The life and death of the journalist Evany José Metzker, tortured and decapitated while investigating drug dealers and child trafficking and labor exploitation in the Jequitinhonha Valley, the poorest region of the Minas Gerais state.
Photo: Scene of the crime: The identity card of journalist Evany José Metzker. It was ditched in a rural area of the Padre Paraíso municipality, where his body was found. (Photo: Leo Drumond Nitro/Época)
On Wednesday morning, May 13, the journalist Evany José Metzker, also known as Coruja [Owl], woke up, had coffee with a piece of cake that he didn’t finish, and told Cristiane, the daughter of the Elis Inn’s owner, that he needed to go to a nearby city. Metzker had agreed to give a talk that afternoon at the girl’s high school. He promised to let her know if he couldn’t get back in time. The trip from Padre Paraíso to Teófilo Otoni, a city 62 miles away, took almost all day. The talk he was supposed to give, on the exploitation of child labor, would have to wait until the next week. Metzker returned to the inn, apologized to the student, left to eat supper with his friend Valseque, and arrived back at the little roadside hotel by the end of Jornal Nacional [Brazil’s longest running primetime TV news program, which airs on Globo]. He asked to settle his account from the last three months. He said he was going to Brasília the following day, and, upon his return, would pay the R$ 2,700 [US$ 875] that he owed. He left again, leaving the ceiling fan and lights on in his room. He let them know, “I’m going over there and coming right back.” Metzker didn’t come back.
Last Monday, June 18, the Military Police [Polícia Militar–PM] in Padre Paraíso, in the Jequitinhonha Valley in northern Minas Gerais state, received a phone call. Rural inhabitants had seen what seemed to be a body at the side of a well-beaten dirt road, 12 miles from town. A police vehicle was sent out to the area, and two police officers found a body without a head, that was severed just at the height of the shoulders. The victim’s hands were bound—right over left—over the torso with an orange rope. The man was partially nude; he was dressed only in a jacket, T-shirt, and black socks. Further along, they found one dress shoe and black pants. Eyeglass frames and a lens were in another spot. The corpse was decomposing quickly. It was very swollen—most of all, the testicles. An expert pointed out later that there were indications of anal bleeding and genital bruising. The skull was found 100 yards from the body, and it is possible that dogs dragged it away, consuming the skin and the eyes. The jaw was broken, dislocated from the head. This horrific crime scene, however, didn’t contain a single drop of blood. The body was dragged to that point and the trail was still visible. The perpetrator of the monstrosity wasn’t concerned about hiding the crime or the identity of his victim; the corpse was left beside the drag marks, a few yards from a deep ravine. Documents lay scattered around—a voter registration card, a national identity card, a social security card, three blank checks, two bank cards, and an ID card as a journalist for the magazine Atuação—all in the name of Evany José Metzker, 67 years old. On the right side of the chest, the black t-shirt still showed a yellow owl, the logo from Metzker’s blog, Coruja do Vale [Owl of the (Jequitinhonha) Valley]. On the back was written: PRESS.
Metzker had a deep pride in displaying the title of reporter. He told his colleague Valseque Bomfim, who is from Padre Paraíso and is also a blogger, “We are journalists. Investigative [journalists]. We have to investigate.” Despite much insistence from the outsider, Valseque resisted forming a blogging partnership with Metzker, who had recently arrived in the city. Valseque had started to drop by his room at the inn. “Metzker didn’t tell me about the investigations he was doing. He only said that he wanted to help, that he wanted to work together,” recounts Valseque. Metzker had mounted a small editorial suite in his room. He asked that Elizete, the hotel owner, provide an exclusive router to have stable access to the Internet. He pushed together three tables in the small accommodation, where he set up a printer, kept his notebook, and spread out numerous documents. He smoked Hilton and Hollywood cigarettes incessantly. The smell of tobacco clung thickly, perhaps irreversibly, to the walls, mattress, and pillow. Elizete fears she’ll never be able to rent the room again. “I called him Paulo Coelho,” said Elizete [after the well-known novelist from Rio de Janeiro]. “He had a goatee and was very quiet. He only wrote, worked and smoked. He never returned after 10 pm and he never brought a woman here.” In the few moments in which he relaxed, Metzker gave advice to Elizete’s children, including Cristiane, who wanted to be a journalist and for whom he had made a reporter-in-training ID card. He often repeated that they needed to study and to lead an orderly life, as he did. Metzker didn’t speak very much about the past, not even with his own wife, Ilma. But he told the girls he had been a police sketch artist. He drew composite portraits, and, in fact, he sketched very well. He also mentioned that he had been in the military, without giving details. He only dressed in suits and liked to dye his goatee to match his bushy mustache.
