The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 28, 2001; Page C01

'Witchcraft' Murders Cast A Gruesome Spell

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service


In his mind's eye, the image of what Jose Antonio Serra saw in a burned patch of jungle on the Amazon's edge is still chillingly fresh -- not because the murder
happened just seven weeks ago, but because there are some things a father can never forget.

What he found, a short walk from his family's mud hut, were the remains of his 13-year-old son: a figure on its knees, head buried in the dirt, genitals and middle
figure removed with cuts that looked almost surgical. In shock, Serra noticed an odd detail: The mutilated body looked diminished, even shrunken. Then he noticed
the gash in the boy's jugular vein, and realized that his blood had been drained.

"What they did to my boy is unspeakable," said Serra, 39, a proud man -- he works as a house painter -- who covered his face to hide his tears. "But what is worse
is that there were so many other boys, and there will probably be so many more."

Someone is killing the boys of Maranhao, a sweltering, poverty-stricken state in the Brazilian northeast. Welson Frazao Serra, the painter's son, was the 20th victim
since 1991. Victim No. 21 -- a 10-year-old third-grader -- turned up in the city of Codo, 150 miles southwest of Sao Luis, the state capital, on Oct. 18.

All the victims were poor boys, all were bright and promising. Almost all were castrated, and most had been brutally raped. Some of the murdered boys were also
found drained of blood, and in some cases the eyes, lips, liver, heart or lungs had been removed.

A few of the corpses were attended by crosses or religious circles. Others, like Serra's son, were discovered near offerings of chicken blood, feathers, cassava and
candles. In the most recent case -- in Codo, a town of 30,000 dubbed the "witchcraft capital of Brazil" -- the accused murderer, now in custody, says he killed and
castrated his victim at the behest of an alleged local priestess who supposedly bought the boy's testicles for $35.

"Most people in Maranhao are afraid to talk about this, but I will say it because they have already taken what is most precious to me and I have nothing left to lose,"
Serra said. "It is they -- the ones who practice Macumba [black magic]. They killed my son. They are the ones doing all these killings."

The so-called "Black Magic Murders of Maranhao" -- which followed 26 similar slayings in the neighboring state of Para from 1989 to 1991 -- have transfixed
Brazil. This sprawling nation of 170 million has long enjoyed surprising religious diversity despite being the world's most populous Roman Catholic country. However,
as the victims' parents and community leaders have blamed the slayings on the dark side of popular African-influenced religions practiced by millions of Brazilians,
that tolerance is facing its greatest test in years.

African religious traditions in Brazil date to the first slaves brought here in the 16th century. They fused the Catholicism they were forced to adopt by the colonial
Portuguese with the spiritualism of their homelands, inventing what anthropologists describe as new, hybrid religions such as Tambo de Mina, Candomble and
Umbanda. In these faiths, African deities called orixas are associated with figures from Catholic theology -- the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, St. Barbara, St. Lazarus
and other saints -- and worshiped through private prayer, participation in Catholic celebrations, group ceremonies involving sacred drumming and spirit possession,
and at times animal sacrifice.

Today, it is estimated, one in six Brazilians practices these religions -- from the poorest ranch hand to the richest movie star -- though many also call themselves
Catholic. In the northeast, a region rich in African culture where statues of the orixas are as common as crucifixes, the percentage of practitioners reaches 50 to 75
percent in some cities and towns.

But with the murders of these boys blamed on cults practicing Macumba -- generally used as a derogatory umbrella term for the Afro-Brazilian religions, with the
connotation of "black magic" -- many practitioners have felt unfairly victimized. In Maranhao, for instance, leaders of these religions complain their faiths are being
slandered by the local press and confused with devil-worship by uninformed people. Even those who openly admit to dabbling in the religions' more occult practices
say that human sacrifice is a tall tale -- and that the boys' murders are likely the acts of sexual maniacs, not some secret sect.

"The power of the dark line of my religion is strong enough to kill a man by summoning spirits, but it does not involve human violence," saidWilson Nonato de Souza,
89, a renowned Umbanda priest in Codo whose cavernous temple has welcomed stars, politicians and, some say, even presidents. He is one of the few "fathers of
the saints," as male Umbanda priests are known, who also publicly admits to using black magic.

