In Brazil’s Amazon, there’s little political cost to destroying the rainforest

Terrence McCoy, who covers Brazil for The Washington Post, visited a remote, illegally built town within Indigenous territory for this story.

SÃO FÉLIX DO XINGU, Brazil — Word was spreading across the Indigenous territory: The land invaders were preparing to attack. Remote villagers said they were surrounded by armed horsemen. Authorities warned of violence. A neighboring tribe said that “blood could be spilled at any moment.” And in one bitterly disputed stretch, a slight man stood before a wooden house, fearing that such a moment had arrived.

Kawore Parakanã, a leader of the Parakanã people, had ventured miles into the jungle in May with three warriors to track the invasions that have made this Indigenous land in Pará state one of the Amazon’s most deforested. Up ahead lay an illegal clearing. Beyond it was a wooden shack. Outside the dwelling, a chain saw coughed awake.

“Kawore,” one of the warriors said, “someone is home.”

They considered their options. One was to fight, to take back the land. But they had traveled unarmed, and Kawore believed they’d be killed. Another was to seek help — but from whom? He couldn’t go to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who says restrictions within Indigenous territory have impeded the country’s economic development. He couldn’t go to the surrounding communities, populated by newcomers who eye his territory with avarice.

But most of all, he couldn’t go to the mayor, one of the most powerful and feared men in the Amazon, known by some as “the god of São Félix.”

It’s not just that Mayor João Cleber Torres had aligned himself with the land grabbers. It’s that he has been described — by federal attorneys, police, news reporters, government-funded researchers and a federal judge — as one himself.

Torres moved to São Félix do Xingu in 1981, when it was little more than dense forest. He is then alleged to have built what federal attorneys described in an internal memo as a large criminal organization that butchered the jungle — first extracting its precious wood, then stealing the land and selling it to be cleared for pasture. Torres, attorneys wrote in the memo, orchestrated “dozens of homicides,” assembled a network of 100 gunslingers, and violently seized territory from the weak and the isolated, including in this very Indigenous territory.

Police reports show that he was investigated for homicide in 2002. His criminal file links him to two cases of attempted homicide in 2003 and 2005. Records indicate that he has been charged with illegal deforestation, fined more than $2.4 million for deforestation and accused by federal attorneys, in 2016, of subjecting farmworkers to slavery-like conditions.

The catchphrase that one Brazilian journalist and residents attribute to him: “Either you sell the land to me, or I’ll buy it from your widow.”

Torres, 61, has never been convicted of any crime. He said he opposes illegal deforestation and has always followed environmental laws. He dismissed all allegations of wrongdoing as unproven and said publishing them would potentially be a “criminal act against my honor.”

“In our country, we have a well-structured, well-designed justice system, based on fundamental juridical principles and guided by international human rights,” Torres said in a statement. “No one else is authorized to act as the judiciary, issuing moral convictions against my name, as is happening here, gravely wounding our justice system and my fundamental rights.”

TOP: An aerial view of a clearing opened by Erasmino Ferreira do Santos, a non-Indigenous settler who resides inside Apyterewa Indigenous Territory near São Félix do Xingu in Brazil’s Pará state, as seen on May 25.
LEFT: Kawore Parakanã, 33, a leader of the Parakanã people who live in the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory. RIGHT: Erasmino Ferreira do Santos, 71, a settler in the Apyterewa territory.

In a region where people amass wealth and power through deforestation, and where the local leaders charged with enforcing environmental laws are often the very people alleged to have broken them, Torres is just one of many Amazon officeholders accused of environmental misdeeds. But few command a city as vast or ecologically threatened as São Félix, which routinely posts some of Brazil’s highest deforestation and carbon emission rates.

One of its most endangered forests belongs to the Parakanã in the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory, where Kawore stood watching the wooden house.

