São Gabriel and its Demons

Natalia Viana

Artwork by Feliciano Lana

She departed one day before her birthday. Maria—we’ll call her that—would have turned twenty on March 2nd, 2015. No one would have guessed that she was anything but another young indigenous girl walking the streets of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, a municipality on the banks of the Rio Negro, in the northeast of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. She was short, wore tight-fitting clothes and flip-flops, and her dark hair brushed her shoulders. But Maria was just passing through. At her funeral, her family remembered how they had come down the river during the school holiday, a time when indigenous people of different ethnicities leave their villages in order to run errands in the city. It was there that Maria had met her boyfriend, a soldier. When she wasn’t with her friends, she would spend time with him. But by the end, Maria had grown sad: she and her boyfriend had broken up. She was strange, on edge. Her family said she even hallucinated. Her parents had been happy that the relationship ended. No one had ever met the soldier. They had never seen his face. He would hide in the shadows, they said, the ones cast by the little homes stacked one on top of another in a small slum in Dabaru, the neighborhood where they lived, one of the poorest in the city. His face was always covered by the darkness of night. Was he black, was he white—was he one of us?

Maria had spent Saturday afternoon and evening drinking on the riverbank with her older brother and their friends, and then, early morning on Sunday, March 1st, she suddenly started to transform. She became aggressive. Her eyes weren’t her own, Maria’s brother said; they rolled back into her head and changed color while she screamed that her parents didn’t love her, that he was the favorite child. The brother dragged Maria home, but when they got there, her parents couldn’t see her. All they could see was something dark, a shadow that stood in her place. A dark being. Her father couldn’t bring himself to get up from his hammock in the small room he shared with the children. He sobbed, distressed. Maria shut herself in the other room, slamming the door. The family couldn’t open it, even though they claim that it hadn’t been locked. Through an opening in the wall, they watched Maria find a rope and hang herself. Immediately afterwards, the door opened. She was already dead.

At the time this story was written, Maria was the most recent victim of an alarming tragedy that has occurred repeatedly—and in roughly the same way—for at least ten years in São Gabriel da Cachoeira. The General Secretary of the Presidency of the Republic measured the situation through the 2014 Violence Map, which uses data from the Ministry of Health’s Information System on Mortality. According to the report, the per capita suicide rate is far higher in São Gabriel than in any other Brazilian municipality. In 2012, there were 51.2 suicides for every 100 thousand residents—a rate ten times the national average. This corresponds to twenty people dying by suicide that year, even more than the previous year, which recorded sixteen suicides.

São Gabriel is also the Brazilian city with the highest per capita indigenous population. The twenty-three ethnicities that have lived along the banks of the Rio Negro for at least 3000 years now make up approximately 76% of the population. Today, the municipality’s more than 44,000 inhabitants are divided between those who live in the urban area—stretching from the banks of the river to the foundations of the São Gabriel fort, built by the Portuguese in 1761—and the hundreds of indigenous villages that scatter the rainforest, some of which are a two- or three-day boat trip from the city. This territory that houses these communities, the largest mosaic of indigenous land in Brazil, spans over 62 thousand miles and is bigger than Portugal. There live the Baniwa, Kuripako, Dow, Hupda, Nadöb, Yuhupde, Baré, Warekena, Arapaso, Bará, Barasana, Desana, Karapanã, Kubeo, Macuna, Mirity-tapuya, Pira-tapuya, Siriano, Tariana, Tukano, Tuyuca, Wanana, and Yanomami.

According to the 2014 Violence Map, only five of the total of seventy-three deaths between 2008 and 2012 were not indigenous. Of the indigenous suicides, 75% were young people, like Maria. Many family members and friends say that their loved ones took their lives after being haunted by dark beings, by dead family members, or by the devil himself. These spirits called on their victims for months on end before finally taking them by force.

But those who come to São Gabriel and ask about the suicides on the street, in bars, or at churches will hear that it is a problem of the past. A crisis, an outbreak, done, gone, no more talking about that. It’s been some time since the topic drew in journalists from upstream with their voice recorders and their questions. After a few short days of asking around, however, Agência Pública began to find recent suicide cases.  And there are a lot of them, all over the place.

Take Mr. Zeferino, who can be found sitting against the trunk of a tree in a plot of land where two houses stand—his own and that of his children—in the far-off Tiago Montalvo neighborhood. Zeferino Teles Lima has a hunched back and small eyes clouded by cataracts. He doesn’t like to talk, but the memory of his son Tiago haunts him. Mixing the Tukano language with the bit of Portuguese he knows, the indigenous Tariano says in a low voice, “you always think . . . there he was, working his land, working in his house, where he slept . . . I’ve thought about it a lot . . . I still think about it, you know? I don’t get angry, not really . . . I get really sad.” The image of his son haunts him day and night, calling out to him. Zeferino sought out traditional medicine from his tribe to free him from the thoughts. “I asked them, and they gave me a blessing. If they hadn’t given me a blessing, I’d have died already. I’d have followed him, you know?” he said. Afterwards, he went to a Catholic priest. “Because I don’t normally feel sad, but now I do. Then the priest blessed me, on my head. And it’s passed a bit now, it’s slowly getting better.”

