Brazilian police are investigating whether the fatal shooting of three rural activists was tied to their effort to win rights to land also contested by owners of a sugar mill, officials said Monday.
Investigator Samuel Barreto told reporters in Minas Gerais state there was no doubt the three activists were executed, shot down as they got out of a car near a landless workers camp Saturday.
A 5-year-old girl, the granddaughter of two of those slain, survived the attack. No suspects are in custody, a police spokesman said.
Barreto said police were working on "two lines of investigation" but wouldn't say what they were.
Watchdog groups said police were questioning land activists about the possibility the killings could have resulted from an internal conflict within their movement. The groups rejected that idea. They accused landowners of paying hired gunmen to shoot the activists.
Carlos Calazans, head of the Minas Gerais branch of the federal department of land reform, known as Incra, said police are also looking into the land dispute as a possible motive.
"It's definitely one of the theories for the motive behind this barbarous crime," he said by telephone. "I've no doubt these activists were summarily executed. But police have to follow all leads until they find the truth."
Calazans said the couple killed came to Incra last year seeking support in various land conflicts in the region, including the one with the mill owners. He said Incra tried to get the owners and activists to agree a few weeks ago, but the effort wasn't successful.
Killings over land conflicts in Brazil are common, and rarely does anyone face trial for the crimes.
The watchdog group Catholic Land Pastoral says more than 1,150 rural activists have been slain in Brazil over the past 20 years. The killings are mostly carried out by gunmen hired by loggers, ranchers and farmers to silence protests over illegal logging and land rights, it says. Most of the killings happen in the Amazon region.
But such slayings also happen far from the Amazon. The killings Saturday happened near the city of Uberlandia in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, about 360 miles (580 kilometers) north of Sao Paulo.
Fewer than 100 such cases have gone to court since 1988, Catholic Land Pastoral says. About 80 of the hired gunmen have been convicted. Fifteen of the men who hired them were found guilty. Only one is in prison today _ the man found guilty of ordering the 2005 murder of the U.S. nun Dorothy Stang.
According to Incra, those killed on Saturday were Clestina Leonor Sales Nunes, 48; Milton Santos Nunes da Silva, 52; and Valdir Dias Ferreira, 39. Local media said Clestina and Milton were married, but a spokesman with Incra in Brasilia couldn't confirm that.
Police officials declined to release the names of sugar mill owners involved in the land dispute, saying nobody has been accused of any crimes.
The 5-year-old girl was apparently the only witness to the killings, which were carried out along a state highway near the landless camp, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Uberlandia, police say.
The child told police a car cut off the one she was riding in with the victims, forcing it to stop. Either one or two gunmen then opened fire on the activists.
A statement on the Catholic Land Pastoral's website described the three dead as state leaders of the Landless Liberation Movement, one of several rural activist groups in Brazil that invade land and set up camp, living on what they say is unproductive ground.
Brazil's agrarian reform laws allow the government to seize fallow farmland and distribute it to landless farmers. Nearly 50 percent of arable land belongs to 1 percent of the population, according to the Brazilian government's statistics agency.
The latest killings come just before the month that landless worker movements across Brazil typically step up invasions of what they say is unused land. The seizures are meant to mark the April 1996 killing of 19 landless activists in Para state.
The deaths also come after last
Calazans, the Incra official, said negotiation is the only way to end the violence.
"Landowners' use of hired gunmen sadly still exists today in Brazil," he said. "These crimes have got to stop."
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