The only thing he could do, he decided, was flee. It was too dangerous to confront the invader. He also worried about antagonizing Torres. In January, three environmentalists had been killed along a forested patch of the Xingu River that property records show had been claimed by the mayor’s brother. The crime remains unsolved. The Torres brothers have denied involvement, but that hadn’t quieted the suspicions in the community.

Kawore turned to leave. He wouldn’t go to the wooden house. He wouldn’t meet the man who lived there, Erasmino Ferreira do Santos, 71. He wouldn’t hear Ferreira say how he’d come to this land, hacked down the forest to graze cattle and felt no remorse. The settler knew the mayor was on his side.

“The best person,” Ferreira said. “He helps us so much.”

Awapinima Parakanã walks on the Parakanã village trail that passes through several areas of deforestation caused by non-Indigenous occupants of the Apyterewa territory.

Awapinima Parakanã walks on the Parakanã village trail that passes through several areas of deforestation caused by non-Indigenous occupants of the Apyterewa territory.

‘Why do people vote for them?’

In the Amazon, there is little political cost to destroying the forest. Here, a vice mayor in Mato Grosso is cited three times for deforestation and is reelected the next year. A mayor in Amazonas is arrested and accused by federal police of participating in a protest that destroyed an environmental law enforcement base — and stays in office. The “King of Gold Mining,” as he was dubbed by a national magazine, is sentenced to nearly five years for illegal deforestation — but coasts to reelection as a mayor in Pará.

Such cases are not rare.

A Washington Post analysis of thousands of federal infractions and candidate data in the Amazon has found that accusations of environmental wrongdoing against members of the region’s political class are not an anomaly but a defining characteristic. In recent decades, as deforestation has pushed the biome toward what scientists warn could be its collapse, the very people accused of playing a role in that destruction have come to wield significant political power over it.

The Post found that those accused of wrongdoing by federal environmental law enforcement have pumped tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns in the past two decades and won public office more than 1,900 times. Taken together, the electoral victories and campaign financing have formed a parallel political system, law enforcement officials say, that has undermined attempts to safeguard a natural resource that scientists warn must be preserved to avert catastrophic climate change.

“This is the rule, not the exception,” said Alexandre Saraiva, who was chief of the federal police in Amazonas state until last year. “Those who deforest the Amazon completely dominate local politics, both through economic power and through violence. The representatives of the people are, in fact, the representatives of those who deforest.

“It has reached such an absurd point that once, during an active investigation in Rorainópolis, in the south of Roraima, the mayor came to the police station with the people we were investigating and asked me to dismiss the case,” he said.

The Post analysis identified 1,189 officeholders over the past 20 years in the Amazon who have been cited for federal environmental infractions. Many won more than one election, and more than 3 in 4 were accused of deforestation or a deforestation-related offense. The examination, which analyzed all environmental infractions in federal databases and anyone who had held municipal, state or gubernatorial office, found that at least one-third of the politicians were cited for environmental abuse while they held office.

Because of data limitations, the findings are almost certainly an undercount.

Many infractions were for minor offenses and resulted in fines of a few thousand dollars. But dozens of elected officials had been fined more than $1 million each — sums assessed for more-serious wrongdoing. The Post found that nearly half of them had also been issued at least one federal embargo, a land-use restriction on illegally deforested or degraded areas. An additional 236 officeholders, The Post discovered, had not been individually accused of environmental wrongdoing but were owners of companies that had been.

The amount of money donated to Amazon political campaigns by people and companies that have been cited for environmental infractions is far more than previously known. More than 1,590 people and 717 companies cited for environmental wrongdoing made at least 5,546 contributions over the past two decades, amounting to nearly $37 million. (In 2015, Brazil prohibited campaign donations by companies.)

The names of the politicians and the cities they have governed provide a road map through the most deforested swaths of the Amazon. Many are within what’s known as the “arc of deforestation,” a section of more-intense deforestation along the forest’s southern sweep. Many cities in this arc — Novo Progresso, Feliz Natal, Cotriguaçu — have repeatedly elected officials accused of environmental wrongdoing.

