- Brazil’s Federal Police have launched an investigation, dubbed “Operation Far West,” to crack down on an alleged massive land grab by an agribusiness collective in western Bahia, one of Brazil’s largest soy producing regions.
- The case centers on alleged corruption involving judges, lawyers and farmers, who stand accused of conspiring to secure favorable court rulings to legitimize the grabbing of some 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of land from local communities.
- Sérgio Humberto Sampaio, one of the judges involved, was responsible for a ruling that benefitted the Estrondo megafarm collective over traditional communities, by reducing the area claimed by the communities from 43,000 to 9,000 hectares (106,000 to 22,000 acres) in 2018.
- Agribusiness mogul Walter Horita, one of Estrondo’s main tenants, is also cited in the investigation for allegedly paying millions in bribes and overseeing the movement of 22 billion reais ($5.2 billion) between 2013 and 2019, with 7.5 billion reais ($1.8 billion) unaccounted for.
Listed by Brazil’s National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) as one of the largest cases of land grabbing in Brazil, the Condomínio Cachoeira do Estrondo Agribusiness venture occupies a total area of more thanover 444,000 hectares (1 million acres) in western Bahia state — an area larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island.
Estrondo has a long history of conflict with traditional communities, has been fined by Brazil’s environmental protection agency for illegal deforestation, and was involved in cases of slave labor conditions and fraud. Now, for the first time, Estrondo has been cited in a federal investigation that reveals a network of corruption involving judges, lawyers and farmers to pay for rulings guaranteeing the possession of stolen land. The investigation, led by the Federal Police of Brazil, has been dubbed “Operation Far West.”
The investigation, signed off by the Superior Court of Justice (STJ), cites, among others, Judge Sérgio Humberto Sampaio, who in November 2018 issued a favorable decision to Estrondo that significantly reduced an area of land requested by 120 families living inside the Estrondo complex. It also lists Walter Yukio Horita, one of Estrondo’s biggest farmers, as well as Márcio Duarte Miranda, a lawyer who was briefly arrested and is also the son-in-law of Maria do Socorro Barreto Santiago, former president of the Bahia State Court of Justice from 2016 to 2018 and now removed from office.
In ordering the investigation, STJ Minister Og Fernandes said that Miranda and the others investigated, “not satisfied with the land scheme in the Coaceral region, are part of a criminal organization that currently shapes, right now, an identical investment in the region of Estrondo, over 800,000 hectares [2 million acres] in size.” That’s a land grab the size of Puerto Rico.
The families of geraizeiros, one of Brazil’s legally recognized traditional communities, have for years been fighting in court for recognition of the area they have occupied and lived in since the 19th century: about 43,000 hectares (106,000 acres) of land still containing natural Cerrado vegetation, the tropical savanna that originally covered all of this part of the country. Estrondo claims the land occupied by the geraizeiros as part of its legal reserve, the 20 percent of the biome that every producer in the Cerrado is required to conserve in order to comply with the Forest Code.
Estrondo farmer moved $5.2 billion
The Condomínio Cachoeira Estrondo Agribusiness venture is managed by several companies. Among the 41 tenants are brothers Walter Yukio Horita and Wilson Hideki Horita.
Considered a “model producer” by agribusiness for many years, Walter Horita oversaw the movement, according to the investigation, of 22.2 billion reais ($5.2 billion) between January 2013 to the time of investigation. Of this amount, 7.5 billion reais ($1.8 billion) is unaccounted for.
That figure makes Walter Horita easily among the richest men in Brazil. In the Forbes Top 10, the Batista brothers, from the JBS meatpacking company, have an estimated fortune of 14.7 billion reais ($3.5 billion) each.
The STJ describes Walter Horita as “one of the rural producers who allegedly benefitted from the criminal organization” and who facilitated payments in the millions of reais to Bahian authorities for favorable decisions “in defense of the criminal interests investigated.”
In transcribed dialogues in the report obtained by Mongabay, Horita used a private jet flight from Barreiras, a city close to the megafarm, to Salvador to see “the business of discrimination” — a reference to the state attorney general’s decision in favor of the Formosa do Rio Preto geraizeiros communities. There, he sought an audience with a judge from the Bahia State Court of Justice and also tried to make “a lunch or dinner” possible with the vice governor of Bahia, João Leão.
