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By Sonya Alexander
There was a time when people embraced lore about banditos, men who eradicated
themselves from abject poverty by taking the law into their own hands. Often sharing their
wealth with people in their communities, their reputations flourished as heroes and they
soon transcended the status of mere mortals to become mythological figures. While the
American Wild West had the likes of Jesse James, Brazil’s sertão had Lampião.
Yet, long after bandits had vanished from the West, cangaceiros continued to thrive
in the sertão.
In the early 20th century, a new form of bandit emerged in Americaa figure
who was acclimated to a burgeoning industrialized societythe gangster. He
maintained many of the same codes of ethics as the old-world bandit, such as belief in
upholding honor, integrity and family responsibilities, and displayed a great sense of
However, unlike the bandit or the cangaceiro, he was able utilize a greater web
of protectors. Even though gangsters were usually from the working class, because they
functioned in what was considered a "New Country" where everyone was trying to
get a piece of the American pie, those "higher ups" or officials who helped them
were often in a similar financial boat as they were. While someone like Al Capone was
literally making a killing in Chicago, an Old World gangster was monopolizing the sertão
of Brazilhis name was Lampião.
Virgulino Ferreira da Silva was born July 7, 1897 in the Passagem das Pedras of the
Pernambuco region. His family’s ranch consisted of much vegetation and livestock, such as
goats, cattle and sheep. His father, José Ferreira dos Santos, also transported
merchandise throughout the immediate region via mule or burro. The Ferreira family was not
rich, but they were not poor either. They were of the land-owning class that existed
somewhere between the elite who dominated society and landless peasants. They had the
reputation of being hardworking and honest.
There was a division of responsibilities between family members and Virgulino, third of
nine children, was assigned the task of caring for the cattle, goats and sheep. Over time,
he became a skilled cowboy due to his expertise with his daily tasks. He also developed
skills as a craftsman, making leather goods such as saddles and bridles. Luckily, he did
have time to be a child and played the games of most children of his region such as the vaquejada
(rodeo) game or cangaceiros and police. As Virgulino grew up, he enjoyed more adult
games, like participating in dances or rodeos. All in all, he was a well-mannered,
good-looking young man who excelled at a number of things.
Unfortunately, all of his skills were steered in the wrong direction once he became
involved in the cangaço. Details about how he actually got involved with the cangaço
are murky, but all facts seem to point to his neighbor, José Saturnino. It seems that
hostility began between the Ferreiras and the Saturninos in 1916, when Virgulino was
nineteen. When the Ferreiras and their constable relative showed up at the tenants’ house,
accusing them of stealing goats, the Saturnino took this as a huge insult, even though it
was true. He then accused the Ferreira boys of mistreating his animals and stealing their
halters. While it is not proven if the Ferreira boys did this, if so, it was more than
likely an act of retaliation.
Maintaining a code of honor and avenging insult was an integral part of the code of the
backlands and the Ferreiras had already proven themselves as very valiant young men.
Whatever the cause, hostility between the families escalated and soon erupted into
violence. There was a squabble over trespassing over the Saturninos land and gun battle
ensued, with Virgulino’s brother, Antônio, suffering a wound to the hip. José Ferreira,
who was less controversial and more agreeable than his sons, decided to handle the matter
privately with the Saturninos. Since he had less power than they did, he was forced to
abide by their wishes, which were that he and his family move from their ranch. The
Ferreiras moved to their new ranch, the Poço do Negro, in Nazaré and were barred from
ever stepping on the Saturninos land again. The same policy also went for the Saturninosthey
could never step foot in Nazaré.
Unfortunately for José, he did not find the peace he was hoping to find with his move.
The Saturninos broke the agreement when Saturnino and his brother-in-law, José Nogueira,
showed up at market day in Nazaré to collect a debt. Virgulino and his uncle. Manoel
Lopez, decided to ambush them on their way home. A few shots were fired but no one was
injured. After this incident, Saturnino was hothe launched an attack of
fifteen men on Poço do Negro. Only Virgulino and his Uncle Manoel were there and they
were ready for the attack. Armed with heavy ammunition, they managed to wound one of
Saturninos men. From this point on the, due to the potential harm this attack presented to
the whole Ferreira family, the Ferreira boys felt they should be armed whenever they went
out and they felt they should look intimidating. They now adopted the dress and style of
professional bandits: they wore hats with the brims turned up, colorful kerchiefs around
their necks and cartridge belts crossed over their chests. They had cangaceiro
Sebastião Pereira, whom they knew well, as a role model. There was no turning back at
The Ferreira boys ran into much conflict in Nazaré and developed permanent reputations
as budding cangaceiros. They encountered a lot of resistance from most of the
Nazaré residents because most of the townspeople were related to the Saturninos or
Nogueiras. Eventually, an armed encounter occurred between the Ferreiras and the town’s
leading citizens, with brother Levino being shot in the arm. The boys were now in deep
trouble and had moved from the status of having a mere family rivalry to becoming
legitimate cangaceiros. Needless to say, the family had to move again for things
were getting too hot for them in Nazaré.
