On and off camera, Brazilian vigilantes dispense controversial frontier justice

February 17, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- A horrifying videotape of the lynching of three criminals on a frontier ranch has renewed controversy over the methods by which Brazilians, in the absence of a working legal system, often seek to impose ad hoc justice.

In a video filmed by an amateur photographer and broadcast to a stunned national television audience in January, three men who had taken women and children hostage in a robbery were beaten, kicked, drenched in gasoline and set afire by residents of a town in Mato Grosso state, about 1,700 miles northwest of Rio.

"Oh God, let me die," one of the criminals screams through the flames.

"Does anyone have a revolver? He's suffered enough," a voice cries from the mob.

"No, let him die slowly," insists another.

After viewing the video, President Fernando Collor demanded that the mob leaders be brought to justice, the Rio newspaper Jornal do Brasil reported.

Although the killings took place Nov. 22, they came to national attention only after a Mato Grosso priest sent the video to a human rights group in Brasilia.

Some argue that the killings reflect growing public frustration with the government's inability to control crime. But Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who has studied the phenomenon as director of Sao Paulo's Center for the Study of Violence, said he had never seen a lynching that was a form of "spontaneous justice."

"They are invariably provoked by the police or some other local authority," he said.

Sociologist Jose de Souza Martins of the University of Sao Paulo counted 272 lynchings in a study of 1979-1989 news accounts.

In one well-publicized 1984 case, a 33-year-old man was seized in a working-class Sao Paulo neighborhood, handcuffed and dragged before a barroom kangaroo court of 100 residents, accused of armed robbery and condemned to death by public vote.

The screaming victim was stoned to death in the street outside.

Three years ago, 20 men invaded a jail in northern Maranhao state and seized a laborer accused of the murder of his 23-year-old lover, who had been stabbed 11 times. The mob strung up the captive, cutting off his ears and castrating him before stabbing him 11 times in retribution.

Occasionally, public fury has nearly led to the deaths of innocents, as in the 1990 case of a team of portrait photographers mistakenly accused of being a gang of kidnappers by residents of a Rio slum. A shotgun-toting policeman held a mob at bay until the photographers could escape.

Few lynchings have been as brutal or well publicized as the fiery killings in Mato Grosso.

After the three victims were turned over to the mob by police, the video cameraman filmed their interrogation.

"Why did you do this robbery?" a mob leader asks.

"For lack of money," answers Arci Garcia, one of the robbers.

"What are you thinking?" the mob leader questions.

"I'm afraid to die," Garcia answers.

"And you didn't think of that before committing your crime? Didn't you think of working . . . instead of robbing . . . an honest person?" the mob leader persists.

Later in the video, the victims appear bloodied from beatings and gunshot wounds. Men in the mob douse them with gasoline.

"Light them afire!" the crowd shouts.

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