Eight hours before his murder, Leo Veras was working hard to find more information about two crimes: the death of Adolfo Goncalves Camargo, on August 16, 2019, and the disappearance of merchant Roney Fernandes Romeiro, two days after Camargo's death.
On his website Pora News, Veras reported that police officers were investigating Genaro Lopes Martins, known as “Animal do PCC”, as the author of these deaths. He was known for torturing his victims and dismembering their bodies. Lopes Martins is under arrest for involvement in the death of teenager Alex Zioli Areco Aquino, 14 years old, in November 2019. Veras was executed with 12 shots on the night of February 12, 2020, when he was having dinner with his family at home, in the Jardim Aurora neighborhood, in Pedro Juan Caballero, in Paraguay.
Alex Aquino's father, Romao Aquino, was at Veras' house around noon on February 12, 2020. He sought out the journalist because he was preparing a petition to be handed over to the authorities during a protest that would be held in front of the Public Prosecution Office and the headquarters of the Criminal Investigations Division of Punishable Cases of the National Police of Paraguay.
Since the teenager's disappearance, Veras has been committed to solving the crime with articles disclosed on his website. In December 2019, relatives of Alex Aquino were hosted at a meeting at the Government Palace of Pedro Juan Caballero by the Minister of Interior, Euclides Acevedo; the mayor of the city, Jose Carlos Acevedo; and the Governor of Amambay, Ronald Acevedo, in addition to National Deputy Robert Acevedo. It as all reported by Pora News.
Alex Aquino had fought at school with another teenager, Lopes Martins' brother-in-law. He was captured at home, tortured, forced to dig his own grave, and shot in the head (fragments of the skull indicate the shot, but the police were unable to find the projectile or cartridge). After his death, the teenager’s body was dismembered and burned.
A key witness who allegedly witnessed the student's violent execution, videotaped on a cell phone, confirmed the crime to the police. The body was reportedly buried in Paraguay. However, under pressure, Lopes Martins reportedly received an order from Salinas Ryguaçu, appointed as the boss of the PCC in that region, to hand over the body and report to the police station. The body parts were found in plastic bags inside a barrel in the Ponta Pora ring road.
On the afternoon of February 12, 2020, after meeting Aquino's father, Veras went to the Civil Police station in Ponta Pora in search of news about the investigations of the Camargo and Romeiro cases. In conversation with police, the case of Alex Aquino was remembered as similar to the other two. Camargo was at home when men broke into the property and took him away. It was just after 4 pm on the 16th of August 2019. Hours later, his body was found dismembered in three garbage bags, in a field in the Paraguayan city of Sanga Puita. Romeiro's body has not yet been found.
Days before the deaths, a shipment of 30 kilograms of cocaine allegedly from the PCC was seized by the Paraguayan police. Traffickers are suspected of having blamed the victims for the loss of cargo. The two crimes remain unsolved. In the Second Police Station of Ponta Pora, where Camargo's execution is investigated, the newly appointed chief of police, Pedro Guimaraes Ramalho, showed the investigation to the Abraji team. Six months after the crime, the investigation has not even attached the autopsy report. The chief of police was unable to answer about Romeiro's disappearance.
Paraguayan police officers involved in the investigation of Veras' death point out as one of the reasons for his death the identification of the main head of the PCC on the border, Paraguayan Ederson Salinas Benitez, known as “Salinas Ryguaçu.” He was arrested at dawn on January 20, 2020, at Avenida Brasil, in Ponta Pora, by Brazilian police, hours after the escape of 75 prisoners from Pedro Juan Caballero Regional prison.
Salinas Ryguaçu was in a Toyota SW4 truck, with a cousin, both armed with Glock 9 mm pistols and 17,000 in cash. The pair reportedly left a party – where they celebrated the mass flight of criminal allies from the prison – to buy drinks. They got involved in a traffic fight at one of the avenue's roundabouts when a driver overtook Salinas's truck, cursing and showing a gun. The PCC boss did not like it and chased the vehicle, reaching the driver at an intersection ahead. Salinas and his cousin got out with guns drawn, immobilizing the driver. At that moment, Salinas started shouting at the man, saying that he was the boss and that he was in charge of the region.
The discussion was cut off by Brazilian police officers, who were patrolling in search of fugitives from the Paraguayan prison, seven kilometers from the border with Ponta Pora. Taken to the police station, Salinas presented his identity as Edson Barbosa Salinas. As there was nothing in his police record, the judge on duty arbitrated an 80,000 reais bond to release the suspect.
Early on the morning of January 20, a lawyer arrived at the police station, where he presented ten receipts for payment of bail, each worth 8,000 reais. Salinas was ready to leave the police station by the front door, but a tip passed to the Justice by the Federal Police prevented him from returning to the streets.
Federal Police agents, with the assistance of the Paraguayan police, confirmed that the Brazilian document was fake and that the prisoner's true identity was that of Ederson Salinas Benitez. At the border, rumor has it that it was Leo Veras who alerted the authorities about the true identity of the drug trafficker. Thus, this would have led Salinas to give the order to execute the journalist.
Paraguayan gunman injured during the execution of journalist
Two weeks after the murder of Brazilian journalist Lourenco "Leo" Veras, in Pedro Juan Caballero, Paraguay, family members and neighbors have yet to testify to the Paraguayan authorities formally. In the operation that involved prosecutors and police in Paraguay at dawn on February 22, 2020, when ten suspects were arrested, a white Jeep Renegade was seized – the car may have been used in the execution of Veras.
