Accused of Ordering Nun's Murder, Brazilian Landowner Surrenders

BRASILIA, Brazil, March 28, 2005 (ENS) - The man accused of ordering the slaying of American missionary nun Sister Dorothy Stang in February turned himself in to police late Sunday in the Amazon city of Altamira, Para, about 80 miles from where the murder took place.

Police arrested landowner Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, nicknamed "Bida," who maintains his innocence in the shooting of the 74 year old conservationist missionary. He was implicated when a handgun was found on his farm that ballistics tests determined was the weapon used to kill Stang. No further suspects remain at large.


Sister Dorothy Stang lived in Brazil for 30 years as a conservationist missionary (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Stang was shot in the face at point blank range on February 12 in the northern rainforest town of Anapu where she worked to protect the rainforest for poor settlers against the region's wealthy ranchers.

"The crime was exposed by the joint efforts of the Federal Police and state police forces in slightly more than 12 days, and, yesterday, with the arrest of one of the authors of the crime, all that is left is to reveal his relations with other individuals in order for the crime to be deciphered once and for all," said Justice Minister Márcio Thomaz Bastos.

The minister said the capture of Bida, and of confessed gunman Clodoaldo Carlos Batista in late February, show that the Federal Public Safety System established at the start of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's administration is working well.

The system provides for the integrated management of information and public safety systems, police training, expert examinations, and the prevention of violence in the country.

President Lula said last week that the government will become more active in the effort to stamp out lawlessness since Stang was shot. "The days of impunity are over. Brazil has laws; it is not a no-man's land," he said.

Senator Ana Julia Carepa of Para, who heads an External Commission of the Brazilian Senate to track investigations into Stang's death, said, "We are almost certain that there is a partnership to eliminate rural leaders based on the conflict in the region."

Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Stang was a naturalized Brazilian citizen after living in Brazil for more than 30 years.

The nun was a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. The order said her mission was "to help poor farmers build independent futures for their families." She worked with the Pastoral Land Commission, the Catholic Church's arm that fights for the rights of rural workers, peasants and defends land reforms in Brazil.


Peasant farmers in Anapu who Sister Dorothy was working to protect. (Photo courtesy DKA)
Stang lived in Anapu, a new county created by peasant farmers who migrated from the northeast of Brazil into the Amazon rainforest following agrarian land reform.

About 173,000 acres of the forest had been declared unproductive three years ago and was given to the farmers by Brazil’s National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform.

The farmer’s organization, “Sem Terra,” which means without land, has 600 member families involved in the project. The land is rich in cedar and mahogany, and it attracted the attention of loggers and corporate landowners. Stang and the farm families had received death threats connected with their protection of the land.

Some 2,000 soldiers were deployed to Para to assist in the Stang investigation.

In February, President Lula signed a decree creating an 8.15 million acre forest reserve and a 1.1 million acre national park in Para.

Late last year and in early 2005, Lula gave in to logging interests by restoring logging licenses to people working on the Amazon frontier. The government suspension of licenses last year brought thousands of loggers and land developers out to protest by blockading highways and burning buses. They threatened to seize an airport and poison rivers if the government did not restore their logging rights.