Brazil's Heart of Darkness Notorious Rebel-Killer May Finally Face Justice

Like a character out of the film "Apocalypse Now," Colonel Sebastião de Moura allegedly hunted, tortured and killed rebels without remorse during Brazil's military dictatorship. Now, almost 40 years later, he is likely to face charges.

By Erich Follath and

The Curió is at home where the Amazon rainforest begins to thin out and becomes slightly less impenetrable. It has a black back, its feathers are the color of hazelnuts and its call varies from light and bell-like to somber and plaintive. Rainforest residents like to catch the bird because, in captivity, the Curió reacts aggressively when confronted with one of its own kind in a cage. The bird is known for fighting until it drops, which makes it the perfect candidate for betting operations. Its name means "friend of mankind" in the local language. It's certainly an odd bird.

The man who is nicknamed after the bird also has a loose tongue. And everyone who knows him agrees that he is ruthless and brutal. But is Colonel Sebastião Rodrigues de Moura, known as Major Curió, also a friend of mankind? His enemies and friends alike can only shake their heads at the idea. "He doesn't have any feelings at all," says his associate Lício Maciel. In fact, he adds, if the retired Brazilian officer resembles anyone, it's a fictitious character: Colonel Kurtz, who went on murderous rampages through the jungles of the Mekong Delta in Francis Ford Coppola's film "Apocalypse Now," a megalomaniac who created his own realm, a godfather of horror culled from the pages of Joseph Conrad's novel about the Congo, "Heart of Darkness."

But the events and the people involved in the Brazilian's case are real. His story is one of murder and retribution, politics and personal vendettas. It's also about guilt, for which Major Curió will likely face charges in the near future.

It began during Brazil's military dictatorship in the late 1960s, when communist fighters became established along the Rio Araguaia. They wanted to be "fish in the water of the people," like their Maoist role models in China, and they planned to expand their operations from bridgeheads in the jungle to a large-scale revolution. They were an idealistic bunch, equipped only with light weapons and constantly threatened by malaria and snakebites. They remained undiscovered for a long time by blending in with the villagers along the big river, cautiously pushing forward with their infiltration campaign.

No Prisoners

But in 1969 the military arrested regime opponents who were carrying information about the guerillas and, when tortured, revealed names. The military government was looking for someone to clean up in the Amazon region, and it found an agent within its own ranks who had just completed the army's jungle training program.

Sebastião Rodrigues de Moura came from a poor background. The son of a barber and a concierge, born in a small city in the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, he had an unspectacular childhood. His ambitions were only aroused when a cousin, who had fought with the Brazilian expedition corps alongside the Italians in World War II, was carried through the streets in a victory parade. The sight convinced Sebastião that he too would be a hero one day and achieve great things for himself and his country.

He passed the entrance examinations for the military academy, where he distinguished himself through diligence and obedience. In his free time, he became a prizefighter to augment his paltry military pay. Through neither particularly tall nor powerfully built, he won almost every fight, and that was when he acquired his nickname.

The regime seemed to have hit the jackpot with Curió. Using an assumed name and given leeway to do more or less as he pleased, he circled the rebels' presumed hideouts in helicopters, chased them in Jeeps along bush trails and pursued them in boats on the river. He soon became notorious for taking no prisoners. According to some of the grisly stories that were told about him, Curió had people beheaded and personally supervised the worst of all the torture sessions. He and his men crushed the guerilla organization and covered their tracks. There was talk of at least 60 rebels dead or missing, and of collateral damage among the rural population, which sympathized with the rebels and also suffered casualties.

The officer continued building his career during the military dictatorship. Beginning in 1980, he managed Brazil's largest gold mine, cleansing it of what he called undesirable elements, and he built an entire city centered around brothels. Even after the military was forced out of power in 1985, Curió remained on top, becoming a member of parliament and then mayor of the city that bears his name: Curionópolis.

