In a Small Town in Brazil, a Journalist Is Beheaded

Evany José Metzker just wanted to tell the true stories of people in his part of rural Brazil, and for that he paid with his life.

Traffic heading into the Brazilian town of Padre Paraiso was at a standstill on Easter Sunday as I drove up. The sun had just set over the hills, but a crowd was visible around a bus, gawking at something on the ground. Later that night, a grisly photo on the local blog Owl of the Valley revealed what it was: the body of a young man who had been shot in the head, splayed out on the pavement.

“In Padre Paraiso, traveling the streets at any hour of the day is getting impossible,” wrote Evany José Metzker in the accompanying post. “Criminals are on the loose, stealing, robbing, drug-dealing, and murdering.”

Last week Metzker became a victim of the lawlessness he described. A resident’s tip led police to a rural road outside town where they found Metzker’s decapitated body, clad only in a black jacket and shirt emblazoned with an owl. His hands were bound. He had been tortured. His documents were seen scattered around him, but his head was not found until several hours later.

The 67-year-old journalist, whose blog covered corruption, crime, and other local issues in the Jequitinonha Valley, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, had arrived in Padre Paraiso three months before on a reporting trip from his home in Medina, 90 minutes away. Among his subjects: the mayor, a former hairdresser from President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. She had won election after her husband, a former mayor, was barred from running again. She had appointed him to lead the health department.

There was also a tale to be told about municipal vehicles being used for personal errands like Mother’s Day shopping. Metzker called attention to a stream winding through downtown that was overgrown with vegetation: the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes in the midst of a nationwide dengue epidemic. Metzker wrote of a deaf-mute girl from a nearby ranch who was found brutally murdered. At the time of his own death, he was said to be investigating a drug trafficking, child prostitution, and cargo robbery ring.

Theft was a frequent topic of conversation when I recently spent five months in Padre Paraiso, an isolated rural town of about 20,000 residents eight hours’ drive from the state capital, Belo Horizonte. Just before Christmas I had arrived for the first time in the country I had heard so much about over the years to spend time with my husband’s family, all based in and around Padre Paraiso. We left a few weeks before Metzker’s killing.

Tractor-trailers laden with goods rumble at all hours of the day and night along the busy BR-116, the 2,900-mile highway that runs from Fortaleza to Rio Grande do Sul, and which bisects the town. Residents in Padre Paraiso often talk about getting goods that “fell off a truck.” The local farmers’ market may be guaranteed to draw a large crowd every Saturday, but the children’s clothes, laundry detergent, and innumerable other items that “fell”—or more likely were stolen—supply a thriving underground emporium.

Local farmers talk of being afraid to leave their property overnight for fear of being cleaned out. An ATM inside the local branch of Banco Bradesco was blown up late one March night in the second robbery in as many years, the thieves leaving a spray of bullet holes in residents’ cars outside. The local Shell station, as Metzker reported in April, is another favorite target. And motorcycles, as he also reported, are snatched in broad daylight. In April, my husband and I met a young man sitting in tears by the side of a dirt road; his brand-new Honda, he said, had just been stolen from him at gunpoint.

But Metzker did not blame the local police. In an April post in which he wrote that Padre Paraiso was “in chaos,” he had kind words for the cops. What the town needed, he said, was more police and emergency vehicles, and more officers to deal with the criminals constantly passing through on the BR-116.

One of Brazil’s longest and most dangerous highways, the BR-116 has been nicknamed the “Highway to Hell” and described by UNICEF as the most active roadway in the world for child prostitution.

The highway, Metzker wrote, provided the perfect escape route for criminals. Marlon Johnson da Silva, the young man whose body lay on the ground on Easter Sunday, was said by locals to have been about to board a bus out of town after committing a crime himself when he was shot down. The police took more than 30 minutes to reach the scene that day, Metzker wrote, losing any chance of finding the shooter, who fled on foot. They said they were responding to another call in a neighborhood some distance away.

Like so much of Brazil, Padre Paraiso has experienced rapid growth in the last decade. The money sent from residents working abroad, and the expansion of the middle class, has left every other building and lot in a state of half-finished construction. Prices for land have soared. Multiple-story apartment buildings stand cheek by jowl with tiny one-story homes and concrete shells. The cars that have flooded the streets in recent years bump over the cobblestone roads, swerving every so often to avoid horses and the pedestrians forced to walk in the street by perilously jagged sidewalks.

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Residents speak of a time more than a decade ago when the town hosted a cinema, a dance club, and multiple restaurants. All those establishments closed after the exodus of young people who left the region, one of the country’s poorest, to make their fortune in São Paulo or Belo Horizonte, or the United States or Portugal. Now some of those young people have returned with money for cars and property, but there is little for them to do. Some can be found of an evening sitting under the trees at Faceburguer, the new beer garden and burger joint, or just driving around over the cobblestones. A rare local concert May 16 by the singer Osnir Alves, the regional sertanejo star who originated the national hit “Homem Nao Chora”—heard blasting from car windows all this summer around Minas Gerais—brought residents out to celebrate.

Toninho Vieira Dutra was among them. The local photographer provides a kind of social chronicle on his popular Facebook page with daily photos of Padre Paraiso residents old, young, and now departed. “Agora morando com Deus,” or “Now living with God,” he will write alongside a photograph of a resident who has just passed on. The May 16 concert was documented with hundreds of happy photos, local attendees zipped up into leather jackets against the fall chill.

It was two days later that Metzker’s body was found on that deserted rural road, two miles from the nearest home. Local police initially pointed to two possible motives: a crime of passion or revenge for his reporting. Metzker’s widow and son rejected the first theory outright, telling local media they had no doubt his killing was connected to his work.

The Padre Paraiso cops were criticized when the lead investigator left the case for several days after Metzker’s body was discovered to do unrelated police work in a town 100 miles away. They have now been augmented by a state task force.

That unit finally revisited the desolate scene of the crime Thursday in an effort to piece together Metzker’s last movements. One witness police interviewed was Valseque Bomfim, another local blogger, who told local media he was the last to see Metzker before his May 13 disappearance. The two had dinner, he told police, and Metzker said he was planning a trip to Brasilia to take care of some business. Nothing seemed amiss, and he did not speak of any threats related to his work, Bomfim said.

The Araçuai Gazette reported Friday that Metzker could have been investigating a crime ring directed by a Rio de Janeiro gang that has laundered money locally by buying up large tracts of land. The remote area where Metzker’s body was found, residents told the paper, may have been a secret landing spot for helicopters.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the killing of Metzker, the most recent of 14 Brazilian journalists murdered in connection with their work since 2011. “The ability of local journalists to report the news is clearly being undermined by deadly violence against the Brazilian press,” said Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator with the committee.

Dilma Rousseff’s government in Brasilia and the government of Minas Gerais have so far declined to comment on the case, saying they are awaiting the outcome of the investigation.

“Even in a violent country like Brazil, decapitations don’t happen every day. It’s not a normal occurrence,” said Diego Escosteguy, editor in chief of Época, a Brazilian newsmagazine that published a stunning account of the murder Saturday. “Also, journalists are not killed daily in Brazil. This context makes the silence in Evany’s case even more flabbergasting. It is not only the government that is silent; most journalists also are. I think this shows to a remarkable degree how Brazilians have become morally numb towards rampant violence. Most people, journalists or not, don’t even bother.”

After Metzker’s body was identified, the local photographer Vieira Dutra took to Facebook again. Alongside a photo of the journalist he wrote, “AGORA MORANDO COM DEUS.”