Brazilian assassin nabbed in Somerville

On May 8, 2006, in Uncategorized, by The News Staff

Brazilian assassin nabbed in Somerville
By Benjamin Witte

     The Dept. of Homeland Security last week disclosed that in late April, special agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested a twice convicted Brazilian hit man believed to have been hiding out in Somerville for the past several years. ICE is the department‚Äôs largest investigative arm.
      On April 25, ICE operatives, working in collaboration with Brazilian authorities and the State Department‚Äôs Bureau of Diplomatic Security, arrested 40-year-old Jose Serafim Sales, ICE revealed in a May 2 press release. The arrest took place in Somerville, though ICE will not say specifically where at what time of day the operation was carried out.

    ‚ÄúThis is obviously a dangerous man who was in Somerville. There can be no doubt as to how dangerous the individual is,‚Äù said Michael Gilhooly, ICE‚Äôs director of communications for the northeast region. While ICE is doing ‚Äúeverything in its power‚Äù to get Sales back into Brazilian custody, for now, said Gilhooly, ‚Äúhe‚Äôs going nowhere. He‚Äôs going to remain in our custody while we determine the process.‚Äù
      Sales, also known by the nickname ‚ÄúBarrerito,‚Äù hails from the northern Brazilian state of Par√°, a big portion of which borders on the southern bank of the Amazon river. It was there, in a small town named Rio Maria, that at approximately 9 p.m. on Feb. 2, 1991, Sales shot and killed Expedito Ribeiro de Souza. President of the local Union of Rural Workers (STR) and a founding member of the local Communist Party, Ribeiro de Souza, 43, was also a farmer, poet and the father of 10 children.
       Like the title of a famous Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Ribeiro de Souza‚Äôs demise was truly a chronicle of death foretold. High levels of violence have been endemic to the Amazonian region for years. In Rio Maria, in the just the few years leading up to Ribeiro de Souza‚Äôs death, several other union leaders ‚Äì including his immediate predecessor ‚Äì had been killed, along with scores of other people. It was common knowledge, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in 1991, that the outspoken union leader had a price on his head.
        ‚ÄúAt the time,‚Äù HRW wrote in a separate report (1993), ‚Äú[Ribeiro de Souza] was the fifth person associated with the STR union who had been killed in the Rio Maria area of Par√° in a period of 10 months.‚Äù
         Behind the region‚Äôs violence, according to HRW, lie issues of land ownership. A handful of wealthy landowners controls vast tracts of, in many cases, largely unoccupied land, while countless peasants, people reliant on farmland to eke out a meager subsistence, have none to speak of. A common response by these peasants is to squat or homestead on unoccupied land. While the practice has its champions ‚Äì union organizers like Ribeiro de Souza, some members of the clergy, activist lawyers and others ‚Äì squatting can often invite violent responses from landowners.
        ‚ÄúThis violence,‚Äù wrote HRW, ‚Äúis most often directed at rural squatters, leaders of rural unions, indigenous people, and lawyers, clergy and activists who support the rural poor‚Ķ Violence sometimes takes the form of assassination of rural union leaders and their supporters.‚Äù
         That is exactly what happened with Ribeiro de Souza. According to Brazilian authorities, a local landowner named Jeronimo Alves Amorim, with help from with his farm manager, Francisco de Assis Ferreira, contacted Sales and paid the assassin to murder Ribeiro de Souza.
         Because of the high-profile nature of the case (Ribeiro de Souza was well-known to HRW, Amnesty International and other groups), local authorities responded with uncharacteristic resolve. Police captured both Sales and Ferreira, who were both quick to confess and implicate Amorim as the ‚Äúintellectual author‚Äù of the crime. Four years later, following several venue changes and trial postponements, the two men were finally convicted on murder charges. They were sentenced to 24 and 20-year prison terms respectively. A warrant had meanwhile been issued for the arrest of Amorim, though police wouldn‚Äôt catch up with him until 1999, when Interpol agents nabbed him in Cancun, Mexico. On Jun 6, 2000, Amorim received his own conviction and jail sentence ‚Äì 19.5 years.
          Overall, the police response and eventual court convictions were hailed as a breakthrough against the long entrenched impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of these types of rural assassinations. ‚ÄúMost killers of rural workers and activists enjoy almost total impunity,‚Äù HRW reported in 1991. ‚ÄúAccording to statistics compiled by the CPT [Christian Peacemaker Teams], trials took place in only 17 of the 1,566 murders of rural workers, Indians, lawyers, church workers and others linked to the land conflict from 1964 to 1989.‚Äù Of those 17 trials, only eight ended with convictions.
           But while the sentencing of first Sales, Ferreira and later Amorim may have made some positive impact in boosting the region‚Äôs paltry conviction record, they didn‚Äôt, as it turns out, result in the long prison terms originally decreed. By 2000, as Alves Amorim was headed to jail, Ferreira was on his way out ‚Äì released on Parole. Sales ‚Äì ‚ÄúBarrerito‚Äù ‚Äì meanwhile, escaped, likely with the help of prison guards. Even before that, residents in Rio Maria had complained of seeing the convicted killer walking freely through their town. ‚ÄúOn the 14th and 15th of May [1997], Barrerito was in Rio Mari, walking visibly on the streets and visiting people known to be linked to organized crime,‚Äù reported the Rio Maria Committee, an international organization founded in direct response to Expedito Ribeiro de Souza‚Äôs 1991 murder. Because of ‚Äúgood behavior,‚Äù Sales had apparently been allowed temporary leave to visit his family. As for the man who funded the assassination, Alves Amorim has reportedly been allowed ‚Äì for health reasons ‚Äì to carry out his sentence in the comfort of his own luxury estate.
        Following his escape in March, 2000, Barrerito returned to Rio Maria where, according to a 2001 Amnesty International (AI) report, he was protected from arrest by the same powerful landlords and politicians with whom he had long collaborated. AI also reported that violence in southern Par√° had reached ‚Äúcritical levels.‚Äù At the time the AI report was filed (November), eight rural activists had been killed so far that year. Sales himself was implicated in the Nov. 4 murder of a former advisor to the then mayor of Rio Maria.
         Its not clear exactly when Sales made his way north and into the United States, though according to ICE‚Äôs Michael Gilhooly, the Brazilian assassin ‚Äì prior to his arrest ‚Äì had been living in Somerville for the past three years. Beyond that, ICE has been characteristically tight-lipped about the operation. Brazilian newspapers, however, have reported recently that ICE can thank a television program for its success in locating the fugitive. On April 25, the same day Sales was arrested, Rede Globo ‚Äì Brazil‚Äôs largest television channel ‚Äì aired Sales‚Äô story on a program called ‚ÄúLinha Directa‚Äù (Direct Line). Brazilians living here, according to reports, recognized Sales and tipped off local police. The Brazilian media also reported that Sales is being held here in Massachusetts pending his extradition to Brazil.

 

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