Sunrise over the Javari river in Amazonia. Picture: istock
Sunrise over the Javari river in Amazonia. Picture: istock

Family secret made me a hitman

JULIO Santana has killed nearly 500 people in his work as a hired hitman in Brazil. While many of the kills haunt him, it's his first kill - at the forceful request of his uncle, another hired hitman who was suffering from malaria at the time - that changed his life forever. While at the time Julio believed he had to take the shot to save his uncle's life, that first kill changed the course of his own life forever. Below is an extract from In the Name of Death, a real-life story about one of the world's most prolific killers.

 

*****

 

FOR more than three hours, Júlio Santana had been spying on the fisherman Antônio Martins in the middle of the Amazon jungle, on the border between Maranhão and the north of Goiás (in what today is the state of Tocantins, created in October 1988). Despite the intense heat, Júlio felt strangely cold. His stomach was churning. Hidden among the age-old trees, some of them more than 130 feet tall, he kept the fisherman in the sights of his rifle. From the undergrowth, Júlio could see Antônio seated in his canoe, floating on a branch of the river Tocantins. He knew exactly what to do. "A single shot to his heart. End of story," he told himself. But for a boy just turned seventeen who had never before fired at a human being, it did not seem such a simple task.

At five feet nine and weighing 143 pounds, Júlio was skinny, his cheeks still smooth, with a long nose, thin lips, and black, thick, curly hair. His dark skin contrasted with his light brown eyes. That afternoon of August 7, 1971, he was trying to follow the instructions his uncle, the military policeman Cícero Santana, had given him the previous night: "Aim for his heart and imagine that you're shooting an animal, like when you're hunting." But shooting at a man made the boy feel strangely uneasy. It was not the same as killing pacas, peccaries, monkeys, or deer, as Júlio was accustomed to do in order to put food on the table at home. Disturbed by this unnerving situation, he sat on the ground, still damp from the night's rain. Placing the rifle between his knees, he leaned back against a Brazil nut tree and reflected on how he had got here.

 

********

The two of them were alone in the house. It was then that Cícero began a conversation that was to torment Júlio ever afterward. Lying in a hammock next to his uncle, the boy was complaining about the intense morning heat when Cícero suddenly said:

"Julão, I need you to do something very serious and important for me. But you mustn't tell anyone. Not your parents nor your brothers. Not even Ritinha. No one."

"You can tell me, Uncle.

"This is very serious, Julao."

"Okay, Uncle, I heard you! You can tell me. You can trust me."

"I know I can. That's why you're the only person I can ask to do this."

"Why all this talk? Just tell me what it is, Uncle."

It was then that Cícero revealed something that surprised and frightened Júlio. In order to increase his earnings, his uncle combined his work as a military policeman with a very unusual activity. He was a hired killer. He had become part of the world of gunmen almost two years earlier. Júlio could hardly believe his ears. The uncle he loved so much was an assassin. Someone who killed others for money. He listened to Cícero's story with eyes wide open and his heart racing. He even thought his uncle must be joking or was delirious from his fever. But Cícero was talking so calmly and collectedly there was no room for doubt.

It was all true. Even stranger was the way in which he had first got involved in this world.

He told Júlio that once, in October 1969, after he had been with the military police for two years, the battalion he belonged to caught three men suspected of executing four rural workers near the town of São Francisco do Brejão, in the west of Maranhão state. To Cícero's horror, one of the suspects was someone he knew, by the name of Arnaldo da Silva, a fruit seller in Imperatriz. When he asked Arnaldo why he had got mixed up in the business of murder, he told Cícero something that piqued his interest. The people who had hired them paid almost 1,000 cruzeiros - more than four times the minimum salary at the time, which was 225 cruzeiros, and more than twice what Cícero earned each month as a military policeman.

"You became a bandit for money, Uncle?" asked Júlio, dumb founded.

"I'm not a bandit, my boy. If I didn't do it, others would take my place. In other words, the poor guy would die anyway. And this way at least I earn a bit more money."

"But you're a policeman! How can you be a policeman and a bandit at the same time?"

"I already told you, Júlio: I'm not a bandit. And it's thanks to those jobs I do as extra that I can get cash to buy certain things. What money did you think I used to buy my motorised canoe?" Cícero struggled to say all this. His breathing was laboured and slow. He went on to tell his nephew he had travelled from Imperatriz to Porto Franco - a distance of sixty miles - not just to see his brother and nephew again. He had been hired to kill a local fisherman. The victim was thirty-eight-year-old Antônio Martins, born in São Geraldo do Araguaia in the southeast of Pará state. With ancestors from the south of Brazil, the fisherman was known as Amarelo or "Yellow" because of his fair hair and light-coloured skin. Antônio used to boast that he'd left São Geraldo do Araguaia after he stabbed to death the man his girlfriend was seeing. Everyone in the region knew this story about him. Even Júlio. This left him even more terrified.

Julio grew up in what is now Tocantins state, one of wildest areas in Brazil. Picture: Alamy
Julio grew up in what is now Tocantins state, one of wildest areas in Brazil. Picture: Alamy

"You're going to kill Amarelo, Uncle?" the boy gasped. He got up from his hammock.

"Sit down, Júlio. Why are you so upset?"

