In Brazil's Wild West, police press politician with investigation

Police say the Amazonas congressman and former host of a TV crime show Wallace Souza led a gang to carry out violence to boost ratings and appeal.

Antonio Menezes/AP
Amazonas State legislator and television show host, Wallace Souza, speaks during a news conference in Manaus, Brazil, on Aug. 11. Brazilian police are investigating Souza on suspicion of commissioning at least five of the murders depicted in his shows to boost his ratings and prove his claim that Brazil's Amazon region is awash in violent crime.

The Amazon has always been Brazil's version of the Wild West. Here's one example why.

Brazilian police are investigating a state congressman and former television presenter for his involvement in what they say was a violent scheme to boost ratings and bolster his political appeal.

Wallace Souza, police allege, led a gang that arranged hits to boost ratings on the TV show he presented with his two brothers. His son Rafael is already in jail on murder charges.

"The truth is, they went as far as creating acts," Thomas Augusto Vasconcelos, the Amazonas state secretary for intelligence, told reporters. "It's been determined the crimes were committed in order to generate news for the program."

Police have not arrested Mr. Souza because he is a state congressman and so enjoys parliamentary immunity from lower courts.

But the allegations are serious enough that judges could break his immunity and try him on charges of drug trafficking, illegal weapons possession, tampering with witnesses, and organized crime, says Divanilson Cavalcanti, the head of the task force investigating the accusations.

That Souza has been identified publicly is in one sense no surprise. He is known as a loose cannon and was recently convicted of slander for calling a judge "corrupt" on his TV show.

But it is a sign that police are not afraid to take on powerful interests. That is not always the case in a region where the rich and powerful hold unusual sway. And more eyewitnesses are coming forward thanks to the trial's publicity, Mr. Cavalcanti says. Further revelations and possibly further charges are expected.

"Police arrested his bodyguard and he told us everything," Cavalcanti says. "At first we thought it was all fantasy, but when we checked it out it was all true. They are investigating at least two murders and possibly much more. There could be more to come."

TV crime show gives political boost

Souza rose to prominence in Manaus, the state capital of Amazonas, at the end of the 1990s thanks to the television program he presented with his two brothers. The show was called Canal Livre, or Open Channel, and was similar to many crime shows on local TV in Brazil.

The shows are dominated by angry men railing at the shocking levels of violence and crime. Their targets are usually ineffectual or corrupt police and their paymasters in political office.

Souza and his brothers played that role well – so well they were elected to office on law-and-order tickets. Souza got more votes than any other candidate in winning election to the Amazonas state congress. One brother was elected to Manaus's city council; the other is the city's vice-mayor.

Never airing police successes

When police did do their job successfully, Souza did not congratulate them, investigators charge. A drop in crime meant Souza could no longer present himself as the solution. In a bid too boost ratings and discredit the incumbent authorities, Souza's gang carried out hits, police charge.

In one case, they allegedly ordered a hit and then told the camera crews where and when it would go down so they'd be there first and grab a scoop.

"He wanted to be the savior," says Cavalcanti. "His ambition was to be chief of police, and when the city was calm, he ordered killings as a way of stirring things up."

The case has scandalized the remote frontier city known as the capital of the Amazon.

Law enforcement in the jungle region is notoriously lax, with hired guns common and small towns often controlled by powerful landowners or businessmen.

In the 1990s, a federal congressman named Hildebrando Pascoal was jailed for running a death squad whose tactics scandalized even the battle-hardened region.

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