Page 1 of 6 of Murder in Brazil, The Rain-Forest Martyr Chico Mendes
Vanity Fair Magazine, April 1989
Click here to access the printer friendly version of this article.

   One afternoon a few weeks after Chico Mendes was murdered at his home in Xapuri, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, two thousand miles from the dolce vita of Rio de Janeiro, I went into the rain forest with Raimundo Gadelha, Chico's thirty-year-old brother-in-law. Xapuri is in the state of Acre, a wedge the size of Iowa that straddles the frontier with Bolivia and Peru and is one of the most remote parts of Amazonia. Ninety percent of Acre is still primeval. Within a hundred miles of Xapuri, in the southernmost part of the state, there are Indian villages no modern person has entered, and God knows how many unidentified species of animals and plants. But as in many parts of the Amazon, the forest is rapidly shrinking as ranchers, settlers, and greedy land speculators attack it with chain saws and fire.

So much of the immediate area around Xapuri has already been cleared that we had to travel fifty minutes up the Xapuri River in a briskly moving outboard-powered skiff to reach the nearest patch of forest. "We are leaving the world of lies and dirty dealing," Raimundo said as we passed under the socklike nests of a colony of crested oropendolas dripping from the branches of a silk-cotton tree. A pair of green parrots with yellow wings flew over head, followed by a pair of green parrots with red wings. We waved to a boy in a dugout pulling in a trapline of thrashing silver fish-probably piranambu, larger, less toothy relatives of the piranha. Raimundo reeled off the names of several kinds of delicious catfish that swim in the river. I asked if there were any candiru. He laughed and said, "Loads of them." The candiru is a small catfish, the size of a toothpick, that wriggles into mammalian orifices and then throws out an excruciatingly painful set of retrorse spines. It can only be removed surgically.
Soon after passing a stand of twentyfoot-tall plumed reeds we put ashore and made our way up the steep, slippery bank through a small blizzard of cabbage butterflies to where three men were waiting with their dogs. "Opa," Raimundo said, and we shook hands with Antonio, Francisco, and Joao Roque de Nascimento, three brothers who tap the wild rubber trees in the forest. Many of the roughly 300,000 tappers in the Brazilian Amazon live in Acre. The brothers, who had known Chico Mendes all their lives, work the same estradas, or rubber trails, that their father and grandfather did. Each estrada is a circular loop with about 180 rubber trees, naturally spaced among hundreds of other kinds of trees over several hundred acres to protect them from insect predators. The three men usually leave their homes at five A.M. to cut a new inverted vee in each tree and to jam a tin can under the "milk" that oozes out. The trees are scored with chevrons of cuts made over the years. Two hours later they return to collect the latex, which they spend the rest of the day smoking and coagulating into rubber-a nasty job. In an average year they produce about 1,200 kilos, which nets them maybe $1,300, enough cash for their families' needs, since they grow, hunt, gather, and fish almost all of their food: But at this time of year, the daily deluges of the wet season make tapping impracticable-"It'd take you five days to gather two days' worth of rubber," Antonio told me-so today they were gathering Brazil nuts, their next-most-important cash crop. 
The brothers took me down one of their estradas and showed me the green pods of wild cacau-chocolate-sprouting right from the trunk, the fresh tracks of an armadillo, the tree they made dugouts from, a bamboo whose roots, steeped in water, reduce swelling, the place where Joao had met head-on with a jaguar just last week, the copaiba tree, whose high-octane sap you can supposedly pour into your gas tank and drive off with, and dozens of other marvelous things. They told me about the cablocinho da mata, the Father of the Forest, who spirits off your dogs if you shoot more than one deer a week, and about the Mother of the Water, a large serpent who upsets your canoe if you catch more fish than you need. We stood listening to the liquid improvisations of the uirapuru, the gray-flanked musician wren. "He is the poet of the forest," Antonio explained. He said how important it was not to tap the trees too often, to let the trees rest, or the milk would turn to water. "You fall on a forest like this, senhor, and it gives you everything."


Acre also has its raw, violent side. It's one of those parts of Brazil where, for instance, when someone calls you up and tells you that you are going to die, it is not so much a threat as a statement of fact. You have been, in the Portuguese term, anunciado. The anuncio, a Brazilian friend explained to me, is a form of torture. You increase the pleasure of killing your victim by first destroying him psychologically. So when Chico Mendes, who had organized the rubber tappers of Acre into a union and who was emerging as a major player in the fight to save the Amazon, was anunciado last May, he knew it was no idle threat. He had already survived five attempts on his life. The last would-be assassin had slipped on a loose board while climbing up to the roof of the Rural Workers' Union headquarters in Xapuri, where Chico was presiding over a meeting. He had been in danger since 1980, when his mentor, Wilson Pinheiro, the union president in the next town, was gunned down by pistoleiros on the steps of the union hall. The rubber tappers killed a rich local rancher, Nilao de Oliveira, in retaliation, believing him to have been one of the mandantes, the masterminds of the murder. Knowing that Nilao's friends would be looking for him, Chico had gone into hiding for ninety days, sleeping each night in the house of a different companheiro.