According to the family, Tiago Lima died on April 10, 2014 in the Nova Esperança community located in the interior of the municipality, up the Uaupés River. He was drunk. The sale of alcohol is prohibited on indigenous lands, but the community was preparing for their celebration of Domingo de Ramos, and Tiago easily found a vendor ready to sell him cachaça. He bought three cartoezinhos—little plastic bottles of sugarcane rum, six ounces each. No one saw Tiago tie the rope, which he set up after a small argument with his brother, who also lived in the house. Tiago’s father sums it up: “He hanged himself.” The word “suicide” does not exist in his language.


No Official Records

The only existing survey of suicide attempts in the region is carried out by the Rio Negro Special Indigenous Health District (DSEI/RN), a federal agency under the Ministry of Health responsible for the health and welfare of indigenous people living in traditional villages. The organization does not process or register cases that take place in urban areas. And the numbers recorded for people living in indigenous villages are incredibly low. According to data that the DSEI sent to Pública, there was just one attempted suicide reported in 2014. The year before, just seven attempts were reported. According to the World Health Organization, for every suicide there are at least ten attempted suicides.

“People are alarmed. They don’t know what to do, and you don’t see that in the reports. There are so many suicide attempts, but they don’t get into the official numbers,” says Aloísio Cabalzar, an anthropologist with the Socio-environmental Institute, which for twenty-five years has worked in Tukano, Tuiuka, and Dessana communities along the Tiquié, a tributary of the Rio Negro in the far northwest of Amazonas state. In that period, he estimates that he knew at least ten people that killed themselves: “I saw it all the time. Suicide has always been around, but it used to be atypical. It’s become far more common, more frequent. People are afraid . . . families are afraid that their children will kill themselves. Because a lot of the suicides were of young people, right around twenty years old.” The one thing families in the upper Tiquié River are sure of is that the hangings began in the city of São Gabriel, not in the villages. “Because of the history of contact with white people, there’s this idea that sickness, in general, moves upriver from the mouth of the Amazon. Suicide is also a contagious disease that has reached communities, moving upstream from the source, São Gabriel,” the anthropologist says.

Rio Negro suicides are part of an alarming national context: in 2010, indigenous people made up 0.4% of the Brazilian population, but accounted for 1% of suicides. The most notorious case is that of the Guarani Kaiowá in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. According to the Indigenous Missionary Council, there were 684 deaths by suicide in that tribe from 2000–2013, and 73 of those cases took place in 2013. The Violence Map shows that Mato Grosso do Sul suffers an indigenous suicide rate of 19.9%, which is seven times more than one would expect from a state that contains only 2.9% of the country’s total indigenous population. The report calls it a “truly pandemic situation of suicides amongst indigenous youth.”

But unlike the situation of the Guarani-Kaiowá in Mato Grosso do Sul, the northwest of the Amazon has no major land conflicts, even though some parts of the region are in the process of designating indigenous territories. Thanks to organizing efforts carried out by the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro (FOIRN), indigenous culture permeates São Gabriel. It is the only Brazilian city with four official languages: in addition to Portuguese, those languages are Tukano, Baniwa, and also Nheengatu, the lingua franca imposed by Jesuits in the seventeenth century, and which is still widely spoken today amongst certain ethnic groups. Between 2008–2012, São Gabriel was the only Brazilian city with both an indigenous mayor and vice-mayor—from the Tariana and Baniwa tribes, respectively. Most indigenous families in traditional villages spend long periods of time in the homes of their relatives in São Gabriel—an “extension” of village communities—and maintain their “home base” in remote areas, where women continue to plant manioc, pepper, corn, and pineapple.

Suicide is a tragic and disturbing interruption of human life. To investigate it, one must first recognize that it is inexplicable. An enigma that no civilization has ever solved, suicide is tied to how a society understands both death and its own existence. Suicide has been condemned, persecuted, and passionately debated throughout history. While some philosophers in ancient Rome celebrated the heroism of killing oneself, the act was prohibited for slaves and soldiers, as it was considered a crime against property; only free men could die by suicide. After the third century AD, Roman law established punishments for suicide beyond death itself: even marrying the widow of someone who committed suicide was something that could be punished. In the Middle Ages in Europe, voluntary death also carried consequences for the person who died: their body would be dragged through the streets, mutilated, and exhibited in public squares, and the person’s goods confiscated. Shakespeare coined one of the most celebrated phrases of western literature, “to be or not to be, that is the question” in 1600, forty-two years before the word “suicide” would be used for the first time, also in England. Before that, the act was referred to as self-killing, self-murder, self-slaying, or self-destruction.

For centuries, suicide has been a disquieting question. It is an unacceptable, unseemly death. And that is no different for indigenous communities. Rarely do they discuss the dead or the details of a suicide and its circumstances. That is why Valéria Magalhães, a psychologist with DSEI/RN, was amazed by Maria’s family’s story, retold at the beginning of this article. “It’s very rare for them to talk about what happened. On that day, I don’t know if it’s because it was so raw, since it was the day of the funeral, but the family described that they had seen a dark being next to her. Then, that being possessed her and made her kill herself. She wasn’t the one who killed herself, it was the dark being who had followed her for some time who did it. They told me that, right there, and they were so certain. There was no doubt in their minds. That death was going to happen. There was no way to avoid it,” describes the psychologist, who for some time met with the family on a regular basis. “It wouldn’t help for me to tell them: ‘This is auto-suggestion, you didn’t actually see that.’ What’s true to them is what is important, not what’s true to me. And this is what they’ve experienced.”


