True tale of a contract killer all too unglamorous

Kevin Baxter reviews The Name Of Death by Klester Cavalcanti. Published by Allen & Unwin.

The bloodied faces haunt his dreams. When the dead come to him, Julio Santana asks for forgiveness. Even after a life of killing — professional, merciless cash-for-death murder — the Brazilian, who should have been a simple river fisherman, says he is not a bad man. He hopes his wife will forgive his staggering 492 murders. And God, too.

The remarkable life story of Santana is deeply unsettling. Born into poverty on a remote Amazonian riverbank, Santana was a born hunter. Spotting sloths, shooting monkeys and spearing fish for family dinner, he was happy there, in love with a beautiful girl a short paddle upstream, sure to follow in his father’s bare footsteps.

But an odious uncle leads him astray, first on cachaca (an alcoholic drink made from fermented sugarcane juice) and then to contract killing. Struck down with malaria, Uncle Cicero — bearing little resemblance to the great Roman orator — leans on his 17-year-old nephew to murder a man. A young teen has been raped and her father contracts Cicero to kill her attacker. After he is talked around, the uncle assures an anxious Santana: "Tomorrow, after killing Amarelo, you go home and pray 10 Hail Marys and 20 Our Fathers. That way I guarantee you will be forgiven."

After shooting the man dead from his hiding spot in the dense jungle some 35m away, and feeling "a strange sensation of power", Santana guts the man with a knife and feeds his remains to piranha.

So begins Santana’s career of cold-blooded slaughter.

He thought it would make him rich. Now, all he has got is a medium-sized flat-screen TV and some land in an un-named state in the Brazilian interior.

There is little glamour in award-winning Brazilian investigative journalist Klester Cavalcanti’s account of Santana’s story that is apparently soon to become a "major motion picture".

The targets are often far from hardened criminals or thugs. Often, the contracts arise over land disputes — landowners topping lowly farmers. A rich businessman’s son gets a guy killed after a dispute on the soccer field. Others have stolen a few dollars. Despite each of the 492 deaths being recorded by Santana in a notebook, only a handful are recounted in detail.

Cavalcanti spent years talking with Santana, now in retirement. He found him to be a "calm, good-humoured, home-loving man" who is affectionate towards his wife and children while being "very religious".

But it is hard to reconcile that with a man who so brutally slayed so many people for so little over several decades. Santana asks for forgiveness, from his wife, and from his God. It leaves you wondering whether his victims’ families would be so tolerant and understanding.

- Kevin Baxter is a Canterbury-based reviewer.

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