The farmers arrived before dusk, setting up camp in the tall grass. There were 25 of them, and for months they had been attempting to occupy a sprawling farm known as Santa Lucia that had been carved from the Amazon rain forest. All around them, the once-impenetrable jungle had been reduced to barren pastures—part of an orchestrated campaign by large landowners and multinational corporations to slash and burn their way deeper into the Amazon. Every week, another 40 square miles of the world’s largest rain forest—what has long been the most important natural bulwark against climate change—go up in flames. Last year, the fires grew so large that they were visible from outer space.
Here on the ground, in the fading daylight, the farmers strung up hammocks and built a small cooking fire. They were led by a former schoolteacher named Jane de Oliveira. Broad-shouldered and pale-skinned, with a wide face and high cheekbones, Oliveira belonged to the sem terra—a Brazilian social movement that seeks to turn idle farmland over to those who will actually work it. Evidence suggested that Santa Lucia’s owner had created the farm by stealing public land; Brazil’s constitution required that it be turned over to those “without land,” to make it productive.
While the courts debated the matter, Oliveira had led several occupations of the farm, setting up crude encampments built of scrap lumber and tarp. For the farmers, it was a chance to escape the plantation-like working conditions that have long dominated Brazilian agriculture in the Amazon. They dreamed of carving out small plots of their own, where they could grow rice and raise chickens. Unlike the ranchers and miners who were setting fire to the rain forest or clearing it, they would live and work in the jungle without destroying it. Beneath the smoke blanketing Brazil, the sem terra, along with the country’s indigenous peoples, are the Amazon’s last line of defense.
By occupying the farm, they were also putting themselves in the line of fire. A month before they arrived at Santa Lucia, hired assassins had killed nine villagers who refused to leave a part of the rain forest coveted by loggers. Less than two weeks later, a group of cattle ranchers armed with rifles and machetes had entered an indigenous reserve and tortured members of the Gamela tribe. The message was clear: Those who did not make way for big business would be removed by force. Oliveira had received death threats, and her husband had been shot at by a security guard hired by Santa Lucia’s owner.
Now, as the sun rose on their first morning in the new camp, the sleeping farmers began to stir. A woman known as Blondie got out of her hammock. The rich smell of coffee, brewing over an open fire, cut through the tropical air, already hot and humid at daybreak. Suddenly, she heard a sound in the distance. It sounded like a car door closing—perhaps several car doors. Oliveira, who was expecting other members of the sem terra to join the occupation, asked two young men to go and see who had arrived.
Moments later the men came rushing back, their arrival marked by the rustling of the chest-high grass breaking before them. They were breathless. The police had arrived, and they were headed toward the camp.
As the sun continued to rise over the forest canopy, the farmers saw a line of men dressed in black, filing quietly through the grassland. They wore balaclavas and carried rifles.
Tumbling from her hammock, Oliveira ran into the jungle with her husband, following the others, her nightgown flowing behind her. It was the height of the rainy season, and the air hung thick with the scent of a coming storm.
From a distance, they could hear the police arriving at the camp, kicking over cooking pots and rummaging through the belongings they’d left behind. Hidden in the forest, the squatters stretched a black tarp above them as the rain began to fall in a torrent.
Blondie was terrified. They should keep running, she said. But Oliveira urged calm. The police were not going to follow them into the jungle, especially in such a heavy downpour.
What she didn’t know, as rain cascaded off the tarp, was that they had already been surrounded.
A moment later, she heard the crack of gunfire.
Like many of the sem terra, Oliveira had watched for decades as the rain forest steadily vanished.
Located more than 1,500 miles from Rio de Janeiro, the Santa Lucia farm occupies a remote and lawless area about 30 miles west of the BR 155, a highway that cuts through what was once dense, lush jungle. In the 1990s, as a single mother in her early 20s, Oliveira had moved to the region and found work as a teacher in the nearby municipality of Xinguara, the traditional home of the Kayapo and Parakana tribes.
