SAO PAULO (AP) — Police said Sunday they are investigating the death of a farmer whose body was found near where a land activist and his wife were recently killed in Brazil’s Amazon.
Police said it was too early to link the death of Eremilton Pereira dos Santos, 25, to Tuesday’s killing of rubber tapper Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria. But local news reports said dos Santos may have witnessed the killings.
Dos Santos’ body was found Saturday in the state of Para, only a few kilometers (miles) from where the activist and his wife were found.
If the killings are linked, it would be the fourth land conflict-related death in the region this week.
On Friday, land reform leader Adelino Ramos was killed in the Amazonian state of Rondonia.
“We still have to investigate,” said Para state public safety secretary Luiz Fernandes in a statement. “If the crimes are related, we will certainly find out.”
Police inspector Silvio Maues said in the statement it wasn’t likely dos Santos witnessed the killings on Tuesday but added that “everything would be investigated.”
Dos Santos and the Silvas were killed near a sustainable forest reserve developed on government-ceded land were they led about 300 families working the forest as rubber tappers or small farmers in Para, one of Brazil’s most violent and lawless states.
Authorities said they had little doubt the couple were assassinated because of their work. They had faced numerous death threats, and nothing was stolen off their bodies. In addition, Silva’s ear was cut from his body, likely as proof that he was dead.
In Rondonia, the official Agencia Brasil news service said police identified a suspect in Ramos’ killing, but no arrests had been made and few other details were immediately released. Ramos survived one of the deadliest land conflicts in Brazil 15 years ago, when police killed 10 so-called landless activists in an encampment on occupied land.
Impunity remains the rule for many of the 23 million people living across the vast Amazon because of Brazil’s weak judicial system and endemic corruption among local officials, activists and federal prosecutors say.
More than 1,150 rural activists have been slain in land conflicts across Brazil over the past 20 years, with the murders believed to have been mostly carried out by gunmen hired by loggers, ranchers and farmers to silence those who protest illegal cutting in the forest.
Of all those killings, fewer than 100 cases have gone to court, about 80 hired gunmen have been convicted and a little more than a dozen people believed to have ordered killings have faced charges. Only one such person is known to be in prison, for ordering the 2005 slaying of 73-year-old U.S. nun Dorothy Stang in Para state. Another rancher convicted of ordering Stang’s murder is free pending an appeal.