SÃO PAULO, Brazil – A Catholic priest was arrested May 27, along with pastoral agents and a public defender, during a police operation against the occupation of a disputed farm by landless families in the central part of the country.

Father Luiz Claudio da Silva, a member of the Bishops’ Conference’s Land Pastoral Commission (known in Brazil by the Portuguese acronym “CPT”) and of the Prelature of São Félix do Araguaia, was accompanying a group of 74 families that had occupied a farm named Cinco Estrelas (“Five Stars”), in the city of Mundo Novo, earlier that day, along with other CPT agents.

Security guards hired by the farm owners arrived a few hours after the occupation and, according to witnesses, acted with violence against the landless families. The police arrived shortly aftererwards with two empty school buses to haul the occupiers away.

“The policemen acted with brutality since they arrived. Any person who approached the commander and tried to question him about something was automatically arrested and ordered to get into the bus,” Wellington Douglas, a CPT regional coordinator, told Crux.

Da Silva was detained as he tried to intervene in the conflict after a CPT agent was arrested.

According to Douglas, 13 people were detained and taken to a police station that day. One of them was a public defender who had been called by the families before the police arrived.

“The commander grabbed her by her hair and took her phone from her before sending her to the bus,” Douglas said.

Police initally accused detainees of a number of crimes, including failing to obey law enforcement officers and trespassing on private property. In the end, however, they ended up being officially charged only for failing to obey the police, he said.

They were released later that day, after several hours in custody. It’s not clear yet if they will be prosecuted. Da Silva traveled to another city of the Prelature of São Félix do Araguaia after his release, and could not be reached for comment.

The disputed farm is an area of 10,600 acres owned by the federal government that was invaded by land grabbers decades ago. Such practicers are common in Brazil, with ranchers, loggers, speculators and others frequently occupying swaths of undeclared public land in the Amazon and clearing it for commerical use, then registering claims to the land which are often recognized during periodic amnesties.

In April, a government agency in charge of land reform in Brazil decreed the area of the Cinco Estrelas farm would be handed over to landless families, but that transfer has been held up amid legal disputes.

“The farmer who claims that he owns it petitioned for an injunction a couple of years ago and it hasn’t been analyzed yet,” Douglas said.

The group of landless families demanding to occupy Cinco Estrelas has been camping in the area since 2004. A neighboring farm was expropriated by the government and divided among other landless peasants two decades ago, and they agreed to give a small portion of land to the other group while the legal dispute continues.

“They’ve been camping for 20 years with their children, pregnant women, and elders, and they’re able to produce only a very basic volume of food there,” Douglas said.

Witnesses say that security guards from Cinco Estrelas often harass the group, walking around with their guns. Pesticides are usually sprayed near their camp.

When guards arrived May 27 to repell the families who were occupying the land, they tried to run over the occupiers with a tractor, as seen in a video shared with Crux by the CPT.

After the buses took the detainees to the police station, the police went to the neighboring land and assaulted the small growers who had been accompanying the operation, taking their phones and telling them that no video of it could appear on the Internet, otherwise they would retaliate. A man had his arm broken by officers and an elderly woman was taken to the police station despite protesting that she was sick.

Since the arrests, the atmosphere of intimidation continues. According to community leader Francisco Menezes, the police have appeared there on numerous occasions all over the week. As he talked to Crux, another group of officers showed up.

“It has been terrible for us, we’re all under great distress. We’re not committing any crime. We’re acting according to the law. The land grabber is the one who is wrong, but the police are defending him,” he told Crux.

Menezes affirmed that the entire community was shocked by da Silva’s arrest.

“Most of us are Catholic. His imprisonment caused great commotion among us. He didn’t do anything wrong, he was only asking the policemen to remain calm,” he said.

Menezes emphasized that the police officers didn’t have a warrant. Douglas said that the commander told them that “he didn’t need one, because he was following the governor’s orders.”

“He knew a priest was there, but he simply didn’t care,” Douglas said.

Governor Mauro Mendes told the local news website RD News that “a person had possession of that land” and that “somebody appeared to invade it.” State police, he said, “would protect the one who holds the possession,” no matter if “the public defender is there,” “no matter if a priest is there.”

Douglas described Mendes as a supporter of former conservative President Jair Bolsonaro, and said he’s backed by the agribusiness in Mato Grosso state.

“During the 2022 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro’s backers said that [President Luiz Inácio] Lula da Silva was going to arrest priests, like [President Daniel] Ortega is doing in Nicaragua. But they’re the ones who are doing so,” Douglas said.

Douglas emphasized that the CPT is not a social movement and does not promote land occupations.

“What we do is to accompany vulnerable groups, be present with them. In a moment of conflict, our mission is to avoid the peasants suffering even more violence,” he said.

Menezes hopes justice is served.

“We’re struggling for our rights. We’re not invading land, we’re occupying it,” he said.