Massacre in Pará: testimonies suggest that police were working in association with landowners

Witness claims that rancher had paid police officers in the past to remove landless people from another farm of her. Evidence suggests that the police were working alongside private security guards
Text by: Ana Aranha and Antonio Carlos; translated by: Barnaby Whiteoak. Photos by: Antonio Carlos. Illustrations by: Samuel Bono

A new testimony supports suspicions that civil police officers were working in association with private security guards on the Santa Lúcia farm, where the massacre of ten landless agricultural laborers took place in the state of Pará. They were murdered during a civil and military police operation on May 24 in the municipality of Pau D’Arco. It was the biggest rural massacre of the past 20 years.

The Santa Lúcia farm was inherited from Honorato Babinski by his wife Maria Inez Resplande de Carvalho and three children. The property is in the name of one of the sons, Honorato Babinski Filho.

This was not the first time that the police have killed people on the land owned by the Babinski family. In 2013, on the Pantanal farm, owned by Maria Inez Resplande de Carvalho, witness says the rancher paid a civil police officer to remove squatters from her land. Days later, during a police action on the same property, another group of civil police officers shot and killed the employee who allegedly made the payment.

The report of the payment of a bribe is one element of the investigation that aims to find out whether a group of Pará state civil police officers was working illegally to defend the interests of the Babinski family.

The witness, Elizete Gomes da Silva, spoke exclusively to Repórter Brasil. Her testimony was taken by the prosecutor Alfredo Amorim, who is leading the investigation of the massacre in the State Public Prosecutor’s Office. The case is also being investigated by the Federal Police.

Elizete is risking her life by denouncing the alleged police corruption in the city of Redenção, where she lives. She was the only person interviewed by Repórter Brasil who agreed to have her name associated with the reports about the police. Fear has gripped the witnesses and people who have information about the massacre. There are currently six survivors in the witness protection program.

Despite the presence of the Federal Police in the region, the conflict continues to claim lives. Last Friday, July 7, another murder was committed in connection with the Santa Lúcia farm. Rosenildo Pereira de Almeida was shot three times in the head in the city of Rio Maria, nearly 60 kilometers from Pau D’Arco. Rosenildo was one of the leaders of the camp set up on the Santa Lúcia farm after the massacre. According to the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), he had received threats to leave the camp.

On Monday, the state courts ordered the arrest of 13 of the 29 police officers who took part in the operation. Of these, 11 are military police officers. One of them is the deputy commander of the Military Police of Redenção, Carlos Kened Gonçalves de Sousa. According to information from local newspapers, Sousa and the head of the Police Department for Land Conflicts, Valdivino Miranda, who commanded the police action at the farm, have approached the Federal Police to negotiate a plea bargaining deal.

Witness says she delivered cash to the police in 2013

If proven, Elizete’s allegation is serious. She was married to Leomar Almeida da Silva, a security guard or “gunman” on the Pantanal farm. The terms security guard and gunman are used in the region to describe the men hired by landowners to protect their farms. It is an old practice, and a number of private security firms have sprung up in recent years with licenses to provide this service formally.

Elizete says her husband was hired by the rancher Maria Inez Resplande de Carvalho in 2013 to keep squatters off the Pantanal farm. According to her, one of the Leomar’s jobs was to pay the police to survey the farm. Following the orders of the landowner, he allegedly took the first installment of two thousand Brazilian reals to a civil police officer in Redenção. After the survey of the area had been conducted, Elizete herself personally delivered the second installment, of one thousand Brazilian reals, to the officer.​

A few days later, on October 18, 2013, the civil police went to the farm and shot at a group of men who had recently been hired to protect the area. Leomar was the only person killed in the operation. According to the investigation opened into the case, Leomar died in the farm caretaker’s house, where he was spending the night with the recently hired men.

At the time, the civil police told the local press that the operation was a response to reports of armed men on the Pantanal farm. Leomar was accused by the police of being the head of a gang “responsible for bank robberies, drug trafficking and occupation of farms”, according to a report in a local newspaper.

Elizete swears that Leomar was not involved in criminal activities and she came to her husband’s defense, denouncing the bribery scheme to the Internal Affairs Office of the Civil Police, which opened an internal administrative inquiry in January 2014. When contacted by Repórter Brasil, the Pará State Public Security and Social Defense Department said that “after the conclusion of the inquiry conducted by the Internal Affairs Office, the administrative case was shelved since it found the complaint to be groundless”.

A criminal investigation was opened into the death of Leomar, during which Elizete’s testimony was taken. The case is pending in the state courts.

