Wallace Souza was a powerful man in Brazil's Wild West the vast, remote, impoverished and poorly policed Amazon, where the rich hold sway to an extent unusual even in a country as notoriously unequal as Brazil. Reports from the region say the former cop, TV celebrity and local politician lead a gang that arranged killings to bolster his political aspirations and boost the ratings on his true-crime TV show.
"The truth is, they went as far as creating acts," Amazonas state Secretary for Intelligence Thomas Augusto Vasconcelos told reporters "It's been determined the crimes were committed in order to generate news for the program."
Souza has denied all the charges, claiming they're part of a plot by political opponents to discredit him. But he has refused to give up the parliamentary immunity that prevents a state Congressman from being charged in the lower courts. That may not keep the matter out of court, however: The crimes of which Souza is accused are so serious, said Divanilson Cavalcanti, head of the task force investigating the accusations, that judges could elect to break his immunity and try him in a higher court on charges of murder, drug trafficking, illegal weapons possession, tampering with witnesses and involvement in organised crime.
Cavalcanti added that police are also investigating allegations that Souza may have had sexual relations with under-age girls.
"Police arrested his bodyguard and he told us everything," Cavalcanti said in a phone interview from Amazonia. "At first we thought it was all fantasy, but when we checked it out it was all true. They are investigating at least two murders and possibly much more. There could be more to come."
Wallace's son Rafael is currently in custody accused of involvement in at least one of the killings under investigation. His bodyguard and former partner when both served as cops has also been arrested, and provided testimony that led police to investigate as many as 15 serious crimes involving the gang since 2007, Cavalcanti said.
The allegations would certainly have made compelling television for Souza's show, Canal Livre. Typical of the many crime shows that air daily across Brazil, the show typically features angry men claiming to speak for the country's poor those most afflicted by sky-high crime rates shouting and pointing at the camera while complaining that politicians and the police do little to protect the community.
Souza, on Canal Livre, the lunchtime program he presented with his two brothers, often accused police of incompetence and slated politicians and judges for failing to crack down hard enough on crime. But when the bloodshed slowed to a trickle, investigators charge, Souza commissioned killings to cover on his show and to sustain his electoral claim to be the candidate for voters sick of rampant crime and the incumbents' alleged inability to stop it.
In one case, Souza allegedly ordered a hit and then told his camera crews where and when it would go down to allow them to be first on the scene.
"He wanted to be the saviour," said Cavalcanti. "His ambition was to be chief of police and when the city was calm he ordered killings as a way of stirring things up."
Canal Livre was hugely popular, and Souza ran for state deputy in 1998, winning re-election twice, helped by his TV bully pulpit. His brothers also took advantage of their celebrity and entered politics. One went on to become a city councillor in the state capital Manaus, while the other is currently the city's deputy mayor.
Meanwhile, the lawlessness that permeates the Amazon continues. Several of the judges and government officials involved in the investigation have received death threats are now under 24-hour guard.