São Gabriel and its Dead

The first thing you have to know upon arriving in São Gabriel da Cachoeira is that Large Serpent lives under the hill that runs along the river beach of white sands and dark waters, waiting, ready to swallow up the unsuspecting visitor, indigenous or white, who carelessly ventures out into the forceful rapids. There, the white and blue Catholic church stands alongside the Diocese building, and the furious, unceasing sound of water colors the landscape. At night, when the noise from the traffic and bars quiets, it seems as though the waterfalls formed by river rocks pass over the city and sweep everything away, much like the children and teens who, in the stories, end up pulled into the river snake’s embrace. In 2005 and 2006, it seemed as though the darkness of the river had suddenly washed over all of São Gabriel. Before, cases of suicide were sporadic, Aloísio Cabalzar says. He remembers the first notorious death, which happened in 2001. The man, thirty-one years old, was an acquaintance of the anthropologist. He was a member of the Desana tribe from the São Luiz community on the banks of the Tiquié River. He killed himself by drinking timbó, a natural poison typically used for hunting and fishing in the region. “That case really shocked people, everyone was surprised.” It was just a signal of what was soon to come: “In 2005, everything changed.”

That year, the Dabaru neighborhood was relatively new and bustled with scores of recent arrivals from indigenous villages. Most came in search of secondary education for their children, since the rural communities only have elementary schools. Lighting was spotty along the dirt streets, and residents had no running water, sewage system, or access to public transportation.  People mostly walked, and women carried babies on their hips. The most well-off would get around on a ramshackle bicycle. The neighborhood also held the only medical center in the city, The Garrison Hospital, administered by the military. On the evening before Children’s Day, celebrated in Brazil on October 12, a young girl was rushed to the emergency room. She had just hanged herself. She was only thirteen years old.

The shock surrounding the death of the young girl, Laísa, went beyond her immediate family, sweeping over the school and eventually the entire city. It was a dark end to the year. Other students, neighbors, and people who knew the girl started to have visions, according to a report from Army Lieutenant Graciete Carvalho, who at the time was a nurse at Guarnição Hospital. The report was later reproduced in a detailed investigation carried out by the Federal Public Ministry in 2011.

“On October 11 (Tuesday) a 13-year-old girl who had hanged herself was brought to the hospital after being found by her 16-year-old cousin. ( . . . ) Everyone thought that the incident was related to child abuse, or even sexual abuse, which was rumored to have occurred when she lived in Manaus with her mother, but that notion changed when her cousin entered into a state of shock after the funeral and began acting strangely. ( . . . ) On October 24 (Monday), another minor, this time a 12-year-old, girl came to the hospital because she had hanged herself. On October 31 (Monday), a 17-year-old girl arrived suffering a psychotic episode, according to Major Cid, the psychiatrist. She appeared completely deranged, and there were moments in which she held her breath for so long that we had to shake her until she could breathe normally. During the hallucination, she said that [Laísa] wanted to take her and the other girls.” On November 7, also a Monday, a 14-year-old boy, one of Laísa’s neighbors in Dabaru, hanged himself. Graciete describes how the following week, “there were a few more attempts and countless notes and letters expressing a desire to die by suicide. On November 10, we treated a 12-year-old girl who had attempted to hang herself. She said that she sometimes heard disturbing voices. She couldn’t fall asleep and would feel an intense longing to pick up a rope.” On November 11, another girl went to the hospital because she was very sad and distressed, according to the girl’s family. They said: “the kids who died are trying to take her.” The next day, a 17-year-old girl went to the Guardianship Council. Her sister found her with a rope around her neck and rescued her. The girl was also one of Laísa’s neighbors.”

One of her aunts found a list of Laísa’s school classmates in the building of a crafts association where the girl would meet up with her friends. The list was taken as a premonition of who was going to die. The suicide notes multiplied in Inês Penha, Laísa’s school. Many children hinted at neglect, some mentioned bullying at school. Others were calm, like this twelve-year-old girl: “My dad, mom, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters were all good to me. Mom, I’m sorry for what I said to you the other day. Dad, thank you so much for everything that you taught me. Brothers and sisters, I know that you are all too young to understand, and F., I know that deep down in your heart you really liked me. I love all of you so much, xoxo. Teacher, thank you so much for everything you taught me, I know that sometimes I made a real mess of things and wrote my letters wrong but it’s because I get nervous. Hugs and kisses for everyone.” The principal stopped classes before the end of the academic year.

