Murder for Ratings? Brazil Cops Suspect TV Host

In one murder after another, the "Canal Livre" crime TV show had an uncanny knack for being first on the scene, gathering graphic footage of the victim.

Too uncanny, say police, who are investigating the show's host,
state legislator Wallace Souza, on suspicion of commissioning at
least five of the murders to boost his ratings and prove his claim
that Brazil's Amazon region is awash in violent crime. Police also
have accused Souza of drug trafficking.

"The order to execute always came from the legislator and his
son, who then alerted the TV crews to get to the scene before the
police," state police intelligence chief Thomaz Vasconcelos
charged in an interview with The Associated Press.

The killings of competing drug traffickers, he said, "appear to
have been committed to get rid of his rivals and increase the
audience of the TV show."

Souza denied all the criminal allegations and called them
absurd, insisting that he and his son are being set up by political
enemies and drug dealers sick of his two decades of relentless
crime coverage on TV and crusading legislative probes.

"I was the one who organized legislative inquiries into
organized crime, the prison system, corruption, drug trafficking by
police, and pedophilia," Souza said in an interview with the AP.

Souza's lawyer, Francisco Balieiro, said that the only witness
is a disgraced police officer hoping for leniency in nine murders
he is charged with.

"There is not one piece of material proof in these
accusations," Balieiro said.

Vasconcelos said the accusations, which have made headlines in
Brazil, stem from the testimony of several former employees and
security guards who worked with the Souzas, allegedly as part of a
gang of former police officers involved in drug trafficking.

Souza's son, Rafael, has been jailed on charges of homicide,
drug trafficking and illegal gun possession.

Police said Wallace Souza faces charges of drug trafficking,
gang formation and weapons possession, but has not been charged
with any killings.

Souza remains free because of legislative immunity that prevents
him from being arrested as long as he is a lawmaker. He is being
investigated by a special task force, and state judicial
authorities will decide whether the case goes forward.

Vasconcelos said the crimes appear to have served the Souzas in
two ways: They eliminated drug-trafficking rivals, and they boosted

"We believe that they organized a kind of death squad to
execute rivals who disputed with them the drug trafficking
business," he said. Souza, he charged, "would eliminate his rival
and use the killing as a news story for his program."

Souza became a media personality after a career as a police
officer that ended in disgrace, according to Vasconcelos, who said
the lawmaker was fired for involvement in scams involving fuel
theft and pension fraud.

Souza denied those allegations, but said he was forced to leave
the force in 1987 after being wrongly accused of involvement in a
college entrance exam fraud scheme that he was investigating.

He started "Canal Livre" two years later on a local commercial
station in Manaus, the capital of Brazil's largely lawless Amazonas
state. It became extremely popular among Manaus' 1.7 million
residents before going off the air late last year as police
intensified their investigation.

The show featured Souza, in a studio, railing against rampant
crime in the state, punctuated with often exclusive footage of
arrests, crime scenes and drug seizures.

"When I became a police officer in 1979, bandits weren't raised
in this city - no way," he told the audience in one show. Brazil
was then a dictatorship, whose police ruthlessly targeted criminals
with little concern for civil rights.

One clip showed a reporter approaching a freshly burned corpse,
covering his nose with his shirt and breezily remarking that "it
smells like barbecue." Police say the victim was one of the five
allegedly murdered at Souza's behest.

Souza denied any role in that killing and explained how his
reporters manage to get so quickly to crime scenes, using
well-placed sources and constantly monitoring scanners for police
radio dispatches. The show also posted workers at police stations,
and at the Manaus morgue, where word often came first about newly
discovered bodies.

"To say that a program that has had a huge audience for so many
years had to resort to killing people to increase this audience is
absolutely absurd," Souza said.

Souza parlayed his TV fame into a career in the state
legislature, getting elected three times - twice with the most
votes of any lawmaker in the state. At the same time, he remained a
fixture on television.

Souza's biography on the state legislature's Web site says the
show, which he ran with his brother, was investigative journalism
aimed at fighting crime and social injustice.

"The courageous brothers, as they're known, bring hope to the
less fortunate," reads the description, "showing a 'naked and raw
reality' to call authorities' attention to social problems."

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