When contacted for this report, the rancher declined to answer any questions about the Pantanal farm. Her lawyer, Olga Moreira, said that the case is still in the investigative stage and, as a result, her client preferred not to comment.

Association between the police and security guards

​Elizete’s testimony is not the only element to suggest that the Pará state police are working in concert with ranchers. Other evidence pointing in this direction is the fact that the security guards from the Santa Lúcia farm took part in the police action that resulted in the massacre on May 24. This has been confirmed by the prosecutor in the case, Alfredo Amorim. “The participation of security guards is completely irregular and at least one of them was armed. I know they were working for the farm,” said Amorim in an interview with TV Liberal.

Forensic officers at the Santa Lúcia farm. Photo by Antonio Carlos

Honorato Babinski Filho, the owner of the farm, said the responsibility for the management of his security guards lies with the company Elmo, which he contracted to handle the security of the farm. “I was not aware of the operation conducted by the police and likewise I did not know that the security guards had participated.”

The participation of the private security guards corroborates one of the suspected motives for the crime: revenge. This is because, on the day of the massacre, the police had gone to the farm to serve arrest warrants to ten landless laborers under investigation for the murder of Marcos Batista Ramos Montenegro, one of the farm’s security guards. Marcos died from a shot to the face on April 30 – less than a month before the massacre.

Survivors claim they heard the voice of the Civil Police Chief of Redenção, Antônio Miranda, ordering the executions. Officially, the police chief did not take part in the operation that resulted in the massacre.

“I heard Miranda saying: ‘kill them’,” said one witness who was hiding less than 70 meters away. “The others were crying. I heard them, they said: ‘I’m not going to run, for God’s sake’. They were alive. I heard the blows and then I didn’t hear them talking anymore. Just moaning, whimpering. Meanwhile, the police officers were laughing and shouting. Miranda’s voice was loud, excited, celebrating”.

Bodies of the victims at Redenção Hospital. Photo by: Antonio Carlos

When contacted for this report, the Pará State Security Department claimed that Police Chief Antonio Miranda was not present during the operation. “There is, therefore, no need for an investigation,” it said in a statement. The police chief was not relieved from duty.

The version of the confrontation initially released by the police was dismissed by the prosecutor investigating the case. Survivors said the police turned up shooting and then, after some of the landless workers surrendered, they were tortured and executed one by one.

The main line of investigation now is to discover which police officers fired their weapons, the reason for the executions and whether the police violence against those rural workers is associated with the payment of bribes by the ranchers. “One important aspect is to determine whether there is a record of systematic killings of rural workers by police officers in the region,” said Deborah Duprat, Deputy Federal Attorney General. “Another line of investigation involves the private security companies. I want to know if they are companies or organized militias”.

The workers that were camped at the Santa Lúcia farm and their relatives say that “everyone knows that the police receives money from landowners”. They claim that paying police officers to reinforce security on the farms is a common practice in the region.

One of the rural workers from the camp described, on condition of anonymity, how the occupations function and the alleged response of the farmers in association with the police: “Most of the farms here are created by land-grabbing [forging documents]. The group [of landless people] first determines whether the land is documented. If it isn’t, they gather their family together, set up camp and file a lawsuit. The farmer can either go to court, which is unlikely because in court he’ll spend more money. Or he’ll contract a different kind of service. Using security guards and gunmen, he’ll spend a lot less. The farmer turns up, pays and says ‘I want this done’. Then they [the police] go and do it”.

One month before the massacre, land repossession sparked an escalation of violence

Landless agricultural workers have been occupying the Santa Lúcia farm since 2013 on and off due to three land repossession cases. Before the massacre, the main leaders and most of the workers camped there all had close family ties. Of the ten people that were killed, seven were from the same family. They were not part of any formal movement, although they were engaged in dialogue with some organizations, including the Liga dos Camponeses Pobres (League of Poor Peasants).

One of the reasons leading the group to continue the occupation was a case opened by the  Colonization and Land Reform Agency (Incra), which was negotiating with the owners to purchase the farm for land reform purposes. Although the land occupied by the squatters was not being farmed, the Santa Lúcia property does raise cattle. The landless workers were challenging the farm’s documentation, alleging that the title was illegally obtained by forging land ownership documents.

In this land dispute that has been dragging on for four years, squatters who spoke to Repórter Brasil, on condition of anonymity, said relations with the security guards and the police have always been tense. But there was an escalation of violence a month before the massacre, starting on April 20 of this year, when the civil police went to enforce the third land repossession order at the Santa Lúcia farm.

At around this same time, the landowner Babinski Filho hired the security firm Elmo, which is now at the center of the investigation.