The emergencies in the hospital multiplied. “On November 19 (Saturday) we were called in, Major Cid and I, to see another girl, 16-years-old, who was completely in a daze. When I got to the emergency room I saw the despair of the family members who were restraining the girl, because she would run from one side of the room to the other, her hands covering her ears, shaking with a terrified look on her face, saying that she saw a man wearing black and three of the children who had hanged themselves. They said they wanted to take her. According to a friend who had helped her, she was home alone, sitting in a corner, hands on her head, shouting that she didn’t want to go. The friend states that she said she had looked for rope and couldn’t find any at home, and that the man in black said he would wait for her to get sad and then he would come and get her. When we spoke to the mother, I asked if anything had happened at home. She just said that she had “scolded her a lot.” Major Cid saw the patient and had to prescribe an anti-psychotic since she was having a nervous breakdown. [ . . . ] She was taken to the hospital three weekends in a row. But her behavior changed. We’ve been following her case since November 21. The mother—since the father was in Manaus for health treatment—sought out a traditional healer, who finished helping the girl a week ago. She actually got a lot better, in part because her father returned from Manaus, but sometimes she still talks about headaches and a certain kind of sadness.” Ever since then, the Lieutenant continues, new cases came to the hospital every weekend—and they weren’t just children from Inês Penha. Sixteen teens tried to kill themselves at the end of that year, according to research carried out by the MPF.


São Gabriel and its Punishments

The Municipal Health Secretary is on the second floor of a white building on the city’s crowded main street, a noisy four-lane avenue. A few stores monopolize business, their signs proudly stamped with the owners’ family names– owners that came to the region from other states in search of money and power. With the sound of electric forró playing incessantly in the background, the stores sell all the household items you can find in a catalogue, adapted for the Amazon: fans, mattresses, shoes, pots, notebooks, pans for drying manioc flour, gasoline tanks for the motors of the little wooden boats that go to the communities in the interior. From his desk, the Health Secretary Luiz Lopes responds to Agência Pública on the phone. The question is if the mayor’s office has taken action to address the problem. “No,” he says, and continues, with enviable sincerity: “I don’t know what to tell you. It keeps happening, and it happens a lot. But it’s very debatable, I haven’t read a single report on the issue in São Gabriel that’s been conclusive. There isn’t information, there isn’t solid data,” he says. “I think that we have to find the cause, the factors at play. Unfortunately, we don’t know what the cause is. What is this connected to? Alcoholism? Drugs? Something cultural?”

The secretary seems to ignore the inherent injustice of associating the suicides with indigenous culture or traditions. It means ignoring historical factors—especially first contact with white men—which were always traumatic. There is not a single girl in São Gabriel, not one indigenous man or woman, who does not carry in their own experience or in the memory of their ancestors unspeakable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of building the Brazilian nation. And with that violence came a concept, introduced through the vivid imagination of the Salesian priests who controlled the region for much of the past century—the devil, who remains there to this day.

Mrs. Elza is always smiling. She laughs at life as though she were forever scoffing at the Salesian nuns who educated her. Her front window—always open—looks out onto a riverbank made up stones, and when someone stops by, they will usually find her sitting in her wheelchair in front of a sewing machine, ready to talk. She laughs about the way people are afraid of her for always being in that chair; she laughs about the tragedies of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, old and new; she laughs about the old wives tales that gain traction, like the one about the rainy night on which people say she saw the man in the “black coat,” the devil himself, the one who had led all of those boys and girls to suicide. “No, I haven’t seen any demons; if someone had shown up, it would’ve been Our Lady,” she says. And laughs. Her unwavering faith, the casual way she speaks Portuguese without an accent; the sewing she works on day and night, night and day; and even her laugh, teasing, as though it were a challenge—all of these qualities in the tiny old indigenous woman come from the time she spent in a Salesian boarding school, where she studied in elementary school. Just like her husband Alfredo, a jovial member of the Tukano tribe and also a god-fearing man, and just like almost every other indigenous person in the Rio Negro region born between 1920 and 1970. According to estimates published in the press at the time, there had been more than 200 Salesian priests and nuns, most of them European, in seven missions along the Rio Negro and the Uaupés, Içana, and Tiquié rivers. The boarding schools held 4,000 children in 1980, according to a report in the Folha de São Paulo from that same year.

The Salesian Congregation came to the Rio Negro with government financing and free reign to educate and convert indigenous people, with the goal of integrating them into “Brazilian society.” In 1914, the first mission headquarters was built, along with a church that still stands to this day, just outside Mrs. Elza’s window. Ever since, the priests went from village to village, collecting six- or seven-year-old children to be taken to the boarding schools. The idea was to separate them from their parents in order to save them from their “sinful” heritage, which the priests thought was filled with the devil. The church also charged itself with repressing all indigenous customs. The community’s malocas—huts that are a symbol of communal living—were demolished, and little one-room houses were built in their place. The most recent demolition was in 1960. Jurupari, a figure considered to be a hero within diverse ethnicities, was labeled as the “devil.” Communal festivals like dabacuri were deemed evil and swiftly prohibited. Shamans were ridiculed and their rituals banned. That is how the Salesians brought the devil to the region. Memories of that time stay alive, passed down from grandparents and shamans to kids who today watch teen soap operas on TV and dye their hair green. “They didn’t let us speak our language,” Mrs. Elza says. As a punishment for speaking Tukano, the nuns once made her walk all afternoon in front of their classmates with a sign on her back reading: “I am the devil.” There were worse punishments. Once, she stole a piece of bread from the kitchen—a mortal sin—and a Sister cut her fingernails until they bled. They also couldn’t talk to boys as the Tukano had always done in their villages. “We couldn’t even look up during mass, imagine that. And we were used to all being together,” Mrs. Elza says, and then laughs at the cruelty of the Catholic sisters.


