Hunting the Beast

I track down the police torturer who had me beaten up in 1989

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th July 1996.

The police had made a bad job of cleaning up. The walls of both the cells I looked in were still splattered with red-brown streaks. Smeared in the same pigment were the words “Jesus, please help me”. I asked the duty officer what the marks were. He said he didn’t know.

“Where is Vidal?”

“I don’t know. He’s gone. He doesn’t work here any more.”

I walked outside, drawing deep breaths after the stench of the cells. It was stupid of me to have imagined that I would find Vidal so easily, after seven years. I would have to start again, and it didn’t help that I had shown myself at his old workplace, the shabby little police station in the boondocks of north-eastern Brazil.

I had a personal score to settle with Sergeant Vidal da Costa. Seven years ago, his agents had captured me and had me beaten up. But my complaints against him were petty compared to those of the peasants trying to defend their lands. For Sergeant Vidal had a hobby. He had devoted his formidable energies to the time-honoured art of torture.

In 1989, Vidal da Costa, like many policemen in the interior of the state of Maranhao was working for a land speculator. Adelino Barbosa had bought 10,000 hectares of land, and wanted to consolidate his ranch by annexing the last peasant property in the neighbourhood, a 100-hectare common belonging to the village of Centro do Aguiar. When the villagers resisted, Vidal was brought in to clear them out. He and his men razed their houses, killed their livestock and beat or raped anyone they caught.The village leaders were entertained in the police station. One old man was blinded, others were crippled for life.

In September seven years ago, while researching for a book about why people were moving into the Amazon, I stepped naively into the middle of this maelstrom. Investigating the peasants’ allegations, I was caught by Adelino Barbosa’s brother, Manoel, who had been illegally invested with police powers by Vidal. His hired gunmen, whom Vidal had armed, handed me over to the military police. They thrashed me and seized my tapes and films. When, idiotically, I returned to Centro do Aguiar with a letter of authorization to get my property back, they tried to kill me.

Unlike most of the beleagured villages in north-eastern Brazil, Centro do Aguiar, with help from trades unions and human rights lawyers, got justice of a kind. Manoel Barbosa was relieved of his powers, the beatings stopped and the returning villagers were granted 200 hectares of Adelino Barbosa’s land. But Vidal remained unpunished. He was temporarily relieved of his duties, then, as soon as the fuss died down, reinstated. His impunity has haunted me ever since. Brought up with the pitiful illusion that cheats never prosper and virtue triumphs, Vidal da Costa inhabited my nightmares as the living refutation of everything I wanted to believe. When the BBC suggested I go back to Maranhao to see what had changed in seven years, I saw it as a chance to get even with my tormentor.

I didn’t know what I would do if I found him. I would try to interview him, certainly. But I also had a vague, ill-formed idea of bringing him to justice, of awakening the interest of whatever judicial authority might still be functioning, or at least convincing him that I was going to do so. Looking back over what happened five weeks ago, it’s hard to believe that I could still have been so naive.

As Vidal was no longer at the police station, and his old colleagues weren’t going to help me, I borrowed a mule and rode to Centro do Aguiar. The village was almost unrecognisable. Where there had been only burnt posts in 1989, unfamiliar children now stared from the windows of mud and wattle huts.

But as I rode up to the crumbling white church, I knew where I was. The same peeling door still bore the mark of a bullet fired by one of the hired gunmen. One hundred yards beyond it, an old man sat on the verandah of a blue-plastered house. It was Manoel Barbosa, exactly where I had met him seven years ago. I slid off the mule and asked if he remembered me. He shielded his eyes from the sun and stared into my face. He stood up.

“Yes, I remember you. What do you want?”

“To talk about what happened seven years ago.”

“I’m not talking to you. Get out of here you, you ..”

He shambled into his house, shouting muffled oaths. Someone stepped out of a hut on the other side of the track and took my elbow.

“Come on, it’s not a good idea to provoke him.”

Adelino Barbosa, he told me, had sold up, leaving his brother high and dry, without gunmen or police, and surrounded by the enemies he had made. He was armed, however, and the villagers were still afraid of him, and careful not to push him too far. I asked about Vidal.

“That filho da puta. No, I don’t know where he is.”

In the neighbouring village, Pau Santo, I found myself surrounded by old friends, the people who had looked after me when I had been beaten up, and who had helped to get me out of the state when I had to flee. Edilson, a trades unionist and the best-connected man in the village, lay in his hammock struggling with dengue fever. When I mentioned Vidal, he levered himself up on his elbows.

“He’s retired. The ranchers must have given him lots of money. I’m told he’s bought himself a villa on the coast.”

“How could I find him?”

He thought for some time.

“I think I know someone who knows his mistress.”

We arranged that, if he recovered soon, we’d meet in the town of Lago do Rodrigues, where Vidal used to work and his mistress still lived, and work out a way of getting to her.