The area was undergoing a ghastly transformation. A new railroad had been carved through 550 miles of rain forest to the north, and land speculators had descended on the region to clear-cut the Amazon. Indigenous farmers were stripped of their land, driven off at gunpoint or tied up and forced to watch as their huts were burned. Wealthy landowners used enormous threshing machines and expensive fertilizer to grow soy, which they loaded onto ships destined for China, while small farmers tilled the ground with wooden plows, eating the beans and yucca they grew. The number of cattle in the region soared from 22,500 to 2.2 million—the country’s largest herd. Today nearly 20 percent of the region’s rain forest has been destroyed, and the top 2 percent of Brazil’s landowners hold more property than all the land in England, France, Germany, and Spain combined.
Oliveira arrived in the region just as landless workers were beginning to fight back. By 1997, emboldened by a government decision to redistribute millions of acres of unused farmland, 350,000 families across Brazil had legally obtained land by setting up 1,300 camps on idle estates. But when the sem terra tried a similar approach in the Amazon, they were met with entrenched resistance from wealthy landowners—and the police and judges who protect them. In 2017, the year Oliveira led the occupation at Santa Lucia, Brazil had more murders over land disputes than any other country.
The longtime owner of Santa Lucia, Honorato Babinski, was one of the most powerful and feared men in the region. He built his fortune by clear-cutting timber in the Amazon, despite a law that prohibited logging, and he was widely suspected of occupying public lands without a legal deed. His sawmills and farms soon sprawled across 170 square miles of Brazil—an area four times the size of Paris.
Emboldened by Babinski’s death in 2013, a group of sem terra occupied the Santa Lucia farm. In nearby Redenção, a cowboy boomtown with a large rodeo arena and stores that sell boots and Wrangler jeans, longtime ranchers called it “the invasion.” A friend of Babinski’s speculated that the squatters knew they had little to fear from his eldest son and heir, Honorato Babinski Filho, an actor and model who lived in Rio and liked to post photos of his bronzed body on Instagram.
Babinski Filho went to court, requesting that the squatters be evicted. But pressed by the judge, he had a hard time proving that the farm was actually productive. Although he claimed that there were 1,700 cattle at Santa Lucia, he could only produce evidence that 75 had been vaccinated. Nevertheless, the court ruled in his favor, and the squatters were evicted. Over the next three years, the farm would be occupied three more times. Each time, the judge ordered the squatters to leave.
As the years dragged on, the squatters grew tired of their leader, a man named Ronaldo da Silva Santos, who seemed more interested in enriching himself than in helping the landless. “Every Sunday he would hold a meeting to raise money,” recalls Fernando Araujo, a member of the sem terra movement who participated in every occupation at Santa Lucia. “At the time there were about 150 families in the occupation, and he’d ask for money from all of us. He would leave with all this money in a suitcase and say it was for meetings with lawyers.”
In 2017, frustrated by their lack of progress in the courts, the families fired Santos and held a meeting to find a new leader. One of the squatters raised his hand. He knew of someone with experience leading occupations. It was his aunt, Jane de Oliveira.
Oliveira had admired the sem terra movement for years.
Her husband, Tonho, had grown up along the BR 155, and like many young men he had started working for the large landowners, known as colonels. His brother Lico, a hired gunman for local ranchers, had even worked for the late Honorato Babinski, running squatters off the land.
In 2012, a friend of Tonho’s named Celso invited Oliveira to visit a sem terra settlement on the outskirts of Redenção. Covering 1,200 acres, it sat on the abandoned property of a tannery, which had been shut down for operating without a license. Celso needed Oliveira’s help. He didn’t belong to any organization of landless workers, and he didn’t know how to petition the courts for legal guardianship of the land they’d occupied.