Surveillance was constant in the boarding schools, even when related to personal hygiene—from using the bathroom, brushing teeth, to washing clothes in the river. Corporal punishment was common: paddles, kneeling for hours, eating salt. All of the girls had their hair cut while the boys were shaved. Numbered uniforms identified them during their four years at school. The outfits were always designed in European style with fabric fully covering the body, both for the girls, in long, short-sleeved dresses and for the boys in long pants and shirts. They woke up at six to go to mass, they went to class all morning, and in the afternoon they played sports, cleaned the imposing Salesian buildings, and worked in the fields, planting what everyone would eat in the days that followed. Or, they would do construction work, building furniture, and other equipment used in the mission, or labor in sweatshops, sewing clothing. The girls washed pounds of laundry and did domestic chores. They still had time for countless military exercises, sometimes with rifles in hand, in order to “build character.” These exercises can be seen in the videos from the documentary Remições do rio Negros (Redemption of the Rio Negro) directed by Erlan Souza and Fernanda Bizarria, shown below.





The degree of the rigidity paid off when the schools impressed the few authorities passing through the region, ensuring that the area would receive more public funding. After visiting the Taraquá and Tapuruquara communities along the Uaupés River in 1958, Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek wrote excitedly about the children he saw waving flags and signing the national anthem “with patriotic enthusiasm”: “The Salesians have made a new Brazil arise in the middle of virgin, secular forest, creating a new generation that in many ways emulates the official policy of my administration to conquer our country’s interior, affirming the triumph of spirit and work directed to the ideal of a better Brazil. I applaud the Salesians pioneering this new civilization in the Amazon valley and pledge the support and cooperation of my administration.”

It was only in the 1980s, at the end of the military dictatorship, that indigenous leaders like Álvaro Tukano and organizations such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Council of South America could denounce Salesian oppression. Only then did public education replace the boarding school system for indigenous children. In addition to causing irreparable harm to the indigenous cultural imaginary, the Salesians also earned a decent amount of money from the labor of the newly Christianized children. They sold artisan goods at a high margin of profit in southern capital cities São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and in the indigenous museum in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, which they also managed; the Brazilian Air Force, omnipresent in the area during the dictatorship (1964–85), transported the goods for free. All of the labor was extremely cheap—indigenous people built new schools, churches, and missions—and they “integrated” indigenous youth into local society as good employees. “Today, if a family in Manaus needs a domestic worker, they can just go to the Salesian organization in the city and they will quickly find an indigenous girl to work in their home,” reads an article in the Folha de São Paulo from March 1980. “Because of this cruel system, the brothels in Manaus are full of indigenous girls who lose their virginity in the homes of the city’s elite and end up abandoned on the streets of Manaus,” the article concludes.


To be fair, the Salesians were not the inventors of every evil in the region. Exploiting indigenous peoples has far deeper roots. The Portuguese colonizers and missionaries went up the Amazon River and the Rio Negro as early as the seventeenth century to capture and enslave indigenous people, who would then be sent to Belém, the capital of the Grão Pará colony, and to Maranhão. The estimated number of enslaved indigenous people in the region was nearly 20,000, and that number does not include those who were killed for resisting or those who died from smallpox and measles.

The first encounters with white colonizers were so violent that they have become part of creation myths shared by local ethnic groups, according to which humanity came to earth in the Cobra-Canoe. The myth continues to describe how, before inhabiting the deepest parts of the interior, humans were able to travel through Milk Lake, located in Rio de Janeiro, the capital of the Portuguese colony at the time of first contact with indigenous peoples. Moving up the Rio Negro, the ethnicities each landed in their respective territories; and to this day, the status hierarchy of indigenous ethnicities is based on the order in which they landed their canoes. In the middle of the trip, the spiritual entity responsible for creation (Ye’pa Õ’akĩhɨ in Tukano, Ñapirikoli in Baniwa) placed a series of objects on the ground that the humans could choose from. And this is what happened: the white ancestors took rifles and merchandise while the indigenous ancestors preferred the bow and arrow and ceremonial objects.

After the nineteenth century, the inhabitants of the Rio Negro escaped from the yoke of slavery to work at the mercy of merchants, “hucksters” who used debt to ensure indigenous servitude. Their strategy was to compensate labor so poorly that workers would go into debt trying to buy goods sold at inflated prices. The most distinguished “masters” went upriver, terrorizing indigenous villages in search of men and boys strong enough to harvest latex and rubber, in addition to cacao and palm. “The elaborate mechanisms of debt, the use of liquor to incentivize indigenous men, the sexual abuse of women, and the trafficking of children to be sold in the major cities of Manaus and Belém are just a few examples of the violence that white men perpetrated as they traveled this region,” writes anthropologist Cristiane Lasmar in her book De volta ao Lago do Leite—Gênero e transformação no alto rio Negro (Back to Milk Lake: Gender and Transformation on the Upper Rio Negro).