According to images from Pedro Juan Caballero's street cameras, a similar vehicle was near the neighborhood where the journalist lived. Witnesses report that three men left it, and a driver remained inside. They overheard conversations in Spanish, Portuguese, and Guarani. The simple house, without walls, is on the corner of Ynambu and Ricardo Pockel streets. The doors and windows were always open. Two men entered through the front door, and the third went through the side street.
Leo Veras’ house in Jardim Aurora, Pedro Juan Caballero (Photo: Angelina Nunes / Abraji)
The journalist was sitting with his back to the door, on the wooden table in the center of the room where his wife, two children, nephews and in-laws were. He was calm and had not reported any recent threat to his family. Shortly after 8 pm, two men wearing black hoodies and covering their faces – one using a black shirt and the other a black ninja cap – passed in front of Veras’ mother-in-law – who was sitting in a chair on the sidewalk – and unlocked the 9 mm Glock pistol. The metallic sound caught the family's attention.
Veras got up and instinctively ran towards the back door, which gives access to a small yard. There is no wall surrounding the property. Before reaching the exit, he was hit by the first shot, followed by one of the gunmen. The astonished family was under the sight of the second gunman and forced to stay in the room with their faces down. Helpless, the family members silently told the sequence of shots fired at Veras. Nineteen cartridges and a projectile were collected at the scene and handed over to the Paraguayan National Police. The journalist was hit by 12 shots.
The swift but shrill action of the killers drew the attention of the neighborhood. People ran into the poorly lit street and covered by an irregular pavement of reddish stones. In an attempt to escape from the back of the house, the first hitman shot his fellow who was entering the side of the property. The scene was followed from a distance by a witness who did not see Veras fall among the greenery.
From a distance, the witness saw the hitman dragging the injured man to the car, which started to run. Thinking that the shot person was Veras, the witness started shouting: “They took Veras in the car!" In shock, the journalist's wife, Cintia, went out onto the sidewalk, hugging her daughter and followed by her father. It took ten minutes of anguish and uncertainty until the 11-year-old son shouted from the yard: “Daddy is here!" It was the youngest child of the journalist who found him among the greenery.
Veras was down, dying, but still alive and with a white cloth covering part of his face close to his mouth, like a gag – a comparison made by Brazilian police officers and his family. At that moment, a Paraguayan police patrol arrived. Upon realizing that Veras was still breathing, relatives and neighbors unsuccessfully asked the police to take him to the hospital.
While neighbors were looking for a vehicle to help the journalist, the daughter approached her father's head and asked him just to try to breathe: “We love you, daddy,” she said. Veras was taken in a neighbor's car to the hospital, where he died shortly afterward.
Fourteen days after the execution of the journalist, his family lives in fear. Just four days ago, they received protection from three agents, but the fear that the killers will return remains. Also, their livelihood is threatened. Veras lived on freelance jobs and the money he earned from selling advertising space on Pora News newspaper, getting around 3,500 reais per month. However, with the journalist's death there is uncertainty that this payment will continue.
To keep her two children, Cintia had 150 reais that Veras had given her days before he was killed. Her husband's funeral was paid for by the City Council. Next to the grave, at Cristo Rei Cemetery, in Ponta Pora, flowers were still seen a week after the death left by friends of the city council and the Civil and Military police, as well as tributes from the union of journalists from Ponta Pora and Pedro Juan Caballero.
Ponta Pora Cemetery (Photo: Angelina Nunes / Abraji)
Tim Lopes Program
All evidence of Veras' death suggests that it is related to his work as a journalist. For this reason, the murder of the journalist will be the third to be included in the Tim Lopes Program, developed by Abraji, with the support of the Open Society Foundations, to combat violence against journalists and impunity for those responsible.
Whenever there is a crime related to the exercise of the profession, a network of traditional and independent media outlets is activated to follow the investigations and publish reports on the allegations in which the journalist worked until he or she was killed. Currently, the network includes Public Agency, Post Office (BA), O Globo, Poder 360, Ponte Jornalismo, Projeto Colabora, TV Aratu, TV Globo, and Veja.
The murder of broadcaster Jefferson Pureza, in the city of Edealina, state of Goias, on January 17, 2018, was the first case followed by the program. He was killed while resting on his home's porch. Former councilman José Eduardo Alves da Silva was accused of being the mastermind of the killing. During his trial in the 2019 trial, he opted for remaining in silence. At the time, janitor Marcelo Rodrigues dos Santos was also tried, accused of referring the minors involved in the crime to the councilman. According to investigations, the murder was negotiated for 5,000 reais and a revolver.
On trial on December 9, 2019, the popular jury acquitted two accused of involvement in the crime, despite recognizing their participation in the case and in the corruption of minors who committed the murder.
The second case is that of radio broadcaster Jairo de Sousa who died in the early hours of June 21, 2018, with two shots to the chest when he arrived to work at Perola FM radio, in the city of Braganca, in the state of Para. The suspect of ordering the crime is councilman Cesar Monteiro. He reportedly hired a group of ten people to carry out the crime. According to the records of the investigation, the murder would have cost 30,000 reais.
In March 2019, councilman Cesar Monteiro had his preventive detention revoked, after the Para Court of Justice granted him a habeas corpus. There is still no date set for the popular jury.
(*) Cover: Marciano Candia/AP