Oliveira agreed to pitch in. Together they created a settlement called Nova Conquista, or New Conquest, which soon grew to 156 families. Each squatter farmed a small plot of land and took part in communal work, building fences and sharing supplies. Oliveira, who dreamed of starting a farm with Tonho, fell in love with her new role. “She had never been involved in politics, in this sort of community organizing, and I think it gave her a sense of purpose,” recalls Jose Vargas, a young attorney who provided the settlement with legal assistance. “She was meeting with government officials, holding meetings with hundreds of people. She liked the respect, and being known as a leader.”
When the squatters at Santa Lucia elected Oliveira to lead their occupation, she promised that things would change. Working with Vargas, she set out to prove that the farm was located on public land and the deeds proving ownership were fake. Rather than pocketing money raised by the squatters, she used it to buy food and repair shacks built on the property. In the four months she led the encampment, its population grew to 180 families.
“Jane was very charismatic and very energetic,” says Ana Lucia, Lico’s wife. “She had a way of making you believe the impossible could happen, and that her cause was right.”
But Oliveira also had her critics. Some in the sem terra movement considered her too confrontational, relying on outdated tactics that only heightened tensions. That March, after a judge once again ruled in favor of the Babinski family, she led a protest of 170 people to block the BR 155, preventing soy and cattle trucks from passing. She agreed to call off the blockade only when the head of the civil police, Antonio Miranda, approached her on the road and made her a deal: If she would clear the highway, he would delay the judge’s eviction order, giving them time to file an appeal.
A month later, however, Miranda broke his promise. Arriving at Santa Lucia, his men forcibly evicted the squatters, burning their shacks and gardens. Miranda warned Oliveira that the Babinski family had hired a private security firm. “They can act violently against you,” he told her. “And I can’t do anything to stop them.”
Most of the squatters fled, scattering to towns along the BR 155. But a small group stayed behind, setting up a new camp on a back road considered public property.
The next day, flanked by armed guards, Santa Lucia’s owner arrived at the camp. A tractor began to dig a trench, to prevent the squatters from entering the farm.
Tonho emerged from the shack that he and Jane had built the night before. Pulling a Glock .380 from his waistband, he pointed it at the guards and demanded they leave. A video of the encounter quickly circulated on WhatsApp. Alarmed, local ranchers agreed that the landless squatters had taken things too far. Something had to be done.
It was clear to Oliveira that her life was in danger.
Accompanied by Vargas, she visited the police and asked for protection, but they advised her to leave the property.
For once, Vargas found that he agreed with the authorities. “I’m so sorry,” he told Oliveira. “There’s nothing more I can do. The most important thing at this point is not the occupation, it’s that you protect your life. My recommendation is you leave the camp.”
Vargas knew what the police were capable of. In 1996, as a teenager in Redenção, he had been sitting in class one day when he heard the news that 19 landless peasants had been killed by police on the BR 155, near the small town of Eldorado dos Carajas. It was the worst massacre of its kind in Brazilian history. Vargas went home that day and told his parents he wanted to become a lawyer, to fight for the rights of farmers.
But Oliveira decided to return to the camp. “She was very stubborn,” Vargas recalls. “I would tell her, there are times when you need to back down. If the police are threatening you, if there are gunmen there, shooting at you, it’s time to back down.”
The day after Oliveira asked for police protection, the security guards returned to the camp and fired at the squatters. According to eyewitnesses, the squatters fired back. Most of the group dismantled their shacks and fled, but Oliveira and a dozen others decided to hide in a wooded area on the farm. The next morning, there was another exchange of gunfire, and a guard was injured.
Oliveira fled to the Nova Conquista settlement, but tensions grew worse. Five days later, in another skirmish at Santa Lucia, a guard was killed. An arrest warrant was issued for Oliveira and Tonho, along with 12 other members of the movement.
Oliveira felt like she had nowhere to run. Worried that police would hunt her down at Nova Conquista or in Redenção, she decided to return to Santa Lucia. If she could recruit enough members of the sem terra, she thought, perhaps they would be safe. The landowners had guards and guns and police. The landless had only their numbers.