Most municipalities in the region have sprung into existence in recent years, forged in the fires that razed the forest and populated by those who lit them. The architect of this development plan was Brazil’s military dictatorship, which, worried that the sparsely inhabited region would invite foreign invasions, conceived initiatives in the 1960s and 1970s to stitch the forest to the rest of the country. The national slogan: “Integrate to not surrender.”

Highways punctured the forest. Businesses received tax benefits to relocate. Between 1980 and 1996, the number of cities in Pará state grew from 83 to 143, clustered mostly in the arc of deforestation, where the government put in just enough resources to open up the impenetrable region but not enough to bring order to it. People accrued wealth and power from illicit resource extraction. Public and private lands were invaded and stolen. Slavery-like conditions were imposed on the poor. People disappeared and rural murders were almost never solved.

TOP: Vultures circle a cow carcass on a farm on the road to the Apyterewa territory. LEFT: A sign on the dirt road between the Parakanã village of Paredão and Vila Renascer carries the phrase “Valley of Peace.”
RIGHT: A fence installed by illegal settlers inside the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory.

A new way of life took hold. It was rooted in the belief that the Amazon was to be claimed, not preserved, and embodied by an ascendant political class.

“Why do people vote for them?” asked longtime Amazon journalist Evandro Corrêa. “Why do they vote for people they know are criminals, that they know are deforesters? It’s a question of culture. This is the same story, over and over again. All that changes is the characters.”

One is Antônio Marcos Maciel Fernandes, former mayor of Apuí in Amazonas, who has been cited at least 20 times for environmental wrongdoing and been fined more than $11 million. (In audio messages, he denied any wrongdoing.) Another is Valdinei José Ferreira, the mayor of Trairão in Pará, convicted in July 2020 of running an illegal sawmill, but reelected months later. (He declined to comment.)

Then there is Valmir Climaco de Aguiar, the “King of Gold Mining,” who owns a farm where authorities say they found more than 1,000 pounds of cocaine in 2019, but who was reelected mayor of Itaituba in 2020 with 77 percent of the vote. (He told police the cocaine wasn’t his and wasn’t charged with any crime for lack of evidence.)

But even in such a region, Torres is notorious. So is the fear his name elicits.

Aerial footage shows smoke rising on an illegal property inside Indigenous territory in Brazil.

Fear and death in the forest

Few in São Félix do Xingu want to talk about the mayor’s alleged past. When people hear his name, voices lower, conversations halt, the phone disconnects. “I want to keep living and die of natural causes,” one man said before ending an interview. “Stop asking questions,” another person said. “You live far away from here, and I live here, and who’s going to wind up dead is me.” A local farmer pleaded: “You can’t use my name. These are dangerous people.”

When federal attorney Mário Lúcio Avelar arrived here in 2003, he said, he’d never seen such terror. He’d been sent to investigate the killings of seven rural workers and allegations of slavery in the region. Raised in the wealthy southeastern city of Belo Horizonte, Avelar, still a federal attorney, told The Post he arrived to find “a Brazil completely different than I had known before.”

Avelar and his team traveled to remote farms and settlements to interview workers and residents, asking about life and violence. Some people would meet him only in the middle of the night, he said, in out-of-sight locations and practically hooded, out of fear “they’d be recognized and executed afterward.” He quickly realized that crime in São Félix do Xingu — a vast municipality larger than South Carolina — went far beyond the cases he’d been sent to investigate. He launched a parallel probe into how organized crime had come to dominate the region.

The frontier was in the throes of a “tormented and violent process” that was destroying the Amazon forest to “almost no social or economic benefit,” Avelar wrote in one of several dispatches to superiors in Brasília, obtained by The Post. First had come the miners in the mid-1980s, who built the early roads. Then followed the loggers seeking mahogany. And finally, the land grabbers. For them, São Félix was a jackpot. More than three-fourths of the region was unclaimed public land. “Terra sem dono,” people call it — land without an owner. Easy to occupy, deforest and sell with fraudulent documents.

