They Call It Suicide

An investigation into the mysterious deaths of the Guarani Indians of Brazil.

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  1. It is barely dawn on a dark, wind-swept morning in Dourados, Brazil. A vicious rain pelts the thatched roofs of six bamboo huts that form a makeshift refugee camp along a muddy road. Aguilera de Souza, 23, a young Guarani Indian chief, emerges from a patch of banana trees, dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt and flip-flops, running with his young son cradled in his arms. He scrambles up a ridge and, shivering, accepts my invitation to talk in the shelter of our car,

    “We don’t accuse officially, because we don’t have proof,” Aguilera says, in Portuguese, of the belief that many of the unusually high number of suicides among his tribe are, in fact, murders. “But why would intelligent, happy people, minutes after a party, be hanging in a banana tree?”

    Aguilera is a relative of Marcal de Souza, the legendary Indian leader who was chosen to speak for all of Brazil’s 210 known tribes when Pope John Paul II visited in 1980. Marcal de Souza told the pope that “even our survival is in danger, as we are being murdered on this land.” But despite this very public plea for relief from persecution—de Souza himself was gunned down in 1983—a myth has developed around the Guarani: They are reported to have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Between 1990 and 1999, more than 160 Guarani on the Dourados reservation of 9,000 took their own lives, according to the local police. This is an average annual rate some sixteen times that of the United States and twenty-six times the rate o...