The Ferreira family now moved to Água Branca, where the boys uncle by marriage,
Antônio Matildes, resided. The family was not as well off as it had been, since they had
to sell a lot of cattle and land in the process. They were now bordering on living in a
desperate situation. Virgulino became such a skilled cangaceiro that he acquired
the nickname, Lampião, because he could fire a lever-action rifle so fast that it created
continuous light in the darkness. As things became more precarious in Água Branca, the
family was forced to move again. José, his wife, and their youngest son, João, decided
to travel together, while the other brothers traveled a different course, deciding to meet
up in Engenho.
This move would change Lampião’s life forever. His mother, who was in ill health at
the beginning of the journey, died upon arrival at Engenho. José was incredibly
distraught by this. He and João planned to leave the next morning when police troops, in
search of the Ferreira boys, attacked the house with gunfire. José, who was sitting on
the porch shucking corn, was shot to death. João, who never became a cangaceiro,
managed to escape. The brothers heard of their father’s death before they arrived and
located their brother João.
Whatever chance they had of entering "mainstream" society ended here. After
their mother and father’s death, the Ferreira brothers swore vengeance on the police. Up
to this point, Lampião had been a "tame cangaceiro," but this violent
act against his father turned him into a hardened criminal. The Ferreiras moved swiftly
and successfully into professional banditry. No one can say if mere circumstances led
these boys to a criminal life or if it was a combination of circumstances and traits they
already had. Whatever the case, all of the skills and talents they had were now geared
towards crime and life on the fringe of society.
On June 26, 1922, Lampião and his cangaço committed a crime that brought them
to the forefront of banditry. They raided the home of a baroness of Água Branca, a
wealthy widow of Joaquim Antônio de Siqueira Torres. Since she had many political ties
and associations with the police, Lampião looked at this as a way to exact revenge on
those who had killed his father, not to mention the considerable loot that would be
involved. Lampião arrived in Água Branca with fifty men and easily overtook the feeble
baroness. This event got his name into the newspaper, certainly not for the last time.
The next event that was a turning point in Lampião’s life was his encounter with Padre
Cícero. Padre Cícero was a man that many backlands people, particularly those in Ceará,
revered and considered almost a saint. He supposedly performed miracles and healed the
sick. Though Lampião was a criminal, he still held many religious beliefs. By the time he
met Padre Cicero in 1925, he already had a good many years of crime behind him. Lampião
prayed several times a day and wore a picture of Padre Cícero on his chest. In
fact, when he was killed he was carrying the "Prayer of the Crystal Rock" on
Not to jump ahead in the story, when Lampião met Padre Cicero, he was ready to repent
and turn over a new leaf. He sent a letter to Padre Cícero requesting a meeting. They met
and apparently had a good conversation. But because Padre Cícero was almost more of a
politician than a religious figure, he denied having met with Lampião or knowing him.
This devastated Lampião when he found out about it and he lost all faith in secular
things. This betrayal came also at the same time of his brother Levino’s death at the
hands of the Paraíba police. It is said that Lampião cut off his brother’s head to
prevent police from knowing Levino’s true identity. Lampião loved his brother dearly and
went into seclusion after his death.
Levino was the first Ferreira brother to die at the hands of the police. Brother
Antônio died purely by accident, wrestling with a gun in a hammock. The man who
accidentally killed him, Luís Pedro, was terrified that Lampião was going to kill him.
However, when he confessed, Lampião requested that he take Antônio’s place. He knew it
was an accident and did not hold him accountable for his brother’s death. Better death by
accident than by a volante (policeman).
Lampião had a long career of banditry, lasting until 1938, when police in Angicos
killed him in a sneak attack. The reasons his career lasted so long are layered, like the
man himself. If Lampião had been born in another social class, he probably would have
been a politician, for he not only instilled fear in people, but also admiration. His coiteiros,
people offering him shelter were many. In fact, the way police finally got to him was
by infiltrating and breaking down his widespread web of coiteiros. And how did he
do this? Simple. By making political moves. He would often share his wealth with poor
people in various communities, particularly during difficult times like a drought. In
fact, the New York Times labeled him "Robin Hood-like" in 1931. There
were some in Brazil, particularly Mossoró, who disagreed.
Besides being charitable, Lampião also maintained loyalty amongst friends and coiteiros
by instilling fear in them. Some of the retaliatory deeds he performed showed him to be a
cold, vicious killersomeone not to be crossed. For example, it was told that
Lampião captured a man who had turned against him, stood him in front of his wife and six
children and gorged his eyes out. He then shot him through the eye sockets.
Lampião and his brigand were also very clever in eluding the volantes. They
would do things like use tree branches to clear footprints, put sheepskin on the bottom of
shoes, walk backwards over their tracks or bury food skins so vultures wouldn’t circle.
These kinds of tactics made them elusive and frustrating to police for many years.
So, while Lampião and his gang were dominating the Brazilian sertão, Al Capone
was ruling Chicago. Because Lampião’s terrain and modus operandi were a little
more "primitive" he did not receive the recognition in the U.S. that he did in
South America. But according to facts and lore, he was the Original Gangster.
Sonya Alexander is a freelance writer who resides in Los Angeles and New
Orleans. She can be reached at (323) 769-5435 or e-mailed at Sonyaa2@excite.com
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