"Why am I so upset? Are you mad? You must be. You're going to kill Amarelo and you expect me to stay calm?" said Júlio, pacing up and down the room that was little more than sixty-five square feet.

"Keep your voice down, my boy. Do you want your mother to hear what we're saying?"

"Mom is outside on the riverbank, cleaning the deer. She can't hear us."

"If you carry on shouting like that, she's bound to hear. Sit down in the hammock and stay calm. I'm not going to kill Amarelo. I don't have the strength to get out of this hammock, still less to kill that bastard."

"That's good," said Júlio, sitting down once more. He was still settling into the moving hammock when Cícero said something that seemed to explode inside his head.

"You're the one who's going to kill Amarelo."

 

**********

After walking for forty minutes through the heart of the Amazon rainforest, Júlio reached the spot where he had to wait for his victim. This was a branch of the river Tocantins that was Amarelo's favourite place to fish surubís and catfish. The fact that the fisherman had not yet arrived gave the boy a timid hope. If Amarelo doesn't appear soon, I can go home and tell my uncle I'm not going through with it, he thought. With every passing minute, Júlio felt more relieved. Amarelo had not appeared; God would make sure he did not become a murderer. Júlio remembers he even felt a glimmer of happiness, as if a burden had been lifted.

Propping his rifle against a tree, he lay down on the ground. He linked his hands and extended his arms as far as he could above his head. His muscles could finally relax. Looking up at the tops of the trees, he saw a spider monkey hanging from a branch. He felt as carefree as that animal. At that moment, he felt sure that God would not allow Amarelo to appear. He closed his eyes and breathed in the smell of earth still damp from the previous night's rain. He was so tired from his sleep- less night that he dozed off. He woke up some time later. He had already forgotten why he was there. When he stood up he felt his shirt stuck to his sides because it was damp from the ground. Annoyed, he gave one last glance toward the river, to see whether Amarelo was there. Before that, he prayed to God: "Lord, let no one be there." His eyes pierced the forest slowly and anxiously until they settled on the yellow sand at the riverside. He was afraid to look up. But he did. No one. Nobody was fishing there. Neither Amarelo nor anyone else. Júlio felt a joy he had never before experienced. He was so excited he took off his shorts and shirt and ran toward the river. He dodged between the trees and jumped over all the roots in his way. The hot sand scorched the soles of his feet until he plunged headlong into the river, splashing water all around him. He swam for a few minutes, then decided to return home. It was going to be difficult to confront his uncle and admit he had not completed the task. But it was not his fault: "Amarelo did not appear," he would tell Cícero. He got out of the water and was walking back to the edge of the forest when he heard a gruff voice:

"What are you doing here, youngster?"

It was Amarelo, who was approaching in his canoe. Júlio felt as if he had been struck by a bullet to the chest. He was left speechless. He waved to the fisherman as though he were leaving, and ran into the forest. His body was still wet, and he found it hard to get his shorts back on. Holding his shirt in his left hand, he slung the rifle over his right shoulder. He began to run off back home. The rifle butt banged rhythmically on his back as he ran. He recalled what his uncle had said: "If you don't kill Amarelo, I'll be the one who dies." Besides, God had given him the opportunity to return home in peace. If he had left earlier, he would not have seen Amarelo. But he had decided to wait and now he had to keep his promise. Júlio went back determinedly toward the river. It would soon be over: all he had to do was arrive, fire a bullet into the fisherman's heart, and get rid of the body. His uncle had also given him instructions not to leave any evidence of the crime. After he killed Amarelo, he had to slit open his stomach and throw the body into the river for the piranhas to devour it. It would soon be over.

And yet by now he had been standing there in the thick forest for three hours, unable to muster the courage to shoot the fisherman. He could not take his eyes off Amarelo. With every movement made by the man he was there to kill, Júlio thought: Do it now. But nothing happened. On several occasions he even rested the rifle butt on his right shoulder and looked at the fisherman's left breast. He knew he only had to pull the trigger and the job would be done. Seated in the undergrowth with the rifle across his knees, he watched the shadow of the trees sweep over the muddy waters of the river Tocantins, until the shadows were swallowed beneath the trees themselves. It was noon. Amarelo was sure not to stay there much longer.

It's now, Júlio decided.

Crouching down and hiding behind the huge trees, he took half a dozen steps toward the riverbank. Just as he did when he was hunting pacas or deer, he put his left knee on the ground and propped his right elbow on his other hip. Closing his left eye, he stared at the chest of the fisherman sitting in his canoe facing him. As he pulled the trigger, he asked God for forgiveness. At that distance - no more than forty yards - he knew he would not miss. He was so concentrated and nervous he did not even hear the gunshot. He barely saw his victim raise his hands to his chest and fall slowly, a fearful expression on his face, into the bottom of his wooden canoe. Júlio felt something he would never forget: a strange sensation of power. He had succeeded in overcoming his fear and doing what he was meant to do. Taking a man's life demanded much more courage and coolness than killing an animal. But his work was not yet finished. He had to get rid of the body.

In the Name of Death tells Julio Santana's story of life as a hired hitman.
In the Name of Death tells Julio Santana's story of life as a hired hitman.

This is an edited extract from The Name of Death by Klester Cavalcanti, published by Allen & Unwin. RRP $29.99. Available in bookstores or purchase online here.


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