HUMAITÁ, Brazil—On a muggy February day, police made a grisly find on an Indian reservation in Brazil's Amazon: the bodies of three men last seen driving toward the reserve on the Trans-Amazon highway, the massive road Brazil bulldozed deep into the rain forest in the 1970s.
The discovery added grim clues to a murder case that has pitted the Amazon settler town of Humaitá against the Tenharim Indian reservation 80 miles to the east. Police charged six Tenharim Indians this month with murder—charges the six have denied as they await trial. In Humaitá, where two of the victims lived, police say locals rioted and set fires at an Indian health clinic and aid agency. There is ominous talk, locals say, of more violence.
Brazilian Munduruku Indians rally in front of the National Congress in Brasilia last year, protesting the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant in the Amazon. They say the $13 billion project will harm their way of life. AFP/Getty Images
The triple murder exposes a troubling legacy of the Amazon's signature road. Four decades after Brazil plowed a rutted red-clay track some 2,500 miles into its vast rain forest interior, the Trans-Amazon remains a source of tension between the settlers who came with it, and the Indians who were living in its path. And those tensions have boiled over as Brazil makes a new push to develop the world's largest tropical rain forest.
Some of those tensions are surfacing now because the Amazon region—about the size of Western Europe—has undergone a remarkable population boom, rising 50% in two decades to 25 million people as mines, ranches and soy farms attract migrants. Workers are flocking here to help pave roads and build a string of huge hydroelectric dams planned for the region's big rivers.
At the same time, Indian populations, once decimated by disease, are rising. With higher birthrates and access to health care, the number of Indians living on reservations is increasing at nearly four times the yearly rate of the general population; interests between these two growing populations have collided at many steps of development.
The Kayapo tribe, for example, which opposed the Trans-Amazon, is leading protests against the construction of the giant Belo Monte dam near the town of Altamira, where construction of the massive thoroughfare was inaugurated in 1970. Further west on the Trans-Amazon near the town of Jacareacanga, the Munduruku tribe has formed militias to expel illegal gold miners from their land. Federal police say they don't track figures on land-dispute crime, but Brazil's Indigenous Missionary Council, a Catholic advocacy group opposing Amazon development, says some 450 Indians were killed between 2003 and 2010, often in fights over property and other disputes.
Dealing with the Amazon conflicts has become a new priority for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who campaigned four years ago on driving more development in the Amazon and is seeking re-election this year. In the aftermath of the murders and riot in Humaitá, Ms. Rousseff sent an army general and scores of soldiers to the small town keep the peace.
Such force, though, is rare in this region, where frontier justice can be as relevant as the legal kind. Around 250 agents enforce federal crimes in the entire Amazonas state, where the murders took place.
Indeed, the three murdered settlers were missing for 10 days before Federal Police made the six-hour drive over dirt roads and two ferries to search the reservation. That came after enraged residents of Humaitá rioted to demand an investigation, police say, setting fire to the local office of the federal Indian services agency, Funai, an Indian health clinic, boats and a dozen pickup trucks in a night of arson that sent Indians and Funai workers fleeing for their lives.
The most recent tensions "pretty tragically show the complexities of modern Amazon development," said David Cleary, an expert on the Amazon at The Nature Conservancy, an environmental protection advocacy group. With the indigenous populations expanding, he said, the relationships with the settlers can become more difficult, while the role the government plays is unclear. "Suddenly, it all boils out of control and people are dead."
Built at a cost of over $500 million in today's U.S. dollars, and stretching through malarial jungles, the Trans-Amazon was a centerpiece of the 1964-85 military government's strategy to populate the Amazon with Brazil's poor. "A land with no people for people with no land," was the slogan. Conventional wisdom was few tribes lay in the road's path.
An Indian woman awaits public assistance in Humaitá. She was part of a group under the protection of national guardsmen. John Lyons/The Wall Street Journal
"If you rewind the film, the belief was the Indians they [the road builders] would encounter along the way would be few and quickly assimilated," said Steve Schwartzman, a director at the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Defense Fund, who has worked on Amazon conflict issues since the 1980s.
That turned out to be wrong. Road construction spurred a humanitarian disaster, as Indians from dozens of tribes living in the path of roadwork began dying of flus and other diseases. Disease was compounded by debt slavery, prostitution and alcohol, anthropologists say. Over time, the Brazilian government acknowledged many of the mistakes, trying to rectify some by demarcating reserves for the Indians. "There was slavery with the opening of the Trans-Amazon, and death," said Antonio Tenharin, a tribal spokesman.
Today, Tenharim Indians have one foot in the past and another in the present. Around the village, tribal members wear Western clothes but speak their own language. Men use canoe paddles to stir manioc roasting in vats over great wood fires. There is no phone service, but a remote transmitter paid for by the government connects the village to the Internet. The best way to reach Tenharim leaders is via Facebook.
But tribal members say they also need other present-day tools, like appliances, fuel and higher education. "I would prefer to live in isolation out here," said Humberto Tenharin, a 24-year-old tribe member who was wearing a black T-shirt of the heavy metal band White Snake. But because the road brought change, "the Indian can't live exactly how things were before," he said. "We need to go to the city to buy food, to buy clothes, to study."
