Brazil seeks to halt Amazon killings
Nova Ipixuna - 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," said one military member of the force in Maraba.
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 US where just 1% of the population controls 46% 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."
"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," he added.
Local authorities have also voiced scepticism 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 favour of encouraging farm activities. The Senate is still to vote on the text.