Julian Rubinstein

After spending nearly a month in the western plains of Brazil with the Guarani Indians, I discovered that the tribe's "suicide" problem was much more complex than had been reported. The country's oldest and largest tribe was the target of a complex murder scheme involving money, land, and the chief of their own reservation. I slept with a knife in my hand after being warned that the chief of the reservation had sent his henchman after me. I continued reporting in the pre-dawn hours to avoid them. The most heartbreaking story I've worked on.

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From Rolling Stone June 8, 2000

From Rolling Stone: They Call It Suicide

An Investigation into the Mysterious Deaths of the Guarani Indians of Brazil

By Julian Rubinstein

When Brazil was discovered we were a great nation. Today we inhabit the margins of this country with no way to live. Even our survival is in danger as we are being murdered on this land.
– Guarani Indian leader Marcal de Souza in 1980, three years before his own murder, addressing the Pope who was touring Brazil

The air here had been swirling ominously through the night and now, barely dawn on a morning that light never intended to visit, a vicious rain is pelting the black tarpaulin coverings that tautly stretch across the roofs of six, small thatched bamboo huts. A thin, blurred outline of the young Guarani kasich (chief) Aguillera De Souza, emerges from a patch of banana trees. He is dressed in jeans, white t-shirt, and flip-flops, running with his young son cradled in his arms, bundled heavily in woolen blankets.

In a small, maroon car parked on the ridge overlooking this scene I anxiously wait with an interpreter, both of us dry and white, hoping good intentions will gain us the trust of this eternally betrayed people.

A squat elderly woman wearing thick bands of beads and loose clothing emerges from one of the huts and takes the baby from Aguillera. His wife, who looks no more than 15 in her pigtails, stands under a thatched porch, her feet sunken into the soaked, red earth. Three half-naked children and a puppy huddle nearby while two thin men in dirty baseball caps and jeans venture out in the rain to survey what the stormy night has wrought.

Aguillera scrambles up the ridge and, shivering, accepts our invitation to talk in the shelter of the car. The reason we are here at this makeshift, refugee camp five miles south of the largest Guarani reservation in the country is obvious. “We don’t accuse officially because we don’t have proof,” Aguillera says in perfect Portuguese, of the rumor that many of the staggering numbers of suicides among his tribe may in fact be murders. Aguillera is 22, a descendant of the legendary Marcal de Souza, the new voice of a disappearing people who have fled their own reservation in fear. “But why would intelligent, happy people, minutes after a party, be hanging in a banana tree?”

For the last decade, the Guarani Indian reservation just outside the city of Dourados in the central western Brazillian state of Mato Grosso Do Sul—well south of the Amazon—has had one of the highest suicide rate in the world. More than 160 Guarani on a reservation of 9,000 have taken their lives between 1990 and 1999, an average annual rate some 16 times that of the United States and 26 times the rest of Brazil.

The federal Indian protection agency, FUNAI, does not deny there is a problem. But rocked with scandal and corruption of its own, it has done little to identify it, even despite recent evidence—including the arrest of the reservation’s leader Ramao Machado on charges of attempted murder—that a genocide of Brazil’s largest remaining Indian tribe could be taking place.

The international community has also been silent primarily because the trusted defenders of the Guarani—the Evangelical mission that runs the main school and hospital on the reservation; and the wide-reaching and well-respected Catholic mission, CIMI—say they do not believe there is foul play involved in the suicides, pointing instead to alcoholism, drugs, poverty, and perhaps the loss of spiritual identity in an increasingly white-dominated world. In addition, the charges against the reservation’s elected leader Machado were dropped and he has been returned to the land.

Lindomar Cavalheiro's funeral

At Lindomar Cavalheiro’s funeral, his mother cried so hard she passed out. His death was one of a string of “suicides” that gave the Guarani the reputation as having the highest suicide rate in the world. But the suspicious deaths were never investigated.