Over the years, many Amazon Indians have earned college degrees and work in the government sector. But needing cash, some Indians went into league with illegal loggers and gold miners seeking to operate on their lands, authorities say. In 2006, the Tenharim Indians decided to begin collecting a toll—$30 for trucks and $10 for cars—on the Trans-Amazon where it crosses their land. The toll was illegal, which the tribe didn't dispute but said it was justified as compensation for the ills brought by the road. Federal officials let it be.
In Humaitá, locals viewed the toll as extortion. Paying it reinforced their view that government institutions like law enforcement ignore the Amazon. According to people who drove through it, the scene at the remote toll—a pole across the road well out of cellphone range in the jungle—could be tense, especially at night, with young Tenharim Indians milling about, some drinking alcohol, and at least a few carrying guns.
Now, the toll is a crime scene. Police say five tribal members shot and buried three men who arrived from Humaitá on the morning of Dec. 16. Caio Paiva, the public defender representing the accused Tenharim men, says the federal police case against his clients is weak. Mr. Paiva plans to challenge the police investigators' reliance on anonymous informants, rather than hard evidence, for example. "None of their evidence proves that these men killed anyone," Mr. Paiva said.
Located at the junction of the Trans-Amazon and the Madeira River, some 1,700 miles from Rio de Janeiro, Humaitá is a bustling hub for the region's loggers, ranchers, gold prospectors, fishermen and other settlers. As tensions with the Indians grew, locals would grumble that Tenharim chiefs were buying expensive pickups, while the Tenharim said they felt the sting of racism in Humaitá, where some referred to their language as simply "Blablablalala."
A peaceful veneer began to crack on Dec. 2, when Tenharim chief Ivan Tenharin, 45, allegedly fell off his motorcycle and died while driving home from a hardscrabble logging outpost called "180" on the eastern edge of the reserve. Police—and the Tenharim Indians who found the chief—both said he fell off his bike and hit his head.
But as they mourned their fallen chief, some tribe members speculated that perhaps settlers who opposed the toll had a hand in his death, according to people who heard the talk.
A few days after the chief's death, the regional director of Funai, Ivã Bocchini, wrote a statement on a Funai website calling the death suspicious. During a subsequent news conference, army investigators seeking a motive cited the blog, saying it may have confirmed tribal suspicions about their chief's death. The investigator's theory was that the opinion of a top Funai official carries extraordinary weight with tribe members who have depended heavily on the agency.
In an interview published on Feb. 9 in Brazil's Carta Capital magazine, Mr. Bocchini said he never affirmed that the chief had been murdered. Instead, he said his "text tried to give the Indians a voice," which he said was an obligation of his work. Officials for Funai declined to make Mr. Bocchini available for further comment.
Police allege that just over a week after the Mr. Bocchini's statement, Tenharim men killed three settlers who pulled up at the toll in a black four-door Volkswagen coupe. Though they barely knew each other, the victims were all fathers who worked in a service economy taking root in Humaitá—a break from the typical image of Amazon settlers as loggers or ranchers.
Stef Pinheiro, a 43-year-old teacher, was at the wheel of his first car, the black Volkswagen, purchased a day earlier in Humaitá. "It was Stef's first time driving his own car on the Trans-Amazon," said Mr. Pinheiro's widow, Irisnea Azevedo, 36.
In the passenger seat was Luciano Freire, a 29-year-old wholesaler who had helped set up the car sale. In the back was Aldeney Ribeiro, a manager at the regional electrical utility. Mr. Ribeiro had hitched a ride in the Volkswagen at a ferry crossing about an hour earlier.
Picking up Mr. Ribeiro may have been a fatal move. According to a judge's ruling denying bail to the five arrested in the case, police allege that a Tenharim spotter picked him out as a potential target for a revenge killing while Mr. Ribeiro waited at the Trans-Amazon ferry. They then radioed the make of the car he entered to the Tenharim village.
Brazilian national guardsmen deployed to keep the peace in Humaitá. John Lyons/The Wall Street Journal
Federal Police and federal prosecutors declined to comment because the case is sealed. Carlos Terrinha, a lawyer for the victims' families, says Mr. Ribeiro was targeted because he was known to the tribe and had been threatened by the tribe before when he tried to collect an electricity bill. Tribal members say the tribe has no connection to the murders.
Christmas Eve rolled around and the men had been missing more than a week. Humaitá authorities said they pleaded with Federal Police to search the reservation. They were told no one would be available until after the New Year holiday, according to Mr. Terrinha. Federal Police declined to comment.
Fed up, residents of Humaitá rioted on Christmas Day. The next day, a group of settlers from "180" burned down the toll, prompting scores of police and soldiers to arrive the next day. A few days later, searchers found parts of the Volkswagen on the reserve. After another month in the muck with a cadaver-sniffing dog, they found the bodies.
Now, the task is to ease tension between Indians who fear going to town, and settlers wary of driving the Trans-Amazon. Called in by President Rousseff, the army shut down the toll after the bodies were found. Led by Col. Marcio de Gôyes Alves, who runs the regional Army base, a group of soldiers guarded some 45 Tenharim Indians as they bought supplies and did errands in Humaitá. The soldiers carried assault rifles, a message to townspeople that the Indians must not be harmed.
Col. Alves says he believes peace will return soon here. But Mr. Terrinha, the lawyer, isn't so sure. He fears what may happen when the guardsmen leave. "My worry, unfortunately, is that there may be some settling of accounts," he said.
De THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, 20/05/2014