Photo: Witness: Blogger Valseque Bomfim, who publishes police news items. He overheard someone say that “they got the wrong man.” (Photo: Leo Drumond Nitro/Época)
His profession as a journalist began in 2004. The previous year, Metzker met Ilma. He was from Belo Horizonte, but he worked in Montes Claros as an IT specialist in a hospital. Ilma was there visiting her first husband, who had cancer. Months after her husband’s death, Ilma met Metzker once more. One afternoon in December 2003, Metzker went to visit her in Medina, a small charming city in the interior of Minas Gerais, and he never left. There, he founded the news magazine Atuação, published in Montes Claros. He made denouncements about the city administration, pot-holed streets, and the lack of staffing in health clinics. He wanted more. Ten years after beginning his career as a reporter, he felt he wasn’t recognized for his work. In 2014, he began to travel in the region, searching for hotter news items. He kept up good relationships with both the military and civil police in all the cities he visited. His blog, that earned him the nickname Owl, published mostly police reports. He covered nearly all of northeast Minas Gerais, passing through the municipal areas of Almenara, Divisa Alegre, Itinga, Araçuaí, and Itaobim. He would stay in one of these small towns on the weekends, then return to Medina to be with Ilma and her three children, that he raised as his own. When small news items for the blog became scarce, he made ends meet by advertising the logos of local businesses. He got by on little. He wanted to construct a reputation, become a reference. “Little by little, people started to seek him out, to tell him about the indifference of the authorities,” said Ilma, who never saw any journalism diploma from her partner. Metzker guaranteed her that he had studied. “He was very responsible. He only published [an item] if he had certainty, documentation.”
During his investigative travels, Metzker found a place to stay in Padre Paraíso on February 13. At the city’s entrance, a billboard announces it is the “Gateway of the Jequitinhonha Valley.” The city marks the entry to a region with the worst indices of development in Minas Gerais—the area represents less than 2% of the state’s GDP. Every political campaign promises salvation for this infamous “valley of misery.” Padre Paraíso is spread over two hills, split down the middle by the BR-116, the interstate highway that links Ceará to Rio Grande do Sul. It is more than 3,000 miles long and heavily traveled by semi-trucks. With a little less than 20 thousand inhabitants, Padre Paraíso is the type of city that springs up around a gas station. Shacks, flanked by tire repair shops and cafés, border the road. There is a small commercial center, busy and working-class. The traditional church on the small plaza is surrounded by dozens of evangelical temples. The prettiest house in the city belongs to Mayor Dulcineia Duarte, of the PT (Worker’s Party). A hairdresser, she assumed the candidacy of her husband, Saulo Pinto, called into question by the Electoral Court.
It is a drive-through city. Truck drivers park in rest areas to sleep, to drink, and to blow off steam. In a street parallel to the interstate, a small wooden bar hides negotiations between drivers and the pimps for underage prostitution. “This is one of the most serious problems we have here,” said Lieutenant Sandro da Costa of the PM. “We have already caught a 10-year-old child giving oral sex to a beggar for R$5 [US$1.50].” There is no better way to describe misery. “Many parents sell their children into prostitution. It is a source of income for the family,” explains the lieutenant. At night, some girls display themselves at the shoulder of the BR-116 [interstate highway], and, in a new type of crime, when truck drivers gets out to negotiate the transaction, boys approach, assault, and attack them. Metzker was interested in the matter, and he started to investigate the child prostitution ring in the region’s cities. It would have been the subject of his lecture at the school of the reporter-in-training. It is not known how much he had advanced in the investigation.
Padre Paraíso has a small detachment of the Military Police [PM] with 13 officers and two police vehicles. One has bald tires and the other has no brakes. The pickup truck, that could reach more distant rural areas, was destroyed in an accident in 2013. It wasn’t replaced. Apparently, the accident happened because the soldier who drove it fell asleep. Since the Padre Paraíso police station is closed after 6 pm and on weekends, any incident during closing hours must be registered in Pedra Azul, more than 95 miles away. The PMs transport criminals in the police vehicle, frequently seated alongside the victims, who have to give a statement. They drive for hours, provide clarifications, and return drowsily along the highway. It is also in Pedra Azul that the Padre Paraíso deputy, Fabrícia Nunes Noronha, carries out her weekly duties. She maintained the same assignment even after Metzker’s body was discovered. Padre Paraíso doesn’t have a district court or judge. The law seems far away.