Oliveira called Fernando Araujo, who had participated in every occupation of the farm since 2013. “Let’s go back,” she told him.
Araujo was staying at his mother’s house in Redenção. He missed the farm, where he’d grown rice and corn and had a coop full of chickens. But as much as he hated living in the city, going back seemed risky.
“Isn’t it too dangerous?” he asked.
“Everyone is coming back,” Oliveira answered. “Are you going to lose your lot?”
The next morning, Araujo and his boyfriend arrived at the entrance to the farm, where they waited along with 40 other squatters. By noon, Oliveira and Tonho still hadn’t arrived. Part of the group left, vowing to return the next day, when a truck picking up another 40 members of the movement was also scheduled to arrive.
By the time Oliveira showed up at Santa Lucia, only 25 squatters remained. Fearing they would be spotted from the road, she led them onto the property. The sun was setting as they pitched their camp in the tall grass, stringing hammocks in the trees. The air smelled of rain. A heavy storm was on its way.
The first shot rang out with no warning.
Crouched in the forest with the rain thundering down, shielded only by a makeshift tarp, the squatters found themselves surrounded.
Araujo was knocked to the ground by his boyfriend, who had been shot. The smell of gunpowder filled his lungs, and his ears rang from the sound of gunfire. Terrified, Araujo lay frozen on the ground, his boyfriend moaning and trembling as he died.
Blondie, who had hidden in a thicket of trees, could not see what was happening, but she heard the police approaching. “Lie on the ground, bitch!” one of them called out. Oliveira was the only woman in the group that police were firing on. Blondie would later testify that she recognized one of the voices as that of Antonio Miranda, head of the civil police.
The command was followed by a series of heavy thumps. Autopsy reports would later suggest that some of the squatters had suffered brutal beatings before they were killed. “Whoever runs, dies!” the police called out, firing at anyone who tried to flee.
“The fucking bitch has to die!” one of the killers said. “They all have to die!”
“Run, bitch!” an officer shouted.
Oliveira was shot nine times, four in the back. Blondie assumed she had been beaten so badly that she couldn’t move. Other witnesses say she was forced to rise to her knees before she was killed.
An officer named Valvadino Miranda da Silva, who had been sent to another part of the farm, was shocked by what he saw when he arrived at the scene of the massacre. Bodies were scattered everywhere. Oliveira’s body had already turned a ghostly white, drained of blood from an open leg fracture. A few squatters were lying on the ground, still alive.
“So,” an officer who had taken part in the massacre asked Silva. “What’s it going to be?”
The most experienced officer on the scene, Raimundo Nonato Lopes, had arrived with Silva. He immediately recognized that they had stepped into a trap. Either they would have to participate in the killing, or they would be killed themselves, reported as casualties of a gunfight with the sem terra.
Silva had gone into shock. So Lopes drew his service pistol and pointed it at Lico, who was lying on the ground.
“If you’re going to kill me,” Lico said, “let me die standing.”
Lopes and the other officers waited for Lico to rise to his feet. Then they opened fire on anyone still breathing.
The bodies began arriving at the hospital in Redenção before noon.
By then, word had spread of the shooting, and a crowd had gathered in front of the hospital, which had set up a makeshift morgue. Family members who peered through windows saw a sickening tableau. Only the body of Jane de Oliveira lay on a stretcher. The nine other victims, including Tonho and Lico, had been dumped in a heap, their arms and legs tangled, blood staining the floor beneath them. By the time doctors finally examined the bodies, nine hours later, the small concrete room gave off a nauseating stench of death.
The police insisted they had acted in self-defense. The squatters, they claimed, had fired on them when they arrived to serve arrest warrants for the killing of the security guard. But the autopsy reports did not match the police’s version of events. According to an investigation by the Brazilian magazine piauí, two of the dead were shot in the back, as if fleeing. Six had multiple gunshot wounds to their chests, and two had been shot in the head at close range. The precision of the shots suggested an execution, not a shoot-out. None of the squatters had any gunpowder on their hands, leading the local prosecutor to conclude that none of them had fired a gun.