The Founding of the City

The first urban boom in São Gabriel took place after the peak of Salesian boarding schools. Because the city lies along a border region, the dictatorship designated the area a risk to national security in June 1968 and installed its National Integration Plan in the region. The law brought more than 4,000 men—including the First Army Engineering and Construction Battalion and privately contracted labor from the companies Queiroz Galvão and EIT (Empresa Industrial Técnica)—to build the North Perimeter freeway (BR-210) and the BR-307 highway (which goes to Cucuí on the border with Venezuela). In the mid-1970s, the city built basic infrastructure for water and electricity. This is also when the first public schools were built to serve the children of soldiers and laborers who had moved to the area. After the Salesian boarding schools shut down, public education also began to receive indigenous children as students, who traveled to the city from their communities in the interior.

Rape of indigenous women marked the period, according to accounts collected by the anthropologist Cristiane Lasmar: “They describe how white men took girls to the highway construction site to ‘do rounds’—in other words, to be gang raped,” she writes. They were indigenous women who came from their communities to work in the homes of soldiers and construction workers—the same women who were once girls educated by the Salesians to work in family homes. Rape cases continue in the twenty-first century. Since 2010, a group of “fat cats” reinvented the “rounds” from the 1970s, luring girls between nine and thirteen years old into a network of sexual exploitation, sometimes by force, sometimes in exchange for trifles like candy, cookies, or some product needed by the girls’ uncles or fathers. The criminals all had important last names, including the Carneiro brothers—Arimatéia, Manuel, and Marcelo—owners of major commercial stores along the city’s main street, and the former city council person for the Partido da República (PR) party, Aelson Dantas da Silva. Reporter Katia Brasil from the site Amazônia Real interviewed one of the victims, who said her virginity cost the rapist $20 reais—which today is roughly $6 USD. “He took me to the room and took off my clothes. It was my first time, which made me sad,” the victim said. Other girls talk about how they got chocolate, money, and brand-name clothes in exchange for their virginity. “What would these men do? One would go to the high school and when the girls were around, he’d offer them snack food. Then he’d start taking them into his car to go somewhere. A fast food place. It was always about hunger, about the ache in their stomachs. And afterwards he’d start to give them presents, and that’s how it went. And when the guys really wanted something, they would also start buying things for the girls’ dads. So then the man would seem safe to the family, like ‘he’s a good guy,’” says a public servant who followed some of the cases but asked not to be identified. Even now, speaking out about the network of child sexual abuse scares the most important witnesses. The public prosecutor arrested and indicted ten people on the basis of testimonies from sixteen girls. Three of the men, including the Carneiro brothers, are in prison without bail for threatening witnesses and journalists. The third brother, Marcelo, has been missing since making a habeas corpus claim during a court session in early May 2015, after which he was immediately released. The habeas corpus decision was revoked the following day.

The fact that this abuse has finally come to court is due in large part to the efforts of federal prosecutor Júlio Araújo. On a visit to the city in 2012, Araújo was shocked by what he saw. Everyone knew about the scheme, and it functioned in broad daylight, on busy streets in low-income neighborhoods and in front of public schools. “There was an effort to treat the issue as something natural or cultural in the city. And that really reflects the vulnerable state the girls are in. People in the city say it’s normal, that it was always this way,” Araújo says. The prosecutor started the Federal Public Ministry’s case, arguing that the accused caused collective moral harm. “That’s what people who aren’t indigenous say, they see this as something ordinary. They say, ‘even the parents are okay with it’ or ‘it’s better for them.’ Any submissiveness on the part of the indigenous girls is taken as support for the idea that the rapes serve the girls’ interests.”


Maximiliano’s Search

A little room in the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation building in Manaus is filled with books and papers piled in disorderly stacks on the table. There, the psychiatric doctor and researcher Maximiliano Loiola Ponte de Souza is one of the few people who has diligently pursued the painful question of Rio Negro suicides—one of the few willing to try and understand them. He spent many of the past seven years in “Indian city” in the Iauaretê district, specifically, where the language most commonly heard on the narrow streets is Tukano, where few white people are seen, and where the signs are written in a range of indigenous languages. His starting point was research he undertook for his master’s and doctoral theses, the first about violence within indigenous communities and the second about alcoholism. From that work, he gained a rare understanding of the people who pass through intense suffering, of how important it is to listen to the wise men, or the “native intellectuals,” as he puts it. “I use myth, not to understand what is happening but to see how people understand what is happening.” Suicide, he says, has characteristics inherent to the individual as well as qualities drawn from the social world and spiritual beliefs, “which act in tandem to drive vulnerable people to take their own lives.”

Maximiliano sees a pattern in the cases of suicides narrated by the indigenous community: “You have some sort of previous conflict, which usually has to do with sexuality or obeying rules. And then, in the moment when the person drinks, the conflict resurfaces.” The key, he says, lies in rules of social interaction, which are imbued with traditional values along the Rio Negro. They define who you eat with, who you do and don’t have sexual relations with. “So blaming it on alcohol isn’t enough,” he states.

Alcohol as a freely available substance is a relatively new phenomenon: a few decades ago, precarious transportation made distributing it difficult. Indigenous people had always used caxiri, a drink made of fermented manioc and corn. Only women produced the drink, and it was only for festivals. And then everyone, from children to elders, would drink until they passed out. They would get up, dance, and do it all over again the next day. The festival lasted as long as there was caxiri left. “This was the moment for conflicts to be resolved, to make nice, to build new alliances, or even to start a fight,” Maximiliano describes.