The region was lawless, but society was structured. On one rung were the “pistoleiros,” Avelar wrote, hired guns who drove poor settlers from land and killed anyone who refused. On another, the paper-pushers, who “legitimized” illegal land seizures through forgery and government corruption. Overseeing it all were the bosses. The most powerful, Avelar and his team found, was João Cleber Torres.

The short and stocky Torres was a son of humble migrants from faraway Rio Grande do Norte, Avelar wrote. One of the first to settle the region, he started early in the wood trade. But as the mahogany dried up, he swiveled to land acquisition — “an enterprise no less lucrative,” Avelar wrote — and came to lead a criminal organization that built a network of 100 pistoleiros. His partner was his brother, Francisco Torres, known as “Torrinho.” The men were seizing land throughout the region, but were particularly active in the Indigenous region of Apyterewa, where Avelar said they owned several farms.

Avelar wrote that he’d looked into Torres’s criminal history, finding two homicide cases that named Torres “as the one who gave the order.” The details and dispositions are not clear. Neither is whether they relate to the homicide and attempted homicide cases found in Torres’s criminal file.

But a 2002 police report obtained by The Post, which recommended homicide charges against Torres, said two men on a motorcycle had fatally shot Herógenes Adilson Lemos outside his house. One man accused in the killing, Leonilson Pereira Gonçalves, told police Torres had ordered the hit. (Efforts to locate Gonçalves were not successful.) A separate police investigation named Torres the following year. Two men, Deusdete Rodrigues dos Santos and Claudio de Deus Freitas, told police that Torres had ordered someone named “Amarair” shot. (Attempts to locate the men were unsuccessful.)

Torres said he’d never heard of any of the men: “I’m stupefied by the attempt to link my name to murder or attempted murders of these people.”

The more Avelar learned, the more he grew afraid of Torres, whose name appeared in other investigative accounts. A 2006 study commissioned by the Brazilian Environment Ministry called him an “entrepreneur of land-grabbing.” The Pastoral Land Commission, an organization that studies rural conflicts, named him “the famous land grabber of São Félix do Xingu.” One of the study’s contributors, Steve Schwartzman, who reported on Torres’s activity within Apyterewa, remembers him well: “Isolated communities were being overrun by people like João Cleber.”

But no one came to understand the region and its criminal players better than Avelar. He knew their euphemism for deforestation: “to clean.” He discovered their preferred method of killing: gunmen on motorcycles. He saw the reach of their power in the city: “The military and civil police are controlled by the loggers.” And he extensively documented the principal figures: Torres and his brother.

“Leaders of an organization that carries out and promotes the invasion, occupation and illegal seizure of public lands,” Avelar wrote in his final report on regional crime. “By the danger they represent, they are extremely feared in the region. … They are responsible for dozens of homicides, many of which were committed [after] they refused to pay their rural workers.”

The mayor’s brother Torrinho contested the assertions: “Nothing was proven against me or my brother.”

Avelar signed the reports and, together with another federal attorney, sent them to law enforcement leadership in Brasília. He urged support. “Violence is pervasive,” he wrote. “This demands the assembly of a permanent task force.”

Charges by federal police involving the rural killings soon followed. Avelar, who’d quickly departed São Félix do Xingu, feared for his life. One of the men accused in the homicides was later charged with making death threats against him. Avelar vowed never to return to the city. He spent years waiting — for the task force to be assembled, for the state to dismantle the criminal structure, for someone to hold Torres to account for all that the federal attorneys alleged he’d done.

None of it happened. His reports have gone missing at the federal attorney’s office, officials said. The homicide and attempted homicide cases naming Torres, state justice officials said, have disappeared from the São Félix court.

