The court clerk rose from his hammock onboard the riverboat in Itamatatuba, Brazil. The town sits at the mouth of the mighty Amazon River, just across the wide delta from Belém, where the Amazon ends its journey, flowing into the South Atlantic.
The riverboat, Rey Benedito, is the present-day courtroom for Judge Mayra Brandão, age 37. The judge holds court up and down the river deciding cases such as a father falling behind on child support, an arson threat, and a rancher charged with firing his shotgun at his neighbor’s herd of water buffalo.
Besides the usual challenges a judge faces in making her decisions, Judge Mayra must also brave choppy currents, malarial mosquitoes, and the threat of pirates. The judge and her staff board this three-story riverboat every few weeks in Macapá, the capital of the state of Amapá.
Amapá’s floating courtroom first set sail in the 1990s to address some of the shortcomings in Brazil’s legal system. The country’s judiciary is reviled by many citizens for its gargantuan bureaucracy and slowness in delivering verdicts. Since then, other Brazilian states have created similar projects. Authorities elsewhere in the world, including Pakistan and the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, US have used buses as mobile courtrooms.
As it spends several days sailing upstream in the Amazon, living conditions on the riverboat are cramped. Staff members’ sleeping hammocks bump each other during the night as currents rock the vessel. The only semblance of air-conditioning is an occasional breeze, allowing for a dress code of shorts and sandals. Sometimes proceedings are halted when the ear-piