The outlaw Lampi?o is the most famous son of the backlands of the Sert?o, the semi-arid poor interior of Brazil’s northeast.
Revered by some as a hero and others as a heartless bandit, his story has taken on folklore-like status and his name reverberates in every town.
Born Virgolino Ferreira in 1898 in an area largely governed by land owners and their often brutal militia, Lampi?o turned to violence when he sought revenge against Sert?o police who killed his father in 1919.
His gang of revolutionaries roamed the vast wastelands for two decades, accumulating wealth, distributing some to the poor, and plotting against the government of the day.
Lampi?o was killed in 1938 when he was betrayed by former supporters. In a gun battle against overwhelming government police forces, he, Bonita, and many of his armed band were killed.
A legend born
But his legend lived on.
Lampi?o features in a new TV mini-series, one of Brazil’s most famous singers will wear a costume of Maria Bonita at this year’s carnival and another samba school will parade with a huge puppet of the legendary north-easterner.
The place site whre Lampinao
And now a new book, Lampi?o, King of the Backlands by his granddaughter will try to end the polemic that exists until today – good guy or bad guy, hero or “the terror of the Sert?o”?
Vera Ferreira, child of Lampi?o’s only surviving daughter, Espedita, aged 72, has researched the story of her grandfather for 27 years.
“In general, people are prejudiced. There is a myth that he was a violent man, who wouldn’t allow a woman to get pregnant in his band, but my own mother was born within the group,” she told Aljazeera.net.
Her book makes reference to a rare 1927 interview with Lampi?o. During the interview, Lampi?o is said to live up to his Robin Hood role by going to the window several times and throwing coins to the poor.
It was common practice for the bandits to demand money from the rich under the threat of “confiscating” their houses.
“When I need some money I just ask some comrades in a friendly way”
But asked why he practiced extortion, Lampi?o is said to have replied: “Ah, but I’ve never done this. When I need some money I just ask some comrades in a friendly way.”
Ferreira depicts Lampi?o as a man who displayed moments of morality despite the violence that played such a dominant role in his life.
“I have committed violence of revenge against those who have persecuted me. However, I am accustomed to respect families. When anyone in my group disrespects a woman, I castigate them severely.
The story of Lampi?o is steeped in pitched gun battles and bloodshed. In the interview cited in Ferreira’s book he says: “It’s impossible to say how many combats I’ve been involved in. I can calculate that it must be more than 200.
“I don’t know how many I’ve killed at the point of my rifle, but I remember perfectly that it includes three policemen. Soldiers, it would be impossible to guard in my memory the number of them who have been taken to the other world.”
An illustration of Lampiao
The terrain where Lampi?o roamed was itself unyielding. It was fraught with dangers from jaguars and venomous snakes to the crocodiles and piranhas that roamed the river S?o Francisco.
But it was none of these that cost Lampi?o his left eye – he suffered an unfortunate accident with a cactus.
Wolney Oliveira is a filmmaker who has spent the past year interviewing the surviving members of the bandits – the youngest is 84 – for his film Lampi?o, the Governor of the Backlands. He says that Lampi?o was no angel but was not an evil man.
“Lampi?o committed atrocities – that’s a fact. But I’m not interested in these stories that he threw babies in the air and speared them with a stick,” he said.
A wanted man
Differing accounts of Lampi?o’s heroism and allegations of gang-rape, torture and murder eventually reached the Brazilian capital Rio de Janeiro in the late 1930s.
President Getulio Vargas reacted by ordering Lampi?o be apprehended or killed.
A guide shows the way to the
The government of the state of Bahia (part of the Sert?o region) put up a large reward leading to his capture.
Lampi?o’s knowledge of the terrain, the ferocity of his infamy and the co-operation of many of the underprivileged helped him and his men stay on the run.
But his luck finally ran out in 1938, when he was ambushed at dawn while brushing his teeth in the band’s secret hideout. He, Maria Bonita and nine others were killed while a few of the bandits made their escape.
The corpses were decapitated and the heads were put on display as a badge of honour and as a warning to others in the nearby town of Piranhas in the northern state of Alagoas.
The point where he fell, Grota do Angicos, is now marked by a plaque and a simple wooden cross in a clearing in the forest.
A simple guided tour follows a trail leading to the site set up for tourists in 1998.
Ferreira makes the trip every year on 28 July, the anniversary of the death of her grandfather.
But with or without her input, the endless debate over whether Lampi?o was the poor’s champion or a ruthless villain will continue to feed the legend.