Land of Black Clay
(Devotos do ódio)


José Louzeiro


Chapter 1

The newsroom of The Nation newspaper buzzed with activity that day as usual. The editors copy-edited apprentices’ material, the layout staff planned the next day’s edition, wire copy piled up in the teletype room, the sports staff discussed the local team’s latest practices, and the editorial secretary, Andriano Barbosa, exchanged ideas with Hélio Gordo, the chief reporter, on stories to be pursued. The editor, Carlos Vinhaes, read the story list Benício Conrado had prepared at six a.m., drawing a red line through stories he didn’t like and asking to see those he did.

Mathias roamed among the tables in his already somewhat soiled khaki uniform, passing out coffee cups and glasses of cold water.

I had just come back from the slum known as Morro do Juramento, or Oath Hill, where, weeks before, a squad from the twenty-seventh precinct had been decimated. The police were killed as they unleashed a raid to capture cocaine traffickers. A black helicopter had soared from among the trees and, some 300 feet up, machine-gunned the police cars. Three detectives died immediately, and two military police in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The helicopter was unmarked, so the case had gone unsolved.

Every police reporter covering the "case of the black locust," as the helicopter had come to be called, had a theory regarding the slaughter. Mine was perhaps the simplest: the helicopter had been rented by traffickers who knew about the twenty-seventh precinct’s planned blitz. But, to back up my theory, I had to find someone who would talk—no mean feat. The slum-dwellers on Morro do Juramento hadn’t dared. Nobody had seen the machine-gun fire; no one had seen the dead, much less the bullet-riddled cars.

When I came into the newsroom, Gordo handed me a second story, as if he were unaware of my assignment: a follow-up on the murder of Zinnger Webel, a German and a professor, forty years old, killed on the slope of Saint-Roman Street in Copacabana. Inspector Marcos Fontenelle promised he had two suspects to show the press, but I knew he was bluffing. The police had been looking for leads and hadn’t found any. The detectives had found papers in Webel’s hotel room, but the interpreters had not completed translating them. Everything in Fontenelle’s precinct happened at a snail’s pace. But why complain to Gordo? His job was to delegate assignments, keep the wheel turning.

I sipped coffee from the plastic cup Mathias had put on the desk, lit a cigarette, stuck paper in the typewriter, and flipped through my notepad, looking for names. I had friends and acquaintances in samba schools, dead-end dives, and dope-dealing hangouts. Why not look for them? Maybe one of them had a tip. The small stingray is always on guard. Anyone who isn’t careful could disappear.

As I typed out a list of possible sources, Veiga de Castro, the editor-in-chief, appeared, wearing a light, well-tailored suit, starched collar, and pressed tie. He approached Gordo’s desk; Vinhaes and Barbosa greeted him. He carried the day’s paper, some stories circled. There was an argument. Gordo promised that The Nation was better informed than Rio’s two other major dailies, O Globo and the Jornal do Brasil, even though the reporters often doubted it. Veiga de Castro turned to Vinhaes, complaining about confusing front-page headlines. Vinhaes read and reread the headlines and didn’t find anything difficult to understand, but promised to speak with the copy desk. Unlike Hélio, Vinhaes wouldn’t argue with management. Or with anyone. His business was to get the paper out on time. He didn’t get worked up over details. The Nation advertised itself as getting out early. That was something Vinhaes could take pride in. Midnight would find the paper for sale in certain spots, especially the busiest bars and restaurants.

The editor-in-chief accepted the coffee Mathias offered. He suggested Vinhaes demand more care from the editors, and went to his office, accompanied by Barbosa, Gordo, and Vinhaes.

The sports department kept arguing. Veiga de Castro didn’t ordinarily involve himself in that area. He had never been to Maracanã Stadium on match day; he didn’t like soccer and didn’t feel an affinity for any team—something, naturally, that Achilles, the sports editor, couldn’t understand. Had Veiga de Castro his way, the sports section would shrink to two pages. Yet it was sports and the crime page that sold The Nation. General and economic news conferred only status.

I thought of this without wanting to, worrying about the names I was putting down. Whom would I seek out first? Chico Gamela, on the hill of Morro do Turano, or Zezinho Alvorado, in the Mangueira? Maybe Zefa Sinhá, seamstress of the Mountain Empire, now a resident of Buraco da Lacraia, in the Caju neighborhood. And the ex-military policeman Neném Capeta, blind in one eye but nevertheless the watchman for a numbers game over in the Leopoldina district? Would he be there? There was only one way: pursue the target, day and night, by the book. If I had to work during fixed hours, I might as well forget it. Of this I was certain. It did no good to drag things out. The right thing was to take advantage of Veiga de Castro’s proximity and put the problem to him, as well as Vinhaes, Barbosa, and Gordo. Did they or did they not want a good story? Then let them give me at least two weeks, the whole day, on top of the case, as some papers were doing.

I took one more swallow of coffee. One of Gordo’s phones began to ring. Mathias answered. It was for me. I put the phone to my ear, continuing to glance at the editor-in-chief’s office and his meeting with Vinhaes, Barbosa, and Gordo.

The person speaking had a low voice and difficult pronunciation, as if she had loose dentures. She promised good information. She said she was the sister of one of the dead detectives. I asked the name of her brother who had died in the massacre; she hesitated. I hung up. Nut cases, exhibitionists and suicides are always turning up in editorial offices. . . . Some complain about their neighbors; others report the death of the Pope or the Queen of England. Still others say they’re stepchildren of important people. They bring in the family tree and show it off. In the highest branches, there they are, alongside Napoleon, the Pope, famous artists, or rich men like Howard Hughes.

I returned to the list of names in my typewriter. I thought of the possibility of blowing off that difficult case. Gordo appeared at the editor-in-chief’s door and yelled my name:

"Jorge Elias!"

