Man found guilty of Jesuit murder 30 years on

Vicente Canas, right
Vicente Canas, right

A retired Brazilian police commissioner was last week sentenced to over 14 years in prison for the aggravated murder of Spanish Jesuit Brother Vicente Cañas in the Amazonian Mato Grosso region in 1987.

Ronaldo Antonio Osmar is the last survivor of a group six men originally accused of the killing of Br Cañas who was ambushed while bathing in the River Juruena close to the hut in which he was then living.

A trail in 2006 of three accused collapsed through lack of evidence.  Defendants at that time included a local landowner Pedro Chiquetti. The case had been built around the evidence of a local “hitman” who claimed Osmar had paid him and others to carry out the murder on the orders of Chiquetti.  There had been some robust debate on jury selection between defence and prosecuting counsel with both parties objecting to proposed jurors, before the guilty verdict was announced.

Fr Aloir Passini SJ, an anthropologist from the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT), deplores the time it has taken to bring anyone to account for the death of Br Cañas, but nevertheless welcomes the  symbolic judgement.  He said "We have a legal framework but it seems the rights of indigenous peoples are negotiable."

Vicente Cañas went to Brazil in 1966 and became a champion of the rights of indigenous peoples. He made what is believed to be the first peaceful contact with the Enawene Nawe people of the Mato Grosso, and lived among them for more than ten years. These simple Amerindian people were under constant threat and attack because their traditional lands for hunting and fishing were of great value to incoming farmers and cattle ranchers.  Br Cañas spoke up forcefully for the land-rights of the indigenous people to be recognised and respected. He successfully lobbied the Brazilian government for the territory to be officially granted for use by the Enawene Nawe tribe and went on to aid their campaign to secure an important fishing area.  In this work he inevitably antagonised powerful interests.

On 5th April 1987 Vicente radioed to colleagues that he was setting out from his forest hut to travel to the Ena¬wene-Nawe village. This was a journey he was never to make.  On 16th May colleagues visited the hut and saw the boat in which he should have travelled loaded for a journey but half submerged. In the hut were signs of violent struggle along with Vicente’s dead body with stab wounds to the stomach.

Br Cañas’ family and friends travelled from Spain to be present for the verdict.

Read a reflection by Paul Martin SJ on the life and death of Br Cañas