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19 Years Later, Brazilian Jury Acquits Defendant on Missionary Death

The seven jurors of the second trial related to the murder of Cimi’s  (Indianist Missionary Council) missionary Vicente Cañas Costa, who was killed 19 year ago, decided by six votes against one that the Jesuit missionary was murdered and that clubs or a white weapon (such as a knife) caused his death.

However, by five votes against two, the same jurors acquitted the defendant José Vicente da Silva, who had been charged with committing the crime.

The result was announced Wednesday night, November 8, three days after the beginning of the trial, which was held in the auditorium of the federal court in Cuiabá, capital of the state of Mato Grosso, and was presided over by judge Jéferson Schneider.

After receiving death threats because of his commitment to ensuring the survival of the Enawenê-Nawê people, Costa was stabbed 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.

The Federal Prosecutor’s Office announced that it will appeal against the sentence, as it did in relation to the trial held between October 24 and 29, when Ronaldo Antonio Osmar was acquitted of the charges of being one of the men who contacted the murderers of the missionary to hire them to kill him at the request of the person who wanted him dead.

"When justice is slow to act, it is not effective," said attorney Mário Lúcio Avelar, who coordinated the prosecution, at the end of the trial. "One of the defendants participated in the investigations, only years later they were assigned to the Federal Police, and they were not fast enough. This shows how incompetent the Judiciary and Federal police are. And it also shows that when political and economic interests are involved, they are stronger than local forces," he said.

The assistant prosecuting attorney, Dr. Michael Nolan, agrees that it is difficult to prosecute cases marked by problems since the initial investigations. "There is not a single piece of evidence in the records prepared by the police. They did not produce any evidence," she said. Evidence was only produced years later through parallel investigations carried out by indigenous entities.

The judge in charge of the trial, Jeferson Schneider, said that the proceedings had strengths and weaknesses. "The negative aspect was the time that the case lasted. Everybody knows that the agencies in charge of ensuring justice in Brazil are slow. As a result, values protected by the Federal Constitution, such as the right to life, are disregarded.

"Proceedings like this one are innocuous. They don’t build a society and make you feel that impunity tends to prevail. The positive side is that the proceedings are finally over. My duty was to complete the process and hold a jury trial. And this was done."

The trial

During the discussions which closed the trial, Mário Lúcio Avelar tried to prove that there was material evidence that a murder had been committed. He also located the crime in the conflicting context of the city of Juí­na when it was committed and then described the motive of the crime, namely, that farmers such as Pedro Chiquetti and Camilo Carlos í“bice were interested in indigenous lands. Although they were charged with the crime, both farmers are dead now.

The defendant José Vicente da Silva worked in the Londrina farm deforesting land, as he said in his deposition on Monday. The Londrina farm is the rural property mentioned in the depositions of the indigenous persons Paulo Tompeba and Adalberto Pito, who heard reports of the murder on two different occasions, both in 1989.

José Vicente is the defendant who was accused of being one of the members of the group that killed Cañas at the request of the man who later would become his boss, Pedro Chiquetti.

The thesis of the prosecutors is that the group of which José Vicente da Silva was a member reached the shack of the Cimi missionary using a trail that started in the Londrina farm. This trail was only identified in 1990 by indigenous people.

"The depositions coincide with the crime scene and confirm that the trail was used by the group to reach the shack," said Cláudio Comte, who late in the 1980s was hired by the indigenous organization Opan to collect information on the murder after it was seen that the investigations carried out by the police were not advancing, a fact which Comte blames on the involvement of the former chief of police of Juí­na, Ronaldo Osmar, in the murder.

At that time, Cláudio analyzed the diaries kept by missionary Vicente Cañas and found different reports of attempted land invasions in them, many of which had been carried out by another farmer who later on would be indicted in connection with the murder, Camilo Carlos í“bice.

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