But a 38-year-old police photographer in Dourados, Waldemar “Russo” Gonzalez, to whom I was led after asking around the frontier-like streets of Dourados, was unflinching. “Look into my eyes,” he says to me one night in the safety of a friend’s enclosed back porch. “I’ve taken the photographs of every suicide here in the last eight years. Ninety percent of them are murders. Ninety. What can I do? The police don’t care, FUNAI doesn’t want to hear about it. Can you imagine me trying to eat, trying to make love….” Tears begin running down his face as he taps my arm and then reaches into his bag to give me copies of his official photographs he says he has saved for this purpose. “Show these to as many people as you can.”

When Portuguese explorer Pedro Cabral discovered Brazil exactly 500 years ago this April, the Guarani Indians were the first natives he encountered. The great tribe dominated the region in those days numbering as many as two million. They are still the largest tribe in Brazil at approximately 30,000 and shrinking.

The plight of the Guarani, however, has kept a relatively low profile in comparison to some of the more isolated tribes in the jungles to the north, perhaps in part because the Guarani’s existence today is far from isolated or exotic. In the late 1980’s, international human rights groups, led by celebrities such as Sting and Bianca Jagger, were able to force the government to ensure the preservation of some tribes, such as the Yanomami in the Amazon. But the Guarani have never become anyone’s cause and the government agency set up to protect them has repeatedly ignored their desperate pleas for help.

“When there is a case that has major public attention and a lot of political pressure, FUNAI will try to do something,” says Ana Valeria, a lawyer and board member of Socioambiental, a nongovernmental group based in Sao Paulo that works to defend Guarani rights. “But the Guarani have never been a major case in Brazil and one of the main reasons is that Brazilians themselves, when they think about the Indians, they think of the Amazon and they don’t think about the poor Indians who are in southern areas who don’t look like Indians anymore. The Guarnani don’t receive much attention so FUNAI couldn’t care less about them.”

What is left of the forest they once roamed has long since been razed for timber by Brazilian companies. Instead of inhabiting the natural jungle, the largest concentration of Guarani have, since 1922, been forced to live less than a mile from the small city of Dourados. Each day hundreds of Guarani wander the city streets in tattered pants and shirts, trotting their children onto front lawns and porches of homes to beg for food by clapping their hands. “In the north there is gold and timber,” says Gonzales, the police photographer, who used to live in Boa Viste in the Amazon region. “Here there is only misery, poverty, and corruption.”

The ruddy, desolate reservation itself lies only a five minute ride south of town, and if you enter it from the back, as we did after being denied official entry without explanation by FUNAI, you will snake along a narrow, uneven dirt road with flattened, unsewn fields of colunia weed on both sides. It is a precarious drive not just because there are no signs marking the way and the ruts are so deep you could easily be stuck for hours with the smallest twitch of your wrist, but also because you will hear from most whites in the area that the reservation is like an animal kingdom where there are no laws, that Indians kill at will, and often randomly.

The white man understands little about the Indians, though there is a basis for their fear. Under Brazilian law, Indians are considered wards of the state and therefore not responsible for their own behavior. For instance, if a murder is committed on Indian land, even if someone is found accountable (which is rare because there is no funding or staff to do more than the most cursory of investigations), there is no penalty so long as the accused can show that they did not understand what they were doing. Visitors to the reservation need federal approval yet still anyone who has been there will warn you to tell as many people as possible of your whereabouts, a precaution we did not take fearing reprisals from FUNAI, which had gone as far as threatening us with prosecution if we were found anywhere near any Indian territories.

The reservation rises sleepily from the surrounding flatland in small, hilly patches, some filled with soy, manjorca and rows of corn; others merely rough, brown fields. Every quarter mile or so there are cul-de-sac-like clearings bearing groupings of small bamboo huts. Along the edges of many of these are large, sloping dark mounds of dirt marking the deceased. At night when clouds cover up the huge sky of stars, the deep blackness of the piled soil appears to shine in an otherwise colorless cyclorama.