On the day of the repossession, according to the reports of the laborers, the police headed to the farm together with the private security guards. The name most mentioned by the laborers in their reports on this incident is, once again, the Civil Police Chief Antônio Miranda. “He called us a bunch of criminals occupying somebody else’s farm,” said one of the occupiers, only on condition of anonymity.

Also on the day of the repossession, another witness said the police officers and the private security guards oversaw the burning of the shacks: “One police officer got out of the car and told the gunman: “as soon as they’ve removed their belongings, set it on fire”. In a statement, one of the farm employees confirmed that two gunmen were hired specifically to burn the shacks.

One of the laborers reported that, although he tried to remove his belongings, his shack was burned while the police stood by. “The police were there with the gunmen, and they set it on fire. There were clothes, a mattress, food. We didn’t have time to save anything.”

Burning possessions is illegal and is indicative of the increased hostility towards the occupiers. To prevent such violations, the state government developed a protocol with a set of guidelines to be followed when enforcing land repossessions. This protocol was established in response to a massacre in the municipality of Eldorado dos Carajás in 1996, when 19 members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) were killed by the Military Police during a demonstration.

Left: funeral of the landless laborers killed in the Eldorado dos Carajás massacre; photo by João Roberto Ripper. Right: funeral of the agricultural laborers killed in the massacre; photo by Antonio Carlos

In April this year, however, the land repossession at the Santa Lúcia farm began by violating the first rule of the protocol: the operation should be carried out by a specialized police brigade from the state capital, Belém. Never by the civil or military police from the region.

The owner of the farm denies the abuses committed by the police and claims the repossession was peaceful. “All the formal and necessary procedures were observed. Including with the presence of a legal officer that notified the people,” said Honorato Babinski Filho, in an email sent by his lawyer.

Just days after the repossession, gunmen allegedly shot at the landless workers. The incident was recorded in police reports filed by three laborers at the Redenção police station. Repórter Brasil has all the documents.

One of the police reports was filed by Jane Julia de Oliveira. Her statement was taken on April 26 by Valdivino Miranda, the same officer who a month later commanded the operation that would take her life. Valdivino Miranda was still at liberty when we completed our reporting.

On April 30, one of the farm’s security guards Marcos Batista was shot in the face and killed. The investigation into the case is being conducted in secrecy and it is looking into the involvement of the laborers in the death of the security guard. Not long after the murder, the leaders of those landless workers started to receive anonymous threats by telephone. Friends and relatives said the pressure was mounting daily.

According to one witness, Jane – the leader of the occupation – feared for her life and she asked to stay at the witness’s house just days before the massacre. “She said ‘I’m going to stay here because there are two pickup trucks hanging around at home’,” said the witness. “They telephoned her from a restricted number and said ‘your day is coming, your time is coming’.”

State legislator Tércio Nogueira speaking at a rally in support of the police officers involved in the massacre. 13 of them were arrested this week

Rally in support of the police officers involved in the massacre

While the brutality of the case shocked human rights organizations locally and across Brazil, and the incident was addressed in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, authorities connected to the police in Pará staged a rally in support of the officers involved in the massacre.

Repórter Brasil covered the rally, which took place on May 29, three days after the funeral of the victims. At least two state legislators and one federal congressman made speeches, together with leaders of civil and military police associations.

“Farmers, rural producers, police officers and firefighters, you are not alone in this war,” said state legislator Tércio Nogueira, followed by applause. In the crowd, a banner made by the inactive military police officers of Redenção read “support for our colleagues of the Santa Lúcia episode in Pau D’Arco”.

Also present at the rally was the federal congressman Éder Mauro, who was investigated for torture in a case that was shelved by the Supreme Court. He was the most voted representative from Pará in 2014 and is a member of the pro-gun caucus in Congress.

After he returned to the State Legislature in Belém, Éder Mauro got into an argument and had to be restrained by his colleagues to stop the congressman from assaulting an opposition member, Carlos Bordalo. As president of the Human Rights Committee, Bordalo was one of the members responsible for drafting the report on the massacre.

One of the conclusions of the report was the possible motivation for the violence against the laborers: “it is plausible to assert that the operation had the veiled purpose of undermining any ability to reorganize the occupation, benefiting the supposed landowners and ending the land conflict once and for all”.

The latest murder, of Rosenildo Pereira de Almeida on July 7, is a sign that the investigation has still not reached the perpetrators of the crime. According to the Liga dos Camponeses Pobres (League of Poor Peasants), the organization of which the victim was a member, Rosenildo had been working on the reenactment of the crime that took place days earlier with the federal, civil and military police.



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