RIO DE JANEIRO — Protesters in France threw mounds of dirt at visiting Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso recently and yelled "Justice in Brazil!"
For President Cardoso, a politician who wants to be remembered for his economic and political reforms, it was a most painful moment on his state visit there.
The protesters were angry over the murders of 19 landless activists April 17 by military police and Cardoso's apparent inability to bring the guilty to justice. The dirt symbolized the victims' struggle for agrarian reform.
While 156 military policemen were indicted on May 20 for homicide in the case, no trial date has been set, and experts say one is a long way off.
Legal experts say Cardoso is hobbled by an outdated judicial system inherited from the 21-year military dictatorship that ruled the nation between 1964 and 1985. The latest massacre, they say, clearly shows those legal obstacles and what sociologist Jos de Souza Martins has described as the "conflict between archaic Brazil and modern Brazil."
In Brazil's 26 states, local courts are responsible for the prosecution of most criminal offenses. Local judges and lawyers are often subject to intimidation, and authorities rarely punish police or prosecute the powerful.
According to the Pastoral Land Commission, a human rights group supported by the Roman Catholic Church, 575 rural workers were murdered in the northeast state of Par between 1973 and 1996. Only three of these cases came to trial: The three defendants were convicted of homicide, but one received a suspended sentence and two escaped from jail.
"In the vast majority of cases, the only thing President Cardoso can do is twist the arms of state officials," says James Cavallaro, director of the Brazil office of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch/Americas.
The April massacre occurred near Eldorado dos Carajs, a small town in Par, after military police were sent to clear a highway being blocked by an estimated 2,500 landless peasants. After the police lobbed tear gas and fired machine guns in the air, the protesters - some armed with machetes and handguns - threw sticks and stones. The police opened fire.
Human rights observers and legal experts say evidence is overwhelming that this massacre was planned. None of the 156 policemen who participated in the operation wore name tags or registered their weapons. That makes it difficult for investigators to identify the shooters and experts to trace the bullets.
Despite the evidence, defense attorneys are building a case based on justifiable homicide. "While that may sound ridiculous now, it may well become the official outcome in a couple of years," says attorney Marcelo Freitas, president of the Par Society for the Defense of Human Rights.
And that's just what Cardoso is concerned about. Press reports say he worries that the impunity issue will dog him when he travels abroad. In late April, he reportedly canceled a trip to the United States for fear of demonstrations.
"If we don't punish the responsible, nobody will believe in this country," Cardoso said after the massacre. "But it's the president who must answer to the world."
Legal experts say a more just judicial system and an end to impunity will come only with radical reform, including the transfer of crimes committed by military police to civil courts and the right of the federal government to intervene in human rights violations.
Human rights activists say the military police have committed human rights violations for years knowing that they wouldn't be prosecuted under the military justice system.
Brazilian law permits lengthy delays, which allow the guilty to remain free, evidence to become lost, and witnesses to change their stories.
"At the minimum, this [Eldorado dos Carajs] case will take two years," Mr. Freitas says. "Legal delays are a good friend of impunity." Brazilian law stipulates that only police chiefs can lead criminal inquiries. In many cases, police reports take years or are never finished.
Brazil also lacks a plea-bargaining system and a witness-protection program, giving little incentive for a participant or an eyewitness to step forward to denounce the police or powerful regional figures, who pay off or intimidate the courts.
Nevertheless, one witness, Ricardo Marcondes de Oliveira, who is under under federal protection, has accused 20 landowners of paying the police $100,000 to kill leaders of the landless movement at Eldorado dos Carajs. To date, not one landowner has been called to testify.
In the meantime, last month Cardoso sent Congress a human rights plan that includes a law giving the federal government authority to step in if a state fails to prosecute human rights violations.