Around noon on a breezy, spring afternoon, two sisters no more than 18 years old are sitting in the dirt with babies in their laps in front of their family’s two, dirt-floored, one-room huts (one for cooking, one for sleeping). As we approach they lower their gaze to the pot of water they are warming over a fire. The piercing, painful sound of one of the babies coughing is all that animates this lifeless tableau. Staring hypnotically into the fire, the woman with the coughing baby says that her husband no longer works in the fields here. He is away working at the sugar cane plantation, where she says he makes an ample living.

Those factories, however, where thousands of Guarani are bused to work 55-days at a time, are notoriously dangerous and unregulated. The Indians, who are not eligible for a regular federal working card that gives them health or other benefits, are paid in scrip that is redeemable only at the few stores and bars on the reservation where prices are marked up two and three times retail. Yet most of them, likely including this woman’s husband, have no other way to make a living at home because FUNAI has provided only one tractor for the entire 8,819-acre reservation. Worse, the reservation’s captain Ramao Machado and perhaps a few other powerful Indians—apparently with FUNAI’s cooperation—have leased as much as 60 percent of the fertile crop land here to local farmers.

I heard no complaints. Some, such as a stick-thin 15-year-old boy named Serginho, nervously claimed not even to know captain Machado. But his friend, Lindomar Cavalheiro, who is buried under a mound of dirt just beyond Serginho’s home, had at least heard the name. Hours before his death, he is said to have overheard that Machado was planning to attack one of his neighbors, a Guarani leader who had recently spoken out against the way the reservation was being run. He was found hanging by a T-shirt on a banana tree on January 16, 1998, the fifth recorded suicide in the span of two weeks. At his funeral, under a cloudless blue sky and scorching hot sun, many of the hundreds of mourners broke Guarani tradition of a peaceful burial and raged that it is not physically possible for a 140 pound boy to hang by the flimsy branch of a banana tree.

Diary entry, June 3, 1985

My house has been invaded by five hitmen of Ramao Machado at about 12 noon just because I went to watch the new FUNAI delegate’s inauguration. The five men got to my house without saying anything. One of them was already holding his gun in his hand, pulling me ahead without any explanation. They just told me that I should go with them to the captain Ramao Machado’s house. I didn’t owe them or anybody else anything, and being afraid of what they could do with me I didn’t want to die that way. I managed to escape and I had to spend the night in the forest without eating dinner and without shelter while Ramao Machado sends his hitmen to hunt Indians as if they were criminals and the real criminals against Indians are still free today.
Ramao Machado was not chosen by the Indian people. He’s been put in power by FUNAI. During the 13 years he has been captain, the Guarani and Caiowa Indians have suffered himiliation, disrespect, health problems and death as a result of the violence. Ramao Machado has never defended the Indians. He does not even speak any Indian language. This is my testimony,
Teodoro de Souza (relative of Marcal de Souza and father of Aguillera de Souza)

Another young Guarani is found dead

Another young Guarani is found dead

The last time the world took notice of the plight of the Guarani was in 1983 with the murder of the popular Guarani leader from Dourados Marcal de Souza, who was killed while squatting with other Guarani Indians on land owned by a wealthy white farmer not far from the reservation.

The Catholic mission, CIMI, says it believes Marcal’s death was ordered by the rich white owner of the land, and the international media, widely quoting CIMI, seized on the story as the latest atrocity in the centuries old exploitation of the Indians by the white man. But incredibly, when I asked Marcal’s descendants, many of whom are now fleeing the same reservation for a white-owned ranch under similar circumstances, they say it was not the white man who killed Marcal but other Indians. “Indians killed Marcal,” says the young chief Aguillera de Souza. “Ramao Machado’s group was involved. They kill every intelligent Indian.”

