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Murder for ratings? Brazil cops suspect TV crime host

SAO PAULO, Brazil — 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 ratings.

"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."