Reporter's Notebook: Violence in the Amazon

While the destruction of the Amazon is well-documented, less well-known is the pervasive violence that informs daily life in the Amazon. Lawlessness is pervasive in a remote region of Brazil as a federal prosecutor faces death threats.

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Video images of a previously uncontacted tribe along Peru's border with Brazil captivated the world's attention this week. The discovery prompted NPR correspondent Julie McCarthy to consider other unsolved mysteries that may stir in the heart of the Amazon. Here is her Reporter's Notebook.

(Soundbite of thunder)

JULIE MCCARTHY: Storms in the Amazon have a way of sobering the mind. It's as if the skies are dishing out a violent reprimand for the violent destruction of the rainforest through logging and cattle ranching that devour millions of acres. Thunder claps in rebuke.

(Soundbite of thunder)

As formidable as nature is, there is another manmade force in the Amazon every bit as intimidating: lawlessness.

In the remote town, Altamira(ph), in the vast state of Para, 20 young men were castrated in the 1990s. Several men were convicted but the "whys" of the crime remain a mystery. Local Catholic Bishop Dom Earwin(ph) agitates still on behalf of the victims.

Bishop DOM EARWIN: Two are alive, castrated. The others ran away. Others are not discovered. Nobody knows where they are.

MCCARTHY: Disappeared.

Bishop EARWIN: Disappeared.

MCCARTHY: More recently, the bishop says, the sexual assault on young girls in the town has gone unpunished and unprobed. Dread deepened with the murder nearby of environmental crusader and American-born nun, Sister Dorothy Stang. The conviction of the man charged with ordering her killing in 2005 was recently overturned.

Bishop EARWIN: The biggest problem in our region is we don't have justice. Justice just doesn't - almost doesn't exist. With some exceptions. And so, impunity, we call it, that's very, very sad for us.

MCCARTHY: At mass, vestments hide the bishop's bulletproof vest, the price for pursuing killers and sex offenders. His round-the-clock federal police protection is of a piece with the Amazon's legal free-for-all.

Para federal prosecutor Felicio Panchez(ph) had bodyguards himself after death threats in cases involving the environment.

Mr. FELICIO PANCHEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: We live in frontier region without governments and justice, he says. Justice is in the hands of the rich and powerful who understand little of the Amazon, and they, he says, impose their will on the ordinary people here.

Nameless and faceless, the identities of those menacing the rainforest remains shrouded. One more mystery in the Amazon that resembles nothing so much as the Wild West.

SIMON: NPR's Julie McCarthy.

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