"I don't doubt that evil is involved," he said. "But it is not evil of our making."

Magic, though, is only part of the story. The cases are unsettling for other reasons as well. They have highlighted the injustice suffered by Brazil's poor -- a social
class encompassing the vast majority of Brazilians, whose homicides often go unpunished and sometimes are simply ignored.

Indeed, since the first boy was butchered in 1991, only one suspect in one crime has been found guilty. That was in 1994; he served less than a year in prison before
receiving parole and promptly fleeing the state. Other suspects have been released for lack of evidence or are still awaiting trial, prompting allegations of
incompetence and lack of interest on the part of the local police and justice system.

The murders also have become wrapped in politics. Roseana Sarney -- Maranhao's current governor, and the daughter of a former president -- is now running
second in the presidential-preference polls for next year's national elections. Victims' families and human rights groups claim that in order to preserve her image,
Sarney is refusing their request to bring in federal agents to investigate the crimes. Some families now say they have been offered government jobs or baskets of food
to "keep quiet."

"If these were the sons of rich families, there is no doubt you would have seen a massive manhunt. But in Brazil, the life of a poor boy is not given the same
importance," said Joisiane Gamba, lawyer for a local children's rights group that co-filed a complaint related to the murders with the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights, a branch of the Washington-based Organization of American States.

Raimundo Cutrim, Sarney's head of public security, insists his force is dedicating itself fully to the cases. "There is no reason for worry, and there is no need for
federal intervention," he said, adding there is no political motivation for refusing federal assistance. "We are handling these cases within the means we have, and we
are doing a good job."

Many in Maranhao disagree. The murders have terrorized poor children and their families. Some children are refusing to leave their parents' sides or are having
nightmares. Teachers say children are drawing frightful images during classes.

That's because the killings have intensified recently. Fifteen of the 21 have occurred within the last six years, five in just the past 14 months.

The murders are always similar, but almost never identical -- leading police and others to assume that several killers are involved. While all the boys are found
mutilated in some way -- and almost all have been castrated -- the specific manner in which the boys were tortured has varied, police reports suggest. The cause of
death has ranged widely, from bleeding to suffocation and other means.

Most of the parents, however, are holding responsible the "witchcraft" sects. "I've heard the rumors, and I fear they are true," cried Maria do Rosario Souza, 32,
whose 10-year-old boy Raimundo Luis was killed in September 2000. "Oh God, how could people like this exist?"

Souza, an indigent widow, took part in a "March for Justice" organized by the parents of the boys last week. About 300 family members and supporters paraded
down the streets of Sao Luis, demanding federal assistance with the investigations.

As she marched, Souza clutched the hands of her two remaining boys, Marcos, 8, and Marcelo, 6. Marcos is so devastated by the loss of his older brother that he
still refuses to let his younger brother play with Raimundo's toys. Marcelo, meanwhile, refuses to go outside to play without his mother nearby.

Not that his mother would let him. "All I can think about is keeping my boys safe from these evil people," she said.

In Maranhao, the most popular African-influenced religion is Tambo de Mina, a faith that also incorporates some beliefs passed down by indigenous peoples from
the nearby Amazon region. Both anthropologists and leaders of the faith reject accusations that the murders are somehow related to Tambo de Mina.

Not far from where Serra's son was killed, Jose Itaparandi Amorim, 32, presides over one of Sao Luis's wealthiest Tambo de Mina temples. Inside, life-size statues
of the orixas adorn corners and altars. During a celebration last weekend, dozens of practitioners, elaborately dressed in white and pale yellow, danced wildly and fell
into trances as they gave their bodies up to spirits who are believed to heal wounds, bring wealth and assure good fortune.

"It is insanity that they are associating our beliefs with what is happening," said Itaparandi. "We are here to channel the positive energy of God and the spirits. We are
eager to see a resolution of these crimes -- and an absolution of our faiths."

                                               © 2001