In his doctoral thesis, he explains that the idea of “drinking every last drop, until you pass out” still exists. But, “as they themselves say, drinking in the city never ends.” Nor does it in the villages.

As he picked up his papers, filled with notes and annotations, he asks aloud what would be the best public health intervention to resolve the problem. “This is seen as a mental health problem. To be honest, I don’t know if that’s the right approach, but I also can’t say that it isn’t. Is it better for us to go to psychiatrists or to take a different strategy and go to people who work with low-income communities and slums, who do public conflict mediation? Because if the problem is conflict, then I’ve got to confront conflict, not depression,” he says. “Let’s not be naïve: we aren’t going to end all conflicts among Indians.”

Maximiliano doesn’t leave out what is known as the “spiritual dimension” of suicide. He speaks about the belief, often cited, that the spirits of those who kill themselves stay trapped on earth, coming back to drag away who were close to them during life. “It’s as though it were a tug-of-war between the dead and the living,” he explains. And elaborates: “The existence of ‘suicide contagion’ is well documented in public health studies. In small, traditional, rural populations, it’s extremely well documented. Various studies show how suicide has this dynamic where people who know each other kill themselves in a chain of suicides. I think the theory about spirits who search for the living is in some way related to that. It's the native way of explaining what’s been happening.”

He reflects on one word: contagion. “Look at how we read this in the west. We call it ‘contagion.’ Because we have our own myths, a paradigm that say something called bacteria exists, passing from one person to the next. Bacteria are what makes sickness pass from one person to the next. In the native conception of the world, a person can have exactly the same experience—that of observing how people close to each other are killing themselves—but their repertoire of explanations will come from their own cosmology, grounded in relationships to the natural world, spirits, etc. These are strategies to explain what is going on when people who are in the same family, close to one another, take their own lives.”


The Ocelot-Shaman


“Has someone from the government come to speak with you, Mr. Mandu?” The reply is negative, a shake of the head. No public health worker, psychologist, or government employee has sought out Mr. Mandu, one of the most powerful shamans currently residing in São Gabriel da Cachoeira. Known for his ancestral wisdom, he is the only ocelot-shaman of the Baniwa people still living. The ocelot-shaman is the most advanced stage of shamanism for the Baniwa; training for the role lasts around ten years. The Shamanic Studies Foundation, a nonprofit organization located in California, considers Mr. Mandu—Manoel da Silva, officially—to be a “living treasure.” He inspired the construction of the first Shaman School on the Ayari River so that he could pass his knowledge down to younger members of the community. Mr. Mandu’s powers are so immense that he makes sickness of the physical world turn into black stone when he blesses his clients, who pay between $150 and $200 reais (40 to 50 dollars) for a single session. Ercília, his daughter, says her father is 94 years old, and she is the one who translates Mr. Mandu’s words, uttered vehemently in Baniwa as a response to the reporter’s questions about the “hangings.” It is only age that makes him pause and let his daughter speak freely, acting as his interpreter. Sometime he talks over her in both Portuguese and Baniwa, correcting what she said.

“No, they didn’t happen before, it’s only started recently . . . ”

Located at the end of a forested dirt road in the Padre Cícero neighborhood, Mr. Mandu’s house is where dozens of families facing suicide attempts come for help. Elizabeth da Silva sought out Mr. Mandu when she tried to soothe the girl that constantly saw Laísa, her dead cousin who had committed suicide: “He really helped us,” Elizabeth says. “We, Indian people, believe in these things.”

Mr. Mandu’s daughter says that the last flesh and blood client to be treated was a ninteen-year-old Tukano boy who passed through the house in 2013. “He gets drunk and then doesn’t know what he’s doing, he picks up a rope because he says he hears something in his ear . . . This is what he hears: ‘Go pick up the rope right now, I want to see you tie it around your neck, and then you’ll be like me.’ And then he tied the rope.” His mother saw him hanging like that and managed to cut the rope down with a knife. When he regained consciousness, he begged to be taken to a healer.

The ocelot-shaman states that he has personally seen the spirit nearly three years ago. “He says that it is a black man . . . Tall and black. Strong. He says that he’s like us. Except he is black. Black, tall, very strong,” the daughter describes. I ask if the ocelot-shaman has heard of the figure dressed in black that the girls from the Maria Inês Penha school said they could see, calling them. “That’s him, the same one. There is only one,” Mr. Mandu replies in Portuguese. In an encounter with the spirit, the shaman asked him to spare his own family. He immediately told Ercília: “Listen, my daughter, we are going to wait for one week. In one week here in this little section of our neighborhood, someone will die, because the evil spirit will pass through here.” One week later, a neighbor was found dead. He had hanged himself on a wire fence. He was the second in his family to kill himself. “A good-looking boy, Harlem,” Ercília says. Like other “family” hangings, the brother’s spirit had been roaming the area, Mr. Madu explains. “This happens when someone kills themself that way,” Ercília says. “Hanging themselves . . . Because that’s not the time for them to leave, you know? So they stay around, preying on others.”

