Brazil: 19 Years Later 3 Men Accused of Murdering Missionary Stand Trial

Nineteen years after the murder of Vicente Cañas Costa, a Jesuit missionary who lived with the Enawenê-Nawê people in the state of Mato Grosso, the man behind the murder and the two men who carried it out will stand trial.

The trial is scheduled to begin October 24 in Cuiabá, state of Mato Grosso, and it can set a remarkable example in the struggle to put an end to impunity in Brazil.

The crime was committed because Cañas supported the demarcation of the Enawenê-Nawê land and worked to ensure the availability of health care services to these people.

Two other men who were also reportedly behind the crime have died already. The lawsuit against the third defendant expired because of his old age.

Therefore, Ronaldo Antônio Osmar, a former chief of police in the city of Juí­na, where the crime was committed, Martinez Abadio da Silva and José Vicente da Silva will stand jury trial for aggravated homicide in exchange for money and in an ambush.

The penalties for aggravated homicide can vary from twelve to thirty years in prison. Former chief of police Ronaldo will also be judged for aggravating circumstances, since it is believed that he promoted or organized a cooperation scheme for committing the crime, as he led the criminal activity of the other people involved in it.

Vicente Cañas lived with the Enawenê people for 10 years. He took part in the first contacts between the group and non-indigenous people in 1974. He accompanied them in their traditional fishing and agricultural activities and in other daily activities.

In a region where verminosis was commonplace, he acted to prevent verminosis-related diseases. He organized immunization campaigns repeatedly to prevent infectious-contagious diseases such as measles, which decimated so many other indigenous groups in Brazil. The population of the Enawenê-Nawê amounted to 97 people when they were first contacted. Today, it amounts to 430 people.

He also fought for the demarcation of their traditional lands, which farmers who settled in the region coveted for, and was an official member of a Funai’s working group set up to identify their indigenous territory. For this reason, the competence for judging the defendants was transferred to a federal court.

After receiving death threats because of his commitment to ensuring the survival of the Enawenê-Nawê people, Vicente Cañas was a victim of the ambition and violence of farmers, who stabbed him to death in 1987 as he was getting ready to visit an indigenous village to take medicines there.

His murderers left him agonizing in pain in front of his tent and ran away through trails in the forest to the farm of one of the men who hired them to kill him.

His body was found only about forty days later. The investigations lasted for six years and the fact that the defendants were involved was revealed by indigenous people belonging to the Rikbaktsa group (canoeiros), who live in lands close to those of the Enawenê-Nawê.

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