Survivors also contradicted the police. Jose Vargas tracked down Fernando Araujo, who had hidden in the jungle until the police had left. A federal prosecutor whisked other survivors to a hotel in Redenção, where they spoke until dawn, providing eyewitness accounts of what had actually happened.
Then prosecutors got their biggest break. Under questioning by federal police, Silva broke down. Weeping, he admitted what had happened, including his part in the massacre. “It would have been better if I’d died there,” he said. Days later, Lopes confirmed Silva’s version of events. The official story, he admitted, was a lie.
“There are strong indications this was an execution,” the region’s highest-ranking law enforcement official announced at a press conference. Fifteen police officers were charged in the massacre, but most were allowed to remain on the force. The survivors, meanwhile, were placed in witness protection, along with Lopes and Silva.
Two years later, on a hot afternoon last June, Vargas stood in a field beneath a thatched canopy at the Santa Lucia farm, not far from where the massacre took place. It was the burning season in the Amazon, and 2.3 million acres were about to go up in flames, in a conflagration intense enough to be detected by the European Space Agency. Dressed in a T-shirt and Bermuda trunks, Vargas was meeting with 200 landless workers, many of whom live on the farm, tilling small plots and raising chickens or pigs.
The land at Santa Lucia, and the murders that took place there, remain at the center of the battle over the Amazon. The courts have yet to turn over the farm to the squatters, as required by the Brazilian constitution, and no one has been convicted of the murders of Oliveira and the other farmers. Local landowners have blamed the victims, portraying Oliveira, Tonho, and Lico as a criminal gang who invaded Santa Lucia by force—a tale that Vargas dismisses as a “smear campaign.” Oliveira, he says, “believed in the rights of the landless worker, and in the end, gave her life for the cause.”
Ever since the massacre, families of the victims have been subjected to a terrifying campaign of intimidation. Black cars with tinted windows have parked outside their homes, and most have fled Redenção for other parts of Brazil. Vargas was also forced to move his family after he returned home to find open beer bottles on his porch, the windows and doors standing wide open. The week we met, what appeared to be a bomb was left in front of his law office. “The message was: We can get to you whenever we want,” he said.
We were sitting in a pizza joint in Redenção, just off the main drag. Vargas, who had a haunted look, seemed jittery, his gray eyes ringed in dark circles. For our safety, he suggested we move to a different restaurant: We were being watched.
“If there was someone else who would take this case, who could pick up where I am and see it to the end, I would leave,” he said. “But there is no one else. If I give up, the case will simply die.”
He knows the odds are stacked against the farmers. Charges are almost never brought against police who murder peasants. Of the 29 officers suspected of killing the squatters at Eldorado dos Carajas—the massacre that inspired Vargas to become a lawyer—only two were sent to prison. But Vargas hopes he will be able to identify whoever ordered the killings at Santa Lucia and bring them to justice. In a sense, it is a murder case in which millions of lives hang in the balance. By defending those who live on the “arc of deforestation”—the demarcation point where Brazil’s agricultural frontier is relentlessly advancing upon the rain forest—Vargas is ultimately fighting to save the Amazon itself.
Vargas says he couldn’t bring himself to go to Oliveira’s funeral or see her body after the autopsy. He hasn’t even been able to look at pictures taken after the massacre. That’s not how he wants to remember her. Instead, he prefers to think about how she looked when he first met her, when she was full of hope and possibility.
His focus has turned to those Oliveira left behind. The courts have ruled that the squatters must be evicted, but Vargas says there is no place for them to go. And so in all likelihood they will either return to Santa Lucia once more, or occupy another farm, and their battle for the Amazon—one that began long before Oliveira’s death—will rage on, like the fires all around them.