With so little oversight, crime prospers. There were six murder victims in 2014. This year, there have already been five. Two of the most recent crimes were barbaric, like the one that killed Metzker. One of them was a massacre that victimized three elderly people and a 7-year-old child, while the other, the murder of two caretakers with hammers. “The rancorous violence in the city comes from the gold-digging era,” said Lieutenant Costa. “The culture is to decide everything with a bullet, with death.” Little by little, drug trafficking replaced the profits from aquamarine gemstones that yielded fortunes. Crack cocaine began to spread. Metzker tried to map the county roads—dirt roads—that served as escape routes for traffickers, and it was precisely on one of these that his body was found. He also became interested in two other criminal schemes in the area: the purchase and sale of stolen motorcycles, that are later used as motorcycle taxis, and dumping on lands protected by environmental laws. If they are already free from police inquiries, the outlaws certainly do not want a journalist poking around their dealings. To be a journalist in regions like the Jequitinhonha Valley is more than a profession, more than a diploma that gives authority to someone. It is an act of courage, a confrontation with the lack of a modicum of security structure and with the human misery exploited by criminals.
It isn’t clear if Metzker was on the trail of something concrete. On his blog, he published only less threatening stories, like one on the use of public vehicles for private ends or another on a boy who had serious oral hygiene problems and wasn’t being treated. Elizete, the owner of the inn, challenged Metzker: “I think you’re really soft. These little stories aren’t really saying anything.” The journalist replied patiently. “Relax, my dear. A lot of things will change in this city.” The police collected Metzker’s notebook and annotations to try to identify a lead. Deputy Noronha, the first to lead the investigation, insists that there is the possibility of a crime of passion. Ilma, Metzker’s wife, flatly denies it. “He told me about every step he took. We constantly exchanged [text] messages. He had never gone to Brasília before. The story doesn’t make sense.” On the night he disappeared, Metzker sent a final message via WhatsApp to his wife, saying that he was going to eat dinner and that they would talk later. “I’ll never forget what appeared on my cell phone: ‘Metzker, last seen at 19:03,’” Ilma cried.
Metzker’s brutal death did not immediately mobilize the state police forces in Minas Gerais. After the body was released from the coroner and sent to Medina, three investigators from Padre Paraíso slowly started routine investigations. Deputy Noronha travelled on Tuesday night to her routine shift in Pedra Azul. One of the investigators soon advised that he could only attend to the incident on Wednesday if it was before 4:30 pm, before going to class. Despite the barbarity, silence was absolute. Governor of Minas Gerais, Fernando Pimentel, of the PT [Worker’s Party], didn’t utter a word about the case. Neither did Minister of Justice, José Eduardo Cardozo. Not even Secretary of Human Rights of the Presidency of the Republic, Pepe Vargas, made a statement. All of these authorities, despite provocations from [the weekly magazine] Época, remained silent. (On Friday afternoon, Vargas finally spoke. He said that the case was serious and that he would follow it.)
After Época’s website published articles on the lack of effort into the investigations, the government of Minas Gerais acted. A team from Belo Horizonte arrived in Padre Paraíso on Wednesday night: a deputy, four investigators, and a clerk. On Thursday morning, they were at the scene where the body was found. From there, they went to the police station, where they asked for the evidence uncovered up to that point by the local police. Before noon, access to the inquiry had already been blocked by local investigators. They didn’t have a single lead about who had decapitated the journalist.
Emerson Morais, the deputy from Belo Horizonte who assumed the case, commanded the investigation in 2013 into the murder of Rodrigo Neto, a journalist from Ipatinga, in the Steel Valley of Minas Gerais. Neto had denounced the actions of corrupt police and homicides in the region. One month later, the photographer Walgney Carvalho was also killed, after he had been heard saying that he knew who had assassinated Neto. A civil police officer was convicted of Neto’s murder, while another youngster, known as Pitote, is yet to be tried for his involvement in the two crimes. The blogger Valseque, Metzker’s friend, sought out Deputy Morais. Valseque told him that he had been threatened. A friend told him that a man had asked for Valseque in a bar. When he discovered that Valseque was in the city, he said that “they had got the wrong man.” His blog, Lens of the Valley, publishes the same types of articles as that of the Owl.
Metzker could not have a wake; the smell of the decomposed body spilled out even with the casket sealed. There were no flowers. His eldest daughter Sara didn’t arrive in time from Belo Horizonte to say goodbye to her father. At midnight on Monday, ten friends and relatives accompanied the body to the cemetery in Medina. Metzker’s coffin was not yet covered with dirt or cement; it still awaited documentation to complete the burial. The case remains open, like Metzker’s burial.