SÃO PAULO – The murder of a 9-year-old boy in a disputed area of land in Brazil’s Pernambuco State exposed many in Brazil to the gravity of the current situation of rural workers who are waiting for land reform.

Jonatas Oliveira was shot dead by unknown men who broke into the family’s house saying they were policemen. Jonatas’ father, Geovane da Silva Santos, is a peasant leader in Engenho Roncadorzinho, a former sugarcane farm and mill located in the city of Barreiros.

According to the Bishops’ Conference’s Land Pastoral Commission (CPT), the region used to be a major producer of sugar decades ago, but now there are dozens of inactive, bankrupt farms that owe millions of dollars in taxes to the government and in owed wages to their former workers.

“Engenho Roncadorzinho used to be a sugar mill that had to shut down decades ago after becoming insolvent. The property and all the goods in it are worth less than the company owes in taxes and labor debts,” explained Plácido Junior, a CPT official in Pernambuco.

About 80 families have been living in the area of the former farm and mill for decades. They are not only waiting for their owed wages, but they also make a living from the land.

“Instead of simply letting the State take control of the land due to the owed taxes, the judiciary allowed the area to be rented to a company. That company judicially requested the eviction of all families from the land,” Junior said.

The eviction was suspended in court, but the company tried to put fences on the farm last year in order to begin raising cattle. The people living there interfered in the fencing operation, which was the beginning of the conflict.

“After that, Santos’ house was invaded and robbed. Now, they killed Jonatas,” Junior said.

As soon as he knew about the murder, Junior went to the Engenho. “The entire community is scared. Jonatas’ parents are traumatized. Geovane could not handle burying his child,” he said.

Santos told Junior that a group of seven men broke the back door of his house and shouted they was the police. He left his bedroom and was shot in the shoulder. That is when he heard them say: ‘Not the old guy. We have to find Geovane.’ Geovane then ran away from the house.

“They probably thought that Santos was a younger man and did not realize that was him. So, they kept looking for their target,” Junior told Crux.

Jonatas was hiding behind a bed in a room. After the men failed to find Geovane, one of them decided to go after the boy.

“Apparently, some in the group told the man to do not kill a kid, but he did not listen to the others and shot Jonatas. His mother was begging them to leave the boy alone, but he shot him anyway,” Junior said. Jonatas’s three siblings were in the house, but none of them was harmed.

Junior described the murder has having “pedagogical intent.” The criminals – and their employers – wanted to show to the community that they should end their struggle to stay on the land.

“Now, the community’s children are not able to sleep at night. If someone hears anything, everybody thinks that a new group of murderers has arrived to kill them,” he said.

The CPT and the Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife’s Justice and Peace Commission (CJP) publicized the murder and demanded justice from the authorities.

“I think the church has a fundamental role in demanding justice from the State. This crime cannot remain unpunished,” CJP’s coordinator Malu Aléssio told Crux.

Aléssio said that CJP has attended meetings with Pernambuco State and the national government in Brasília.

“The entire region where Engenho Roncadorzinho is located is under dispute. Violence is widespread. We need to make sure that justice is done, otherwise we will not have peace,” she added.

Aléssio said that Bishop Fernando Barbosa dos Santos of Palmares and Archbishop Antônio Fernando Saburido of Olinda and Recife have been closely following the case.

Junior said he fears that violence may grow in the region, noting there are ten communities in dispute and about 1,500 families involved. Death threats against peasant leaders have become more common over the past few years.

“Many times, the local economic forces are the ones who really control the police. That is why we asked the State security secretary to guarantee a fast and thorough investigation,” he said.

Junior said the national outrage provoked by Jonatas’s murder may put the spotlight on the region’s land disputes.

“Jonatas’ martyrdom is drawing Brazilian society’s attention to the problems of his community. It is unfortunate he became a martyr, but he is playing that role now,” he said.