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The Case of the Dead Brazilian Torturer Gets Murkier

It wasn’t until eight or nine hours later, if several reports I have read can be credited, that the thieves finally departed, carrying off two computers, a small amount of cash, some jewels and several fire arms that had belonged to the former colonel. We may also safely assume that Malhaes by this time was already dead. There is a gap in what has been reported thus far about how the police were summoned, and when exactly they arrived at the crime scene the following morning. All reporting I’ve seen agrees that Paulo Malhaes was found face down with a pillow over his head, and in one news account which appeared soon after his body was discovered, it was said the victim had “marks on his face and neck." This led to the widely reported conclusion that Malhaes had been beaten and strangled to death.

Very soon thereafter, citing a medical examination of the cadaver conducted the same day as its discovery, police in charge of the case announced a scenario very different from premeditated homicide: that Malhaes, under extreme stress and perhaps subjected to rough treatment from his assailants, had suffered a heart attack. This provisional ruling on the causa mortis was deemed sufficient to authorize Malhaes’ entombment at a local cemetery on the following day. Forty persons, mostly relatives, were said to have attended the funeral at which gospel songs were sung, leading me to wonder if the Malhaes family might not have embraced an evangelical Protestant sect, one of many that has made great inroads in this once all but exclusively Catholic country.

This rush to judgment on the cause of Malhaes’ death, now being vigorously promoted by the police team controlling the investigation, was received with great skepticism in many quarters, not least among those who are currently conducting truth commissions all over Brazil. One truth commission lawyer, Jose Carlos Diaz, speculated that Malhaes may have been killed because “his former colleagues were worried” about what he might yet have intended to make public. Another commissioner, Antonio Dogo, feared Malhaes’ death would have a chilling effect on others who were thinking about coming forward to testify. “People are going to think, if I open my mouth, someone is going to close it for good.”

Brazil’s federal police, similar to our FBI, were soon brought into the investigation by political pressure exerted by supporters of the truth commissions, to locate and ensure the integrity of any evidence the thieves may have neglected to remove, or what might be subsequently recovered, that would shed light on the crimes of the dictatorship. The feds made it clear that they had no jurisdiction over the actual crimes under investigation.

In the meantime, the local constabulary continued its quest to establish a chain of evidence to prove that the robbers, while responsible for the victim’s death, had not intended to cause it. And, what’s more, that the death of Malhaes had nothing to do with what the colonel might have already exposed, or might have still kept shielded from pubic view about the dictatorship’s repressive practices. Together the two law enforcement entities returned to the scene and scoured the Malhaes’ home and property – said to contain several houses – interviewed the neighbors, and sought information throughout the district on the whereabouts of the fugitive perpetrators.

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