The black spirit that still haunts São Gabriel neighborhoods has a rope knotted into a noose and travels through the sky, according to the shaman’s narrative. “After he tells them what to do, he comes down, down, before entering. And then he enters there and then, he pulls tight . . . the rope comes from up there,” says Mr. Mandu softly, as his raspy voice allows. “And then he pulls,” and the shaman demonstrates, as though he were capturing prey. The object that he mimes the spirit using isn’t exactly a noose or a lasso, but instead a kind of net, a mesh cloth that indigenous people use to capture fish and wrestle the catch to the ground.

Armando de Lima also saw that noose. But the indigenous Tariana man, who is father to fifteen children, is not as famous as Mr. Mandu. He prefers to keep the fact that he became a powerful shaman under his father’s tutelage a family secret. A large part of his childhood was dedicated to learning the craft. He spent nights listening to his father, who would tell him myths, show him how to use plants, and recite healing prayers. He repeated the words until he knew them all by heart. For each evil there are specific healing words, his father would say. “A lot of things will happen that you won’t understand,” his father told him, foreshadowing what has no term in his native tongue: that, in the future, there would be many suicides by hanging.

Armando snorted paricá—a powder made from the seed of a tree with the same name –to speak with spirits and smoked an “ancient” tobacco cigarette to cleanse sicknesses. And he continued to learn. His father explained: “You will sleepwalk a lot, spirits will talk to you, and then you will heal others.”

The first time he saw the rope was in a dream. It came from Rio de Janeiro, just like the Cobra-Canoe. “I saw so so so so so so so much, I was dreaming, you know, I dreamed, there were two little nooses up there in the sky, I was there, dreaming, the rope was in Rio de Janeiro, it came from there, the loop passed above the house, that’s where the rope came from. And then the rope called out, you know, and I saw a house over there and up above it was the rope, and then it was coming and then it was there, always looped into nooses, two of them, like a parabolic antenna . . .  And then the noose called out, like a magnet. And then I saw the children, spinning, and I screamed, and then he entered and he pulled the rope, shhhhh, he pulled the children there. He pulled in the person who he wanted to take.”

Armando de Lima is one of many shamans who draw upon healing to quell the wave of suicides accosting São Gabriel. At the request of one of his brothers, a teacher at the Maria Inês Penha school, he came to heal many of those affected by the suicides. Perhaps the greatest healing experience in his life was what he did for the poor girls at Inês Penha back in 2006. “The rope is called the evil eye,” Armando explains. “It pulls you in, you know? And it’s the thing that will kill you. He told me, it will be like how our people make snares, because it is our custom to build traps for killing fish, tapir, and all of that. We take a reed and tie a loop to it. With a rope.” The old man is the father of the president of FOIRN, Almerinda Ramos, and constantly fights for the lives of his own children, who have attempted suicide multiple times.

Even though Armando is a trained shaman, for many years his secret was forgotten. He moved to the city and his children became teachers, leaders in the indigenous community. He needed death in order to remember. It happened in 2003, when he had to undergo heart surgery. “It’s just that I know a lot, that’s why I’m alive. The spirits are there in my dreams. They told me, ‘You will go back because you have a secret, because you have not yet built anything here on earth.’ And then, in the dream, I came back. I started to work right away, once I got better. After the operation. After I died.”

Now, he fasts the afternoon before a healing in order to conjure up the blessing. He wakes up at 4 a.m. in the nighttime silence of the forest, smokes the tobacco or, with any luck, resin, the smoke of which spreads further. And then he begins to pray. “Just like in my dream, I was tied up over there, in Rio de Janeiro, because that’s where it started. I mean, that’s where Indians started living, you know, since the beginning of time. So, that’s where the rope is tied, attached, and it passes up above, and the noose comes here. And then I take away the noose with my secret, with my spirit, you know, I wind it . . . I take it down, I roll it up, and I guard the noose there in the sky. And then, afterwards, I give happiness to the person, any person. The happiness is like a bird. You’ve already seen the nightingale, you’ve seen that one . . . What’s it called, a cacique, there are two kinds of caciques, the black kind and the red kind. You have the thrush, and then there’s the one that speaks, I don’t know what that one’s called, its name, you know. And you have another, it’s a smaller bird, you know, a kind of little bird, and we approach the spirit of the little bird and ask it to stay with the child and the mother, you know? And then we call upon more . . . You’ve already seen the japu, you’ve already seen that one, the Guianan cock-of-the-rock, and then there are more of those large birds that live up high. The bird, we call upon him with our spirit, you know, our power, so that we stay can with him. What I mean is we stay with them in their joy. Afterwards, the swallow, which perches on wood, we call him, stay with him, and then after there are those . . . this . . . I don’t know how to explain it, there’s . . . The tiny little bird that’s everywhere, that sings bitiantian, bi-tian-tian ti-tian-tian, he mimics. It’s that tiny bird, at the end of it all, who’s the chief himself. He’s his father. The father, chief, ruler of all the rest, of the forest, my father told me that this was Jacamê. After him no one else comes, and he sings, majestically, tu-tu-tu-tu-tu, I don’t know if you’ve already heard the tu-tu-tu-tu-tu-tu, but he sings it, you know? Then, in his body we go, with the happiness we need to have. That is how I pray, and I finish. That is my blessing.”


translated from the Portuguese by Lara Norgaard

Originally published in Portuguese by Agencia Publica, on May 15, 2015.