Chico knew that his enemies included not only the ranchers who hired pistoleiros to expel the rubber tappers from the forest and to kill their leaders and sympathizers, but the authorities in Acre themselves. Mauro Sposito, the state superintendent of the Federal Police, had publicly denounced him as a police informant and Communist agitator. He knew that he was on the lista negra, the hit list of the secret death squad of the Department of Public Safety. He also knew that eighty-eight union leaders had been killed in Brazil the year before, and that since 1980 land conflicts had resulted in more than a thousand murders. In Xapuri itself there hasn't been a jury trial in twenty-three years; dozens of murder cases are sitting in the judge's desk drawer because no one dares prosecute them. 

One night the previous March, Chico had been walking home from the union hall with six companheiros when he saw the Alves brothers, Darli and AIvarino, coming down the street, Alvarino looking like a Wild West badman with his cowboy hat and his bandido mustache-a look he apparently cultivated. The other brother, Darli, had recently acquired dubious title to the Seringal Cachoeira, the rubber forest where Chico had been born and raised, where his family has lived and tapped the trees for generations. Darli had been telling people that he was tired of the "confusion" Chico was causing with his blockades of the ranchers' bulldozers and chain-saw crews. When Darli and Alvarino got within firing range they started to take their guns out, but Chico's friends surrounded him, forming a protective wall. The brothers passed by, jeering. 

The Alves brothers, who have managed to consolidate by one means or another a six-thousand-acre ranch outside of Xapuri, are rough, semi-literate, frontier types with violent pasts. The head of the family is Sebastiiio Alves da Silva, now eighty-six, who had twenty-six children by three women and adopted three more. In 1958 the Alveses were living in a little place in the state of Minas Gerais called Ipanema when three of Sebastiiio's sons, Darli, Alvarino, and Dari, shot a drover named Nequinha da Doca sixteen times and his son six. Even Nequinha's horse received a hailstorm of lead. The fight was over a woman both Sebastiiio and Nequinha wanted. The family then fled south, to Parana, where they gunned down one of their neighbors, Qirceu Dos Santos, in a dispute over property lines, and lured another to the local red light district where they murdered him in a crime whose motive, according to the inquest, was "perversity." One of Sebastiiio's girlfriends said in her deposition that "the Alveses killed because they found it was good to kill." 

Again the family found it advisable to relocate, this time to Acre, where land was going for practically nothing. In 1974 they bought a small ranch outside Xapuri. Darli Alves was as prolific as his father, producing some thirty children. He left one of his women, Elpfdia, in Parana, but brought two others, Natalina and Zilde, and picked up two more locally-Margarete and Chiquinha, a neighbor's daughter, who was sixteen when he seduced her and persuaded her to run away and live with him. Darli was thirty years older. 

Once in Acre, the family continued their violent ways. In 1977, with the help of Darli's partner, Gaston Mota, they massacred an entire family of tappers. The director of the Judicial Police came from Rio Branco, the capital of Acre, a hundred miles northeast of Xapuri, and arrested twelve of Darli's pistoleiros and Darli himself as he was getting on a bus. But they were all freed by writs of habeas corpus, and the crime wasn't even registered. 

The taste for killing was transmitted to the next generation, particularly to two of Darli's sons, Darci and Oloci. A lot of the killing took place right on the ranch. The peons lived in fear. One has testified that he saw Darci and Oloci shoot a peon who was sleeping off a drunkenfesta the night before. Once on the ranch the only way to leave was by running away. If you quit and asked for your pay you were ambushed before you got to the road. Last October 9 the bodies of two Bolivian brothers, one a law student, the other a medical student, who are believed to have been running drugs for Darli, were found on the ranch, one laid out on the other in the form of a cross. Darci and Oloci are accused of killing them. 

Several weeks after the Alves brothers had confronted Chico on the street in Xapuri, a voice called "Help, Chico, help" from the darkness outside the house where he was sleeping with his wife, Ilzamar, and their two children. Ilza peered through a crack in the wall and saw a strange man waiting at the door with one hand behind his back. In May, after Chico was anunciado, friends appealed to the governor to provide him with protection, and two military policemen were assigned to guard him. 

In the rearview mirror of his truck, Chico saw pistoleiros tailing him. He heard about a meeting of ranchers that was called to plan his death, and he gave the police a list of the twelve most likely suspects in the event of his assassination. The Alves brothers were on it. He predicted to his com panheiros that he would not live to see the new year. His premonition was correct: he was killed three days before Christmas. 

Page two of Murder in Brazil, The Rain-Forest Martyr Chico Mendes

Back to Past Dispatches
Back to Dispatches Home
Visit the Dispatches Discussion Room