Veiga de Castro was coming to the end of a long telex that lay atop his cluttered desk. I pulled up a chair.

"How’s the helicopter case coming?" he asked.

"Somewhat difficult. Everyone’s afraid."

"And not for nothing," Vinhaes commented. "Lots of heads’ll roll!"

"I know how much you’re buried in that story," said Veiga de Castro, "but we’ve just made a decision regarding you."

"Holidays at the beach, or am I fired?"

"You’re a good reporter. The other papers, with a much larger staff than ours, don’t know anything about the slaughter either. But that’s not what I want to talk about. For all these years you’ve conducted yourself as a professional—prudent yet resolute. Now that we’ve got this telex, The Nation would like to have you on another story. Much more complex than a hillside massacre. More difficult to investigate. And if that’s not enough, it’s outside of Rio, in the interior of Paraíba state, way up north. Barbosa, Hélio and Vinhaes think you can do it. That’s a compliment, and it demands a sacrifice from you."

"Of what type?"

"Sapé is a township in the Zona da Mata, the Jungle Zone, not far from João Pessoa. It was there that the farmworker João Pedro Teixeira started up the first Paraíba Farmworkers’ League. In ’62 he and some compatriots wound up dead. But the massacres didn’t stop. Landowners and factory owners were involved in all these deaths. It was all more or less forgotten until last month when, according to this telex, Judge Odilon Fernandes decided to reopen the cases. I don’t have to tell you it shook up the town. Sapé township is covered with cane and pineapple plantations. Best pineapple around. What do you say?"

"Well, if I could choose, I’d go to the beach, but as I’m a reporter, I want to know when I leave. I’m sorry the black locust case’ll slip away."

"We’ll carry on with that; don’t worry about it," Gordo assured me.

"The important thing is the series on Sapé," said Barbosa. "Have you thought of the impact we’ll have?"

"Your Sapé stories will secure your reputation as a great reporter. People are interested in the topic," said Vinhaes.

"In addition," said Veiga de Castro, "The Nation is doing an important social service. In truth, we rarely think of the dramas occurring in the countryside. We’re always so urban-oriented."

"What’s the best day to travel?" I asked, beginning to warm up to the idea.

"Tomorrow," said Barbosa. "This story is urgent."

"But there’s one thing you must be aware of," said Veiga de Castro, putting more coffee in his cup. "Nobody must know about you. Your mission is entirely clandestine. Not even our João Pessoa correspondent will be informed."

"Why the mystery?"

"Things in Sapé are different from here," the editor-in-chief declared. "A reporter like you could die the first day on the job. An accident, a fight in a restaurant, a burglary in your hotel room. Anything could be a subterfuge to eliminate you."

"How do you know so much, sir?"

Vinhaes and Barbosa laughed. Veiga de Castro lit a cigarette.

"I’m from there. I know the judge you’ll look for. I don’t want you to encounter the difficulties I did. The law in Sapé is decreed by the growers. The landowners’ wish is the law’s command."

More laughter. The telephone rang. Veiga de Castro picked up the receiver, smiled, looked at me.

"Bon voyage."

The rest of the day I put myself to work in the newspaper’s file morgue, directed and organized by Olímpio de Souza Andrade, a student of Euclides da Cunha. I flipped through newspaper collections, getting my hands dirty, taking notes on a new pad. Gordo and Vinhaes stopped by several times, showing their interest in the story I was about to cover. Barbosa arrived with specific instructions: Veiga de Castro had suggested I not send reports via the Sapé post office, or any other nearby. I would have to go to João Pessoa or Campina Grande. Furthermore, The Nation would only launch the series after I’d sent three stories.

"How many stories in the series?"

"Don’t worry about that."

Barbosa left. I turned a page from The Nation of March 12, 1962, and found the news item about João Pedro Teixeira’s assassination—in the photo, next to the dead man, his widow Elizabeth and a scattering of sons. I took notes as I read it. When Mathias brought water and coffee, Barbosa also returned with a letter of credit, an envelope full of cash, and a plane ticket for João Pessoa.

"If you want to go tomorrow, get to Galeão airport an hour before takeoff," he advised as he left.

The telephone rang just as Olímpio was bringing me Brazilian Geographical and Statistical Institute photos and a volume of the Township Encyclopædia, where I could get data on Sapé. I called up Manezinho in photography. He told me about an ultrasophisticated Olympus-Pen camera, perfect for someone like me who knew nothing about photography. It had the advantages, said Manezinho, of shutting off without sufficient light, and of automatically framing the image. I had only to hold it and to load and unload the film. It was small and light; it fit in my pants pocket.

Well into the night, camera and film to one side, I stayed in the morgue thumbing through books and old papers. But there were few stories on the farmworkers’ murders and, in general, no photos. At least I now knew something about Sapé. I also took notes on the townships of Cruz do Espírito Santo, Santa Rita, and Alagoa Grande. All nearby, all dominated by big land holdings.

From the morgue I went to a bar with Andrade. We had one beer. The second brought out his worries.

"If I were you I wouldn’t take on this job. Whatever you get out of it isn’t worth risking your life."

I thought about his words. We were good friends. He was the one who’d helped me the most during my first few weeks at The Nation. Whenever I needed a fact to back up a story, there he was, offering what I sought and suggesting new sources. A good, close comrade, that Olímpio de Souza Andrade. And now, once more trying to protect me, he was gloomy, the table full of glasses. Was he right? Should I back out? Tell Barbosa that, thinking it over or without knowing why, I had decided not to go; and if so, would he send me against my will? Andrade became expansive, laughed and spoke out loud:

"Plantation owners and newspaper publishers are capitalists, flour from the same sack!"


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