For a long time, many Brazilians were reluctant to revisit the military's acts of brutality, preferring to forget the period instead. Under an amnesty law enacted by the military leaders in 1979, crimes committed during the dictatorship were exempt from prosecution. But then Dilma Rousseff, 65, became the country's president two years ago. Rousseff, a former guerilla fighter, had been tortured and humiliated at the hands of the generals' thugs at a prison in São Paulo.

She established a truth commission, which is expected to solve politically motivated crimes by 2014. The family members of the rebels who went missing also didn't give up, bringing a case against the Brazilian government before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It delivered a groundbreaking judgment on Nov. 24, 2010, declaring the existing amnesty invalid and recommending that the case be tried in a Brazilian court. Now a group of young prosecutors is trying to bring a case against those responsible for the atrocities. The first person against whom an indictment will likely be filed is Curió. The accused, now 78, retired long ago and is keeping quiet about the matter.

Is it truly possible to prove that he was guilty of crimes committed almost 40 years ago, and are there any witnesses left? Who has an interest in stirring up old incidents, and who would rather keep things quiet -- both in the brightly lit corridors of power in the capital Brasilia and in the place where it all happened, in the Amazon's own heart of darkness?

'He Was God'

The men are digging. Ominous dark clouds are gathering above the wide, sluggish river nearby. The tropical downpour that usually happens in the afternoon could begin at any moment. But the sun is still beating down relentlessly and the air is full of mosquitoes, and the men continue to dig. The hole is already a meter (about 3 feet) deep, but they keep digging deeper. Finally, Marco Guimarães kneels down in the pit, his black shirt soaked with perspiration, and triumphantly holds up an object.

"A human skull," the forensic pathologist from Brasilia calls up from the pit, as he carefully blows bits of sand from the bones. "Judging by the size of the jawbone, these are probably the remains of an adult male."

Could it be a murdered guerilla fighter?

"The man was buried without a coffin. The body was not pointing toward the west, as is customary in the region. There are remnants of a rope tied around the neck," the expert dictates. "All indications suggest a guerilla fighter." The scientist will only be able to provide more detail after comparing the bones with DNA from a relative, who had reported her family member missing and provided genetic material. The investigators are certain in the case of two exhumed bodies, found with the help of information from villagers who remembered the executions.

The search continues on the opposite bank of the river, reached on a rusty ferry that chugs its way through the greyish-brown water. Xambioá is a typical river village, with faded stone houses, general stores and simple fish restaurants. The cemetery is on the edge of the village, near a decorative Catholic church. The investigators are also exhuming bodies in the cemetery and categorizing the bones. Even the dead can tell stories, but only if they are properly understood.

The investigators are pinning their hopes on Manuel Cajueiro, one of the local witnesses. He is sitting on one of the white gravestones, a wizened old man who wants to help and is still plagued with remorse over what happened decades ago. "On the other hand, what could I have done?" he whispers, as if expecting absolution. "I couldn't rebel against them, because they were too powerful."

At the time, Cajueiro was forced to expedite the hunt for fleeing rebels. "Curió was the law," says the old man. "No, in fact, he was more than that: He was God." He had heads chopped off and taken to a military base as evidence. Aside from his job, Curió had few other interests. "A general once arrived in a helicopter and shouted from the cockpit: Pack up the bodies. We'll get them on the way back. Let's go fishing!" Curió went along with the general.

According to Cajueiro, the colonel personally tortured his prisoners, using iron rods or fists, and he was always unemotional and stone-faced. The old man characterizes Curió as a systematic torturer, someone who wanted to see "results." Cajueiro even witnessed his boss committing a murder once. "We had tracked down several fighters in the jungle, and they had already been disarmed and tied up," he says. "Curió asked a young female rebel what her name was. She looked at him with contempt and said: A guerillera has no name. He turned toward her, pulled out his pistol and shot her in the head. Just like that. In the head."


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