A hulking but charismatic man of 57, Machado, who wears cowboy hats and boots, rides around the reservation in a shiny, red pickup truck, carries a cell phone and lives in one of the few brick houses on the reservation. He holds the elected position of captain, a post created by FUNAI more than 30 years ago ostensibly to help coordinate aid and other programs with FUNAI.

Machado is not a Guarani, however, but a Terena Indian, whose parents were placed on the Dourados reservation by FUNAI in the 1950’s along with a few thousand other Terenas. FUNAI hoped the Terenas, who were known for their adaptability, would teach the less progressive Guarani how to farm and survive in modern Brazil where they are increasingly in contact with white society. But many of the Guarani who have fled the reservation seem to rue this notion and disdainfully point out, as if it is evidence alone to discredit Machado, that he does not speak any Indian language. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Terenas comprise only about 30 percent of the 9,000 Indians on the reservation, Machado has been its leader for much of the last 25 years.

Last May, however, Machado was arrested by federal police on charges of attempted murder (allegedly pointing and firing a gun at the wife of a Guarani leader), as well as a charge of destruction of Indian customs, for allegedly burning traditional prayer houses and smashing religious items. He was released after federal authorities were forced to plead with him to call a halt to what appeared to be an astonishing display of support from his people: for four days straight, almost the entire reservation—several thousand Indians—blockaded the major artery from Paraguay through central Brazil ostensibly protesting his capture.

Even today, Machado points to this moment as an example of his almost messianic popularity and of the harmony that exists between the Guarani and Terena Indians of Dourados. “We are all one people,” he says with emphasis on the one. “Look at the way they marched for me. I am working to help my people. We are very poor. We have not one river to fish, no wood to burn. But we are working to find ways to get resources and survive.”

But the story of the protest is not so simple. “We were rounded up by FUNAI and told there was a protest for Indian rights,” says Aguillera, the young chief who has fled the reservation. “They promised us extra food baskets if we painted our faces. When we found out it was a rally for Ramao, we were outraged.” As the blockade was still going, several Guarani chased down Machado’s son and beat him so severely he was in intensive care for three days.

The tension between the Guarani and Machado’s supporters had been building since the day in August, 1997 when Machado was re-elected captain 12 years after having reluctantly stepped down from the post amid accusations of violence and forcing women to work in the fields wearing only underwear. Just prior to his re-election that summer of 1997, five Guarani chiefs had organized a major effort they hoped would finally end the decades-long reign of non-Indian influence over their world and insure the sanctity of their ways. The movement had enough support that the two elected captains at the time (the reservation had been divided into two parts for easy rule) had reluctantly signed a resolution agreeing to expel the white farmers and eliminate the captain position. But two days before the resolution was to go into effect, Machado called his own election, rounded up an unknown number of people to vote and declared himself the newly elected leader.

The months that followed were defined by lawlessness, unrest and an escalation of the “suicide” rate. In early January 1998, a Guarani woman named Ramona Duarte, who had last been seen on the reservation with three men, was found dead in a creek, naked from the waist down. Days later a 14-year-old Guarani, Eli Goncalves Olmedo, was found hanging in a berry tree after telling his parents he was going next door for tea. Twenty year old Aguimar Peixote was found hanging by a nylon strap shortly after being publicly beaten by what was described to me by relatives as “the captain’s mafia” on his way home from the funeral of a boy named Josue Serrano. Josue himself had been found hanging fromj a thin branch of a banana tree, his feet dragging on the ground. Then there was 16-year-old Lindomar Cavalheiro who—after having accidentally overheard that Machado was planning to attack his neighbor, one of the authors of the 1997 resolution—was found hanging by a banana branch that could not possibly hold his body.

Because Lindomar’s death was officially recorded as the fifth suicide in just two weeks, a handful of local journalists attended his funeral, where they heard the rage pour out of the approximately 300 mourners. Lindomar’s mother, who was pregnant, screamed until she passed out.

Afterward, when the reporters walking back across the field to their cars, they were suddenly surrounded by 20 men.

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