Edilson, though still shaky, kept his promise. On the way to the office where his friend worked, we bumped into a government agronomist he knew.

“Vidal? Yes, I knew Vidal. He stopped the car my brother was in one night, put a gun to the driver’s head and forced him to drive to the police station. He was blind drunk. He threw them up against a wall and started prodding them with his gun. Luckily, someone raised the alarm and a crowd of people turned up to rescue them.

“He did some terrible things. There’s an old man I know, Antonio, who’s still handicapped after six years. Even today he can’t talk about what Vidal did without crying.”

“But things have improved since he left?”

“No. The faces are different, but the characters are just the same.”

Edilson’s friend made an excuse to drop in on Vidal’s mistress, and came back with the intelligence that Vidal might be coming from the coast to visit her later that day. I drove back to where I was staying, dropped Edilson so as not to incriminate him, and returned in the afternoon in a different car.

The woman was about 30 years old, not unattractive, dark-eyed and nervous looking. Four children melted away when I entered.

“I’m looking for Vidal. Is he here?”

“No, he’s on the coast.”

“Is he coming here today?”

“No.”

“Can you give me his address?”

“I haven’t got it.

“Those are your children?”

“Yes.”

“And is Vidal their father?”

“Yes.”

“And you don’t know where he lives?”

“I don’t want to know. He’s got another family. I don’t want anything to do with them.”

“And you say he’s not here today?”

“Really, senhor, he isn’t here. That’s the truth.”

I was about to walk out.

“But I do have a number for him.”

I stared at her. She looked terrified.

“This is his real number?”

“Yes, his real one.”

I didn’t believe her, so I went to a telephone. It rang for some time, then I heard a deep, sleep-thickened voice.

“Vidal.”

“Vidal da Costa?”

“Yes. Who is it?”

“George Monbiot. Can we meet?”

“What for?”

“I want to talk about what you were doing in 1989.”

“I’ve got nothing to say to you.”

“I want to talk about what you did to the peasants here. When can we meet?”

“It’s got nothing to do with me. If you want to talk about police matters, go to the police. I’m retired.”

The phone went down.

I took the bus to Sao Luis, the main coastal town, and settled down with a telephone directory. Vidal’s name was not listed, so I ran my finger down the columns, looking for his number, page after page. After a while I found it, registered in a woman’s name. It was nine o’clock at night. I rang again.

“Vidal?”

“What do you want?”

“Just to hear your voice.”

The taxi sped down the bumpy road to Sao Jose do Ribamar, the most affluent of Sao Luis’s satellites. In the cobbled square, under the old slavers’ church, I met a woman who offered to show me the way. We walked in silence, our footsteps echoing along the alleys. Cats, little more than skeletons in fur, slithered away in the darkness.

224 Avenida General Medici was bigger than most of the houses in the street, with tiled walls and a new roof. Vidal had done well. The woman who opened the door told me he was out. She didn’t know where he was, or when he would return. I said I would wait. I sat on the pavement across the road, beside a gaggle of teenaged girls, watching. The lights in the house went out, and I saw a Venetian blind part by a crack, and a broad, heavy-looking shape move in behind it. It stayed there, immobile, watching me.

One of the girls plucked up courage.

“What are you doing?”

“Waiting for Vidal.”

“Why are you waiting? He’s at home.”

I stepped up to his house.

“Vidal da Costa, I know you’re in there.”

The door burst open.

He was so broad that, elevated by the step, he seemed to fill the whole doorway. His oiled curly hair, stubble and zapata moustache were much greyer than I remembered. He was even stouter than before, but age had made him imposing. He watched me without moving.

“What do you want with me?”

“You know who I am?”

“I don’t.”

“I think you do. We met in Lago do Rodrigues, in 1989.”

He didn’t move.

“I want to talk to you about what happened in the interior of Maranhao, seven years ago.”

Without a word, he stepped back into his house. I saw him pick something up, and I moved swiftly aside, so that only my head projected beyond the line of the door.

It was a cordless phone. “…the gringo we had trouble with before … yes, quickly.”

I filled my lungs. “Vidal da Costa, I know what you’ve done. I want you to tell me about the men you tortured. About the houses you burnt down. About the women you raped.”

Dogs started to bark. Lights came on all along the street.

“Why don’t you come out like a man and talk to me?”

He appeared at the doorway in a flash.

“I’m telling you just once to get out of here. Now.”

“Vidal da Costa, you -”

The speed with which the gun slipped out of his pocket betrayed years of practice. It was small, slim, square-barrelled. I stared for a split second as he raised it, then I spun round the edge of his house and sprinted down the street. At the corner I turned.

“Vidal da Costa. You’ll see. I’ll be back.”

I just hope I’ve developed the sense to make it a lie.

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