House of farmer-squatter and evangelical pastor Sebastião de Souza in Taquarussu do Norte, Brazil; his body was found on the floor with a machete in the neck (Photo: Fabiano Maisonnave)

Nine men were stabbed or shot dead on 19 April over a territorial dispute in a remote area of Mato Grosso state, deep in the Amazon rainforest.

In the afternoon, hitmen swept through the land in question, known as Linha (road) 15, killing everyone they found. Some of the bodies bore signs of torture.

The worst land-related slaughter Brazil has seen in 21 years reflects a chronic ambiguity around land rights. On this lawless frontier, far from the gaze of the authorities, forest clearance and conflict go hand in hand.

The rampage happened in a remote region, accessible only by an unpaved road. The closest city, Colniza, is a 7-hour-drive in the dry season; when it rains, it can take days. Communication here is so hard that the police were not notified of the crime until almost 24 hours later.

On 26 April, this reporter was the first and so far the only media to visit the crime scene. The journey involved an hour’s flight in a rented aeroplane followed by a three hour drive in a 4×4 vehicle.

Around 120 families live in a rural community called Taquarussu do Norte, a smattering of wooden houses with water wells and bathrooms in the backyard and no electricity. Several of them are the offspring of settlers who colonised the neighbouring state of Rondônia in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, they have found their own land to farm. Known as posseiros, or squatters, they have no legal claim and take their chances with the inconsistent law enforcement.

Fearing more attacks, most inhabitants left the region after last month’s violence, especially women and children. In the area where the slaughter took place, dogs roamed inside the houses in search of food and their deceased owners.

Last week, state police arrested two men they suspect of carrying out the murders on the orders of a timber merchant, who is still at large. Squatters, however, said they had a good relationship with loggers (all of them illegal) and blamed unnamed rival farmers for the attack.

The victims

Sebastião de Souza, 57

Pastor of the Assembly of God Church in Guatá, about 140 km north of Taquarussu. He was one of the squatters of the area subject of dispute, known as Linha (road) 15. Previously in 2014, his home at the site was burned down. He was found with a machete buried in the back of his neck.

Fábio dos Santos, 37
A father of four and member of de Souza’s congregation,…