No larger investigation ever followed. And in São Félix, Torres set his sights on political office. But the man who would become mayor never lost his interest in the Indigenous territory of Apyterewa.

Aerial views of Renascer village, located inside the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory in Pará state.

An illegal village named ‘Rebirth’

If there’s a shield against deforestation in the Amazon, it’s Indigenous land. Safeguarded by its peoples and under more governmental surveillance than other reserves, the territories are often ecological and humanitarian refuges. They make up more than 13 percent of Brazil, but less than 2 percent of the country’s deforestation is on Indigenous land. This hasn’t been the case for Apyterewa.

Since the beginning, its territorial limits, established by the Justice Ministry in 2001, have been disputed. Farmers and loggers — the first to make official contact with the isolated Parakanã in 1983 — say they have just as much, if not more, claim to the land. A few hundred Indigenous people, they argue, don’t need, deserve or even want so much territory.

It’s a political position that has since been used to justify large-scale invasions, rampant deforestation and, in more recent years, the construction of what officials call Brazil’s largest illegal community in an Indigenous territory, an enclave of non-Indigenous people who have claimed the land as their own.

TOP: A Parakanã family fishes on the banks of the São Sebastião River in the village of Paredão in the Apyterewa Indigenous Territory. LEFT: A sign at the entrance to Paredão village says it is protected Indigenous land. RIGHT: Students study Portuguese and mathematics at the community school in Paredão.

They call it Vila Renascer: “Rebirth Village.” Its dozens of homes climb a gentle slope along the southeastern lip of Apyterewa, where much of the forest has been destroyed. And its champion is Torres. “I have special affection for its people,” he said in a 2020 political advertisement. “One of the newest communities in the city. It has grown so much.”

His involvement began in 2016. The federal government had just ordered the removal of people who were occupying the Indigenous territory, a decision Torres bitterly opposed. He held urgent meetings with the territory’s farmers, oversaw city efforts to contest the decision and made a trip to visit an encampment. Dozens of families, squatting outside a military base, waited to greet him. Many said they had nowhere else to go.

Torres, accompanied by his brother and a rural farmer later named a suspect in a murder case, looked out at the scene, video shows. He shook his head. “The federal government wants to remove 2,000 families to benefit 300” Indigenous people, he said. “I will fight until the end to reverse this.”

TOP: Land illegally cleared by non-Indigenous farmers is visible in aerial shots of Renascer village. LEFT: Nalva Santos, 42, the wife of a preacher at an Evangelical church, was one of the first residents of Vila Renascer.

RIGHT: Goods for sale in a small shop on the dirt road between Paredão village and Vila Renascer.

Nalva Santos, 42, was listening. The wife of a preacher, she had just moved here with her family to establish an Evangelical church. They were the first inhabitants of what would become Vila Renascer. Hearing Torres, Santos said, she felt relief. She’d been worried they were wrong — living inside an Indigenous territory — but felt absolved by his words.

“We believed in him because he was an authority, the mayor,” she said. “And since then, the village has grown so, so much.”

Dozens of blazes burned through the immediate vicinity in the years that followed, according to a University of Maryland fire analysis. Now when Santos walks down the street, she finds not a barren path but a village rising upon the hill. She passes clothing shops, grocers, a butcher’s, restaurants, hotels, a school, and a medical center periodically staffed by city workers. She meets newcomers and sees a future filled with promise — one she believes both neighbors and the mayor will fight to protect.

She witnessed that spirit in November 2020 when, two days after Torres was elected mayor for a second time, dozens of people surrounded and threatened to attack the nearby law enforcement base used to fight deforestation. Then again months later when Torres announced that the city would “come in with construction equipment” and refurbish roads cutting through the territory, over the protests of federal attorneys and without Indigenous consent. And again last August, when federal law enforcement agents stormed Vila Renascer — the “principal support center of land-grabbing and deforestation,” one environmental agent said at the time — and shut down its gas stations and internet connection.

