The small town of Quedas do Iguaçu, in southern Brazil close to the border with Paraguay, awoke to the sound of helicopters on November 4 last year. After eight months, a police investigation aimed at an alleged criminal conspiracy within the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) was about to come to fruition. Sixteen arrest warrants were issued – 14 of them against members of the MST – in three police investigations.
The linking of these investigations was made possible by a law called the Criminal Organisations Act, which was initially intended primarily to combat organized crime such as drug trafficking and money laundering. Since coming into force in 2013, it has also been used against street protesters in Rio de Janeiro and defendants in the vast Car Wash corruption probe.
The MST, which was formed in 1984 here in the state of Paraná, is long used to conflict. The direct-action movement of 370,000 families has occupied an estimated 18.75 million acres of land in a country where rural poverty is common and land ownership is deeply unequal. Under certain circumstances, Brazilian law allows for the appropriate of unused land but the response from landowners and police has often been violent.
Seven members of the MST were remanded in custody that morning, the second time that law had been used against the movement in a few months. “The MST has always been criminalized. In the past, they accused them of forming gangs, for example,” said Fernando Prioste, a legal advisor to Terra de Direitos, a human rights NGO, adding that the law allows the authorities to link varied allegations back to supposed leaders. “It is also an accusation that increases the penalty in the case of a conviction.”
In Quedas do Iguaçu, occupations began in 1996 and the region has since gained one of the highest concentrations of families who have benefit from agrarian reform of anywhere in Brazil. According to the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), about 10,000 people live on more than 53,000 hectares of claimed land here and in a neighboring municipality.
The lands were legally appropriated from Araupel, a logging firm – and there are another 30,000 hectares that remain – for now – in the hands of several farmers and the company. It is this land that is at the centre of the current conflict, and the police investigation called Operation Castra.
The police investigation began after a complaint to public prosecutors from a resident of an MST camp, who reported that the movement had armed patrols. The report was passed onto the state government led by Governor Beto Richa – whose 2014 reelection campaign received BRL 150,000 (GBP 35,236) from Araupel – which then ordered the police to investigate “reports of various crimes.”
On March 8 last year, MST activists protesting against “the destructive model of agribusiness and its impacts on the environment” invaded a pine and eucalyptus seedling nursery owned by Araupel. Within half an hour, according to a police document, damage worth BRL 936,000 (GBP 219,909) was done to seedlings, sheds, furniture and a mobile laundry. A fire within the nursery caused further damage, according to police.
The next day, the MST targeted a nearby 2,000-hectare family farm for occupation, with the farmer’s son telling police that 30 militants had taken the farm over at 5am armed with shotguns. In another invasion the next day, two workers said the 15 militants were armed. MST members deny using firearms in their direct actions. “It was a peaceful occupation. It was not turbulent or threatening,” one activist present said. No weapons said to have been used in the action have been recovered by police.
Days later, police merged all three investigations under the Criminal Organisations Act. According to detective Anna Karyne Turbay Palodetto, there was evidence that elements within the MST were “associating [with each other] in an organised manner for the purpose of committing crimes.”
Despite being labeled as vagabonds by farmers and local press, the MST’s settlements are thriving. They plant organic corn, cassava, pumpkin, rice and beans, and build houses, churches and schools. In 2015, settlements in the region produced 150,000 liters of milk a day. “It is criminal for you to have such a large area and only plant pine,” said Elemar Cezimbra, an academic and a MST coordinator in Paraná.
“They came to kill us” from Agência Pública on Vimeo, part of its report ‘Crime or Conflict‘, interviews two survivors of the killing described below, who refute the police version of events.
Soon after all those events, on April 7, tragedy struck the MST camp. Police shot dead two landless laborers, Leonir Arback and Vilmar Bodin, and injured another seven. In total 128 shots were fired and all but one of the victims was shot from behind. Police said the MST members had fired first whereas the landless labourers said the police opened fire unprovoked.
Two seriously injured militants were taken to hospital. ”From the moment of the killings, we were barred from talking to the wounded,” said Claudemir Torrente Lima, a lawyer who defends MST members. “They were isolated, we made several attempts to talk to them and it was not allowed.”
Two MST members were arrested and charged with illegal possession of firearms and the attempted murder of police officers. Two firearms were recovered – the only ones found in any of the probes. Federal Police were brought in to investigate, and concluded it was impossible to tell who fired the first shot. No police officers have been indicted.
The deaths did not affect Operation Castra, which continued wiretapping MST members for eight months. Other accusations were fed into the investigation, including the claim from a farmer that the MST had stolen 1,300 cattle from his farm costing him BRL 5 million (GBP 1.18 million), which MST activists dismiss as a logistical impossibility.
Of the 16 people sought by the authorities, seven were remanded in custody on November 4. On May 17, a judge ordered their release. Prosecutor Leonir Battisti, however, said the charge they had formed a criminal organisation was well-grounded. “There are a number of people who happened to be in the movement and who behaved in a criminal manner. If they had a social purpose, it does not matter. Even then the law does not state that it is permissible to transgress the law.”
The police and the accused activists declined to comment.