country’s forest code, and the attention the case received led to unusually fast investigations by Brazilian standards.

In the days after Toxic: Amazon was made, investigators looked into the local loggers and charcoal producers who constantly threatened the couple, but found no evidence that they were responsible for the murders. Once those avenues had been exhausted, they started to investigate a rancher named Zé Rodrigues, who had recently moved into the settlement. Rodrigues had illegally acquired two plots of land in the area and forcibly removed the three families who had been living there. Those families came to Zé Claudio for help, and this is when the couple became the target of Zé Rodrigues’ rage.

Judge Murilo Lemos, who also presided over the trial, twice refused to issue warrants for the arrests of Zé Rodrigues and his brother, Lindonjonson Silva, in the killing of Zé Claudio and Maria, caving only when pressured by human rights groups and the state’s judiciary. Zé Rodrigues was arrested for ordering the crime, while Lindonjonson and Alberto Nascimento were arrested for carrying it out. DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime matched one of the brothers, and a witness reported seeing Lindonjonson leaving the area soon after the murders occurred. Telephone wiretaps linked Zé Rodrigues to the assassination plot, as well as clearly establishing his motive.

Laisa, Maria do Espirito Santo's sister, awaits the verdict outside of the courthouse.

In the months leading up to the trial, Laisa, Maria’s sister, received death threats, with gunmen at one point shooting one of her dogs as a warning. The government reacted to these threats in as slow a fashion as possible, setting up an audience for Laisa with the witness-protection program in July even though the trial had already been set for April. Further complicating the matter, INCRA, the government’s land redistribution body, granted Zé Rodrigues the rights to the lot he had illegally acquired. This was either an act of extreme incompetence or extreme corruption, or possibly both. Not only is it illegal to buy or sell the title to land that has been distributed by the government, but cattle ranching is prohibited in an extractive reserve, which is exactly what Zé Rodrigues intended to do on this land. So INCRA extended the conflict to well beyond the trial, since the federal government will now challenge their decision and, should they strip Rodrigues of the title, the blame will be placed squarely on Laisa. The decision also played into the hands of the defense, who could now claim in court that Zé Rodrigues was just a simple farmer who had recently been granted a piece of land on which to work, and who had nothing to do with the larger groups that wanted Zé Claudio killed. Outside the courthouse, on the day of the trial, one INCRA employee talked to me about Zé Claudio: “The man was a monster. I should know, I spent eight days with him on his lot.”

The trial itself was surprisingly quick. The first day lasted a grueling 14 hours, including jury selection, instructions from the judge, and the testimony of all the witnesses and the defendants. One witness for the prosecution, who identified Lindonjonson as one of the men fleeing the settlement shortly after the crime, received a death threat as soon as he walked out of the courthouse. The witness for the defense who was supposed to place Lindonjonson at another town on the day of the crime nearly broke down in tears after she was unable to explain in any detail when it was she saw him or how she knew him, and may now face prosecution on perjury charges. The pivotal moment came at the end of the day, when Zé Rodrigues, apparently having found Jesus while in jail, began sobbing like an eight-year-old who’s been refused a toy, then got down on his knees, tiny Bible in hand, and begged the Lord to bless the judge, lawyers, jury, and all those present in the courthouse. One of the jurors, also an evangelical Christian, broke down in tears, while another, a pastor in the Assembly of God Church, seemed moved as well. When the whole thing was over, the judge asked for someone to bring the defendant a glass of water and a tissue. The prosecutors later revealed that during a break that Judge Lemos said that if they asked that juror to be considered biased and suspended from the trial, he would have declared a mistrial and immediately released the defendants. 

Activists hold candles during a vigil on the night after the first day of the trial.

The following day, the prosecution and defense spoke to the jury for two and a half hours each. Arnaldo Ramos de Barros Jr., one of the lawyers for the defense, presented his argument which consisted of some specious questioning of the mitochondrial DNA tests that had been conducted, as well as denouncements of several internet conspiracy theories involving the mineral niobium and the “internationalization of the Amazon.” Wandergleisson Fernandes Silva, the brothers’ other attorney, also happens to be an evangelical pastor in the Assembly of God Church, and he presented his argument waving a giant Bible around and reminding the jury of the story of Jesus and Barabbas. After almost two years of waiting, the trial lasted a total of 19 hours, with a further two-and-a-half-hour wait to hear the verdict.

The defendants during the trial. From back to front: Alberto, Lindonjonson, and Zé Rodrigues (looking at the camera).

The judge read the verdict and sentences while the defendants sat in front of him. Lindonjonson was found guilty and sentenced to 42 years in jail. Alberto Nascimento was found guilty and sentenced to 45 years in jail. Zé Rodrigues was found not guilty. Once the acquittal of Zé Rodrigues sank in, the news filtered out to those outside. The reaction of the families of the victims varied between shock and disgust, and members of the social movements, including MST and the rubber tappers’ and fruit foragers’ extractivist union, who had gathered for a vigil for the duration of the trial, became visibly outraged. Cries for justice could be heard from inside the courtroom as the judge continued reading the sentence, while outside protesters clashed briefly with the police and splashed the courthouse walls in red paint. The judge stated in his sentencing that “the victims contributed to their deaths by taking justice into their own hands” rather than reaching out to the authorities—a statement activists called “absurd, full of lies, and with no basis on facts.”

“José Claudio and Maria do Espirito Santo denounced the case to the responsible authorities,” they said in a letter. “The judge has irresponsibly attempted to criminalize the victims and legitimize the actions of the assassins.” The prosecution has called for a retrial in the case of Zé Rodrigues, and also challenged the sentences, since neither gunman received the maximum penalty. Doubts had been raised about the role of Alberto in the killings, with some claiming he was not involved, but the consensus seems to be that as he was already guilty of other crimes and had been on the lam, he should be in prison anyway. Black, poor, unable to read or write, Alberto was the only one of the defendants who didn’t cry or pray to Jesus while on the stand.

The Courthouse on the morning after the verdict was handed down.

The following day, the resplendent façade of the courthouse had had its windows cracked by rocks, its outside walls smeared in red paint, the words “justice,” “assassins,” and “a crime unpunished” scrawled across the seal of the department of justice. Laisa was flown out to Brasilia for an audience with the witness-protection program, while Zé Rodrigues returned to his farm. It was April 6, an official holiday in the city. The city chamber and its representatives ran an ad in the local paper celebrating the town’s birthday and how over the years they have successfully “penetrated the forest, subjugated nature, torn roads, transformed the environment, raised cattle, and planted riches.” Marabá celebrated its centenary, but it wasn’t clear exactly which century we were in.

Previously: The Death of Zé Claudio and Maria


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