The community didn’t just survive, Santos noticed. It expanded. People of greater ambition were now arriving.

LEFT: A cattle ranch near Renascer village. RIGHT: A cow on a dirt road leading to Vila Renascer.

One stood at the edge of the community, surveying a construction project, wearing a cowboy hat and boots and draped in gold. Bulky gold watch. Gold earrings. Gold initials, dangling from her neck. Her name was Monica Silva. She didn’t want her picture taken. “It will go bad for you,” she warned a reporter.

Silva was building a commercial complex. It was all sketched out: a bar over here, a hotel over there, a shop to sell whatever. People were coming from all over, she said. They wanted to buy land inside the Indigenous territory, and she wanted in on the action. There was money to be made.

“If they want their land deforested, my people will do it for them,” she said. She wasn’t troubled by the law. “You have to knock down trees to be able to raise cattle, because agriculture needs cattle, and the country needs agriculture.” Neither was she bothered by doing it on Indigenous land, whose inhabitants she said didn’t have the “courage” to work — they wanted only government handouts.

“The Indians don’t want this land,” she said. “But if they came and asked for it, I would say, ‘It doesn’t work that way.’ ” She was prepared for violence: “I’d take up my machete, and from there, it’d be worked out.”

Far away, in another part of the reserve, Kawore, leader of the Parakanã, considered the potential of such violence. He was standing at the radio transmitter in the Indigenous village of Paredão, telling leaders what he’d witnessed on the reconnaissance mission: More deforestation. More invaders. More people like Monica Silva. No one said anything. They accepted the news with resignation. No one wanted this fight, and neither did Kawore.

He didn’t want to die like Zé do Lago.

A reporter is shown videos about the life and work of environmentalist Zé do Lago, who was killed in January.

A reporter is shown videos about the life and work of environmentalist Zé do Lago, who was killed in January.

An environmentalist’s final days

Everyone along the river knew Zé. Workers from nearby farms lunched at his home, built on an isolated stretch of the Xingu River. Neighbors hunted and fished with him. Government workers traveling to the nearby Kayapó Indigenous Territory stopped to visit. He led a volunteer initiative to repopulate the Xingu with threatened turtle species. His plan was to open an ecolodge and leave it to his children.

“An environmentalist to the core,” said his daughter, Sara Tyele, 28.

But José Gomes — who went by Zé do Lago — had a problem. He talked about it to friends and family, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety. His land had been claimed by another person. His rustic, dirt-floor house was nestled within the property lines of a cattle ranch owned by the mayor’s brother — Torrinho.

To the Torres family, the land had become increasingly important. The mayor owned an adjacent farm on which he’s been accused of large-scale deforestation. (In an interview, he blamed the fires on Indigenous people.) And he was embroiled in a legal struggle to annex territory in dozens of nearby properties, which would vastly expand his regional holdings.

The Torres brothers were “always” trying to buy do Lago out, one close family member said. But do Lago didn’t want to sell. “The only way I’m leaving is dead,” friends recalled him saying.

Late last year, two friends remembered, he described a confrontation. He explained that a person not affiliated with the Torres brothers — a prominent pastor — had offered to buy his property. Do Lago said he’d been considering the offer when Torrinho found out. A disagreement followed, the friends recalled do Lago saying.

TOP: A relative of environmental activist Zé do Lago, after speaking with Washington Post reporters on May 27. The Post is not revealing the identities of do Lago’s family members out of concern for their safety.
LEFT: Relatives of Zé do Lago, after an interview with Post reporters.
RIGHT: A relative of Zé do Lago holds a bird.

“Zé told me Torrinho said, ‘That area is mine. It’s within my land title. You know that this area is mine,’ ” one of the men said. “Zé told me, ‘Man, this guy is crazy to get my land.’ ”

“That was the last time I saw Zé.”

