While Americans flock to see a simulated alien invasion in the movie "Independence Day," UFO believers in Brazil are telling one and all that real extraterrestrials descended on an obscure rural city last January.
Varginha, 180 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro in the state of Minas Gerais, has emerged from obscurity after residents reported seeing a gray, submarine-shaped object the size of a minibus flying overhead and later said they encountered two extraterrestrials (or E.T.s, as the movie by Steven Spielberg made famous worldwide).
Brazilian ufologos, as the believers are known here, say the first E.T. was spotted near a forest, being led away by six city firemen. Five hours later, three young women say they saw a second E.T. huddled against a wall.
As a result, this coffee-producing city has been besieged by UFO believers and journalists. "Everybody knows us," says a Varginha secretary. "When we say we are from Varginha, they say 'Oh, the E.T. city.' "
At the center of the media storm are the three young women: Liliane Ftima Silva, her sister Valquria, and Katia Andrade Xavier. Recently, they began charging journalists for interviews. Each has told "investigators" that the space visitor was three-feet tall with chocolate-colored skin, no nose or mouth, rubbery limbs, bulging red eyes, and three horns.
"It's what we call circumstantial proof, but it is very compelling," says Irene Granchi, founder of the Rio-based Investigative Center for the Nature of Extraterrestrials and author of "UFOs and Abductions in Brazil." "Their statements were never contradictory."
Ubirajara Franco Rodrigues, director of the Brazilian Center for the Studies of Flying Saucers, has spent the past six months investigating the case. He says the only contradictions have come from officials he says are trying to cover up the alien visit.
Ten of Brazil's UFO investigators claim firemen in Varginha handed the first E.T. over to military officials at a nearby Army base, where it later died. They say the military then transported the corpse by convoy to a nearby city hospital.
Mr. Rodrigues, a Varginha lawyer, says this scenario is based on taped interviews with firemen and soldiers who participated. "Fantastico," a popular Sunday night television magazine show, aired an interview with one of the witnesses with an altered face to protect his identity.
Col. Luiz Cesario da Silveira Leite, a military spokesman, told reporters that accusations of a coverup are "absurd" and "ridiculous." He says the troop convoy that day was delivering Army vehicles to a garage for maintenance. Hospital administrators have told reporters that the body in question was the corpse of a university student who had been arrested for robbery and committed suicide in his cell. His family had demanded an autopsy.
Yet the official denials haven't stopped Varginha's city fathers from cashing in on fame. Mayor Aloysio Ribeiro de Almeida said he would host an international UFO conference and would support a move to convert the city into a permanent center for extraterrestrial studies. There is even a plan to build a park in the creature's honor.
"E.T. has been great publicity for us. With the right promotion, we could become the UFO center of the Americas," Mayor Ribeiro said in a telephone interview.
The region around Varginha has attracted UFO buffs for 30 years. There have been hundreds of sightings of discos voadores, or flying saucers, in such southern Minas Gerais towns as Campanha, Tres Pontas, Boa Esperanca, and Sao Tome das Letras, where residents claim a giant hole near the town leads directly to a thriving civilization at the center of the earth.
Despite Ribeiro's marketing plans, he also worries that the E.T. incident will turn Varginha into the laughingstock of Brazil.
There are signs it already has. On "Big Stick and Planet," a TV program that regularly pokes fun at politicians and Brazilian society, a new character called E.T. Varginha speaks with the slow drawl of a Minas Gerais native, likes regional food and pretty women, and is followed everywhere by bumbling soldiers.