In Brazil, An Outspoken Colonel, a Journalist in Hiding and Mysterious Threats of Death

After writing about a colonel’s political campaign, André Caramante started receiving death threats.

Several weeks ago, Col. Paulo Telhada, the former head of the Rota, São Paulo’s elite military police unit, made his first foray into politics, winning a seat on the city council in a landslide victory. Yet for André Caramante, a veteran crime reporter at Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, Telhada’s victory was nothing to celebrate.

For the past month, the 34-year-old journalist says that he and his family have been forced into hiding, following a barrage of threats against his life. And Telhada has been blamed by some in the Brazilian press and blogosphere for inciting these threats via his popular Facebook page, something the colonel denies.

“I dedicated my life to combating violence,” he said in an email to the Daily Beast, “and I was at times a victim of it.”

Whoever threatened Caramante, he is not alone in witnessing this sort of intimidation in Brazil. Already this year, two Brazilian journalists have been murdered. Another is missing. Several weeks ago, the Inter-American Press Association held its 68th annual congress in São Paulo and concluded that violence was one of biggest problems facing journalists in South America.

“What happened to me is not outside of the curve. It is a symptom of what is happening today in São Paulo,” said Caramante in an email to the Daily Beast. “This attack is not just against me and against one of the country’s biggest newspapers. It is against the right to inform and be informed.”

The threats against Caramante began this July, in the heat of the campaign after the reporter wrote a short piece on Telhada entitled: “Ex-Rota Chief Turns Politician and Preaches Violence on Facebook.”

Telhada reacted with outrage. On his Facebook page, he called Caramante a “notorious defender of bandits” and said: “The Folha de São Paulo should look to bring the truth of the facts to the people and avoid contracting biased or badly-intentioned employees. What is the interest of this citizen in defending bandits?”

He added: “What does he have to gain with this? I would like to ask friends to send emails of repudiation to the newspaper.”

Soon threats against Caramante appeared on social networks, blogs and even in comments section under Caramante’s articles. One person said he “defends bandits”. Another said that Caramante “will be the victim of a lightning kidnap.” The threats also came by way of telephone, and motorbikes ominously followed him as he drove around the city.

The intimidation became so bad that Folha de São Paulo put Caramante and his family into hiding—they are believed to be abroad—though he continues writing for the newspaper. “The stress is great,” said Caramante, “but no more than our commitment to inform and defend society against the threat to the liberty to be informed.”

The threat of violence is a part of daily life in São Paulo state, which is perhaps part of the appeal of Telhada’s muscular approach to politics and policing. More than 2,000 people have already been murdered in the state this year.

Despite its reputation for taking down criminals, the police in São Paulo—and the Rota especially under Telhada’s command—also earned a reputation for heavy-handedness.

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“The Rota is a troop that comes to resolve things. If we arrive at a bad occurrence and the guy is armed and is going to shoot, we are trained to retaliate,” Telhada said in a television interview while still commander. “We shoot… to hit the individual.”

In May of 2006, when Telhada’s party, the Partido Da Social Democracia, was running the state, open warfare broke out between the police and a notorious criminal gang known as the Primeiro Comando do Capital (PCC). Some 500 people—both police and civilians—died in the conflict, which is known as the Crimes of May.

A report published last year by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and the NGO Justice Global said there were indications that police took part in 122 executions during the conflict. The report said that the state hesitated and failed to investigate crimes involving its officers, to control police corruption and to protect its agents. “Unfortunately it’s not surprising that São Paulo finds itself in the same situation, if not worse, than on the eve of the Crimes of May,” wrote the authors of the report.

Some analysts and residents fear that urban warfare is now making a comeback. Last year, the police killed nearly 500 people, according to the Brazilian government. Already this year, police have killed 251 more, and 82 officers and former officers have been killed during this same time period, many allegedly by the PCC.

Caramante has been on the forefront of writing about crime and the police’s response to it. Last year, under Telhada’s command, the Rota was involved in at least two cases in which suspected criminals were allegedly executed by police; Caramante covered both.

One was the September 2011 death of Paulo de Jesus, a man whom police said was involved in crime and shot dead in his house. Rota officers said that De Jesus was armed. Caramante reported that actually De Jesus wasn’t and was down on his knees when the Rota killed him.

The response to De Jesus’s death was overwhelming, as hundreds of residents in his demonstrated against police. The officers involved were imprisoned for 30 days and are now in custody awaiting trial.

After the threats against Caramante began to appear, Telhada denied that he had incited anything. “None of these posts are connected to me,” he said in an email to the Daily Beast. “In research, we found various false profiles using my name with reports that aren’t mine and that are not consistent with my history.”

In October, Telhada told Brazil’s Época magazine that he had no idea who André Caramante was. “I don’t know him,” he said. “I never spoke to him, not even by phone.”

Caramante told the Daily Beast that the two have in fact spoken before. In August 2011, the reporter wrote a story for the Folha about how the Rota had killed six criminals during an attempted robbery of several supermarket cash machines. Caramante wrote that there were indications that the police had arrived at the robbery four hours before the crime and ambushed the gang to send them a message. He quoted Telhada as saying that his officers had acted “within the law,” denying the ambush. An internal police investigation is still ongoing.

Comments relating to Caramante have since been removed from Telhada’s Facebook page. In an email interview with The Daily Beast, the former Rota chief stressed that he believes in a free press. “I never intended that the reaction of readers of the article would go past the limits of democratic discord,” he said. “I would never agree with threats of any sort to any journalist.”

Meanwhile Caramante continues to work from wherever he and his family are hiding. “Every threat to journalists has to be treated seriously, as much from the point of view of guaranteeing the physical integrity of the journalist, as from the point of view that the threat does not have the desired effect, which is to restrict the work of the free press,” said Folha editor Sérgio Dávila.

It was not, Dávila added, the first time one of his reporters had been threatened. It may well not be the last.