The man, who often spent weekends with do Lago at his house, eating fish and sipping the sugar cane liquor cachaça, next heard his friend’s name on the news. Do Lago, 61, had been shot to death at home. Also killed were his wife, Márcia Nunes, 39, and her daughter, Joane, 17.

A video was going viral. It showed do Lago’s son arriving to retrieve the bodies as a hard rain fell. The camera focuses first on a lifeless form, bobbing in the river’s shallows. “Márcia,” the son says quietly. Then it swivels to the ground, past empty bullet cases, before settling on a motionless girl, lying in mud: “Joane,” he says. The son’s voice catches. His father lies supine on the sodden ground ahead, dead and bloated in the downpour. “My father!” he cries. “My God, my father!”

Nothing was missing from the house. The crime scene didn’t look like a robbery gone wrong.

“It was an execution,” one neighbor said.

More than six months have passed since the killings. No suspects have been named. No charges have been filed. All case files, including autopsy reports, are under seal. Investigating officers did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Torres and his brother dismissed suspicions that their family was tied to the killings. “Unfounded accusations,” Torrinho said. “I never argued with Zé do Lago about his land; he had my permission to stay there.”

“We want the killers and masterminds to be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” the mayor said.

No one in the community interviewed for this report — the victims’ family, neighbors, researchers, police and community leaders — said they believed the case would be thoroughly investigated. Not in São Félix do Xingu, where not one of 62 reported homicides in territorial disputes has ever been solved, according to the Pastoral Land Commission. And not when it involved men as important as Torres and his brother, close political allies of Pará’s governor, Helder Barbalho.

“Torrinho is suspect number one, without doubt,” said a São Félix detective who was not assigned to the case, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the investigation. “I’ve read the reports. What is happening would almost be a joke if it wasn’t so serious.”

So the family waits. Not for justice. But for more violence.

“I’m under threat,” one close family member said. “I’ve had to flee town.”

Mayor João Cleber Torres poses for a portrait at the office of Rádio Correio in São Félix do Xingu on May 28.

Mayor João Cleber Torres poses for a portrait at the office of Rádio Correio in São Félix do Xingu on May 28.

The future, carved from a hard land

The mayor was relaxed, sitting across from the friendly radio host in late May and talking about his closeness to the governor. “He always gives me support,” Torres told his interviewer. “Even when I’m out of government, he gives me support.” But what he now needed as mayor, he said, was a state representative interested in helping the community. He looked to the man at his side. It was his brother.

“So that’s why always I’m saying that, today, Torrinho is running for state office,” the mayor said. “I very much believe in this, to strengthen our region, and strengthen our city.”

Torrinho, the president of the local rural farmers association, called his pre-candidacy a “project.” But he was still waiting on some electoral polls before officially announcing. If he decides to run, political analysts say, he’ll have a strong chance at victory.

Torres and his brother ended the segment and exited the radio booth. The mayor was all smiles and handshakes. Surrounded by handlers and boosters, he felt the success of his life. He said all of it — a declared wealth of $3 million, multiple properties, 11,800 head of cattle — had come to pass only because his family had been committed to building the region, not just a business.

LEFT: The ferry port of São Félix do Xingu in Pará state. Cargo trucks as well as passenger cars pass through the port toward the municipality’s rural zone. RIGHT: A resident of São Félix do Xingu waits underneath a portrait of Mayor João Cleber Torres outside his office on May 24.

“This was a frontier town,” he said in a brief interview. “We suffered here. I caught malaria multiple times. I know the difficulties that people have gone through here.” When he worked as a logger, he said, “it was always with a license.” And when he had to deforest, “it was all within the forest code.” The city, he said, is committed to fighting environmental crime: “I’m against illegal deforestation.” No one in the city fears him, he said. Anyone who says otherwise is a political opponent “wanting to denigrate the image of the mayor.”

Then he was leaving the building. He entered one of the two waiting gray Volkswagen pickup trucks. His caravan departed, to take him to the next political event.

They pulled out into a city where the forest felt far away and most voters didn’t seem to be troubled by the allegations in the mayor’s past. They’d heard the stories, but shrugged when reminded: That was then. This was now. And now feels good. The local economy is growing. The city has national chains. Asphalt roads. More than 2.4 million head of cattle, the largest bovine population in a Brazilian municipality. A forest is gone. Indigenous people are fearful of violence. People have been killed and forgotten. But an easier life has finally arrived in this part of the Amazon, carved from an inhospitable terrain and sculpted by men such as Torres.

“It’s a good thing, him being mayor,” said Oscar do Santos, 65. “I would vote for him again.”

“I’ve never doubted my vote,” offered Josemar Pereira da Silva, 41. “It wasn’t he who ordered the killings; it was his brother.”

“I didn’t worry about that history,” said João Caetano, 61. “I want good government.”

The mayor continued down the road, toward a large billboard. It showed him smiling beside the governor. Then beyond was another. This one was of his brother, grinning and standing beside a herd of cattle, heralding the town’s 60-year anniversary, and all that had been accomplished.

“Congratulations, São Félix do Xingu,” the billboard said.

Gabriela Sá Pessoa contributed to this report.

Methodology

To determine which politicians and their affiliated companies had ever been cited for environmental infractions, data journalists pulled multiple types of environmental citations and referenced them against names and identification numbers of elected officials in the Amazon.

The Post used environmental inspection and embargo data from Ibama, Brazil’s chief federal environmental authority, and embargo citations from ICMBio, the agency that specifically oversees conservation areas. It limited the scope to people who had been cited for environmental infractions within the nine Amazon states. Nearly every citation is from the mid-1990s through early May. The ICMBio data covers the period from mid-2009 through the first four months of this year.

To identify all politicians elected in municipal, state and gubernatorial races since 2000, The Post used candidate data from the Center for Politics and Economics of the Public Sector (CEPESP) at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, and filtered for winning candidates in the Amazon states.

A taxation ID number known as a CPF — Brazil’s equivalent to a U.S. Social Security number — is included in the elections database for all people who run for public office. The CPF number is also provided, in partially redacted form, in the environmental citations databases. The Post merged the election and environmental citation data and matched both names and partial CPF numbers to ensure exact matches. Any records missing a CPF number were excluded from the analysis.

The Post performed data cleaning, but some matches were not made because of name misspellings and variations. The result is an almost certain undercount of how many office holders have been cited for environmental abuse.

To determine which infractions were deforestation or related to deforestation, The Post consulted with law enforcement and other experts. Within the infraction databases, some offenses are straightforwardly listed as deforestation. In many others, the fines are listed as “infraction of flora,” or are described as involving forest fires, sawmills or illegal gold mining — all infractions that experts say either correspond to deforestation or are related to deforestation.

In its analysis of campaign finance and environmental infractions, The Post used the same methods, but merged citation databases with campaign donation data from Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court. Because of similar issues involving missing CPF numbers and alternative name spellings, the findings on financing are also almost certainly an undercount.

Finally, the reporters used federal corporation data from the Receita Federal do Brasil (Brazilian Federal Revenue Service) to yield a list of business owners, then merged it with the electoral and environmental infraction databases to determine which politicians owned companies that had been cited for environmental abuse.

All the dollar amounts in the story have been adjusted for inflation using the DeflateBR package in R statistical software, and then converted to U.S. dollars based on a recent exchange rate of $1 to 4.59 Brazilian real.

About this story

Editing by Matthew Hay Brown. Copy editing by Vanessa Larson and Martha Murdock. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard. Data editing by Meghan Hoyer. Additional data analysis by Reinaldo Chaves. Design and development by Allison Mann. Design editing by Joe Moore. Project management by Jay Wang.

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