In another of the transcripts, Walter Horita told interlocutor Sergio Pitti that he was going to Salvador and that a mutual friend “sent a message to João Leão. He said that he misses you and me too.” Then, he added: “We’re going to talk to him [João Leão], OK?”
Asked for its response to the allegations, the deputy governor’s office did not comment on whether the meeting took place, whether Horita and León met at other times, whether the meeting was publicized on the deputy governor’s official agenda, or on the relationship between the two.
In response to the report, Estrondo staff said that “it is not up to the management of Cachoeira do Estrondo to comment on any police operation. However, it is important to clarify that the Horita group was never part of the venture, as they bought some farms and operate with their own management, being linked only as tenant of lands.”
Horita is indeed listed on the Estrondo website as one of the tenants — the project management works as a condominium, an area where several parties agree to share domain — and has about 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) within the Estrondo complex, acquired in 2011. In total, the Horita group cultivates 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) in Bahia, growing mainly soybean, corn and cotton. Incidents of violence against members of the geraizeiros communities neighboring Estrondo are frequent.
The STJ also alleges that Walter Horita paid 1.3 million reais ($307,000) to lawyer Rosimeri Martins, who then passed on that money, through transfers and deposits, to Júlio Cesar Ferreira, who worked as a judge’s adviser at the Bahia State Court. Walter Horita’s home and workplace were searched and items seized in the Federal Police operation.
Wide web of corruption
Another central figure in the investigation is Sérgio Humberto Sampaio, a judge who is currently out of office for 90 days. Sampaio was appointed to the Formosa district of Rio Preto by Maria do Socorro Barreto Santiago, another judge also being investigated, and was responsible for a ruling reducing the area claimed by the geraizeiros communities from 43,000 to 9,000 hectares (106,000 to 22,000 acres).
After a long court battle, with various appeals, civil pressure and public hearings in Brazil’s lower house of congress, as well as an opinion by the Bahia Public Prosecutor’s Office in favor of the communities, the area was again recognized with the requested size in October 2019. The order for possession is in the hands of the bailiff and is expected to be released at any time.
The 43,000 hectares were determined by experts from the Bahia Public Prosecutor’s Office and represent more than half of the 82,000 hectares (200,000 acres) that the communities originally claimed as their effective areas of use for agriculture, extractive activities, and livestock cultivation.
The STJ recorded financial transactions linked to Sampaio of 14 million reais ($3.3 million) between January 2013 and now. Of the total 7 million reais ($1.7 million) received, only 1.7 million reais ($402,000) was in salary payments, “indicating a volume of earnings totally incompatible with salaries received as a public servant by the investigated,” the STJ says. It also highlighted the luxurious life of the judge and his wife, who traveled on their own planes around the country and live in a mansion valued at 4.5 million reais ($1 million).
The Association of Rural Workers Lawyers of Bahia (AATR), which represents the communities laying claim to the land under dispute, appellate judge Maria do Socorro would have determined the date of closure of the Regional Court of Agrarian Conflict and Environment precisely so that the decision would fall into Sampaio’s hands in Formosa do Rio Preto, facilitating the scheme revealed by the investigation.
“Judge Sérgio Sampaio has made absolutely illegal decisions aimed at protecting the economic groups that make up the condominium. We expect those responsible, both the corrupt and the corrupted, to be held responsible and the judiciary to take effective measures to prevent similar cases from recurring,” the association said in a statement.
The Bahia State Court of Justice said it was “surprised by the action of the Federal Police.” In a statement, the court said that “the investigation is ongoing, but all information from State Court members will be provided later on the basis of the Constitutional Principles.”
The Bahia Public Prosecutor’s Office said it had requested participation as a legal inspector in the case of the communities, but that the request was denied by the court, which said the cause was private and not in the public interest. The prosecutor’s office “appealed this decision, but the appeal was not tried by the Bahia State Court of Justice,” it said in a statement responding to the STJ investigation. The state court declined to comment on why the prosecutor’s office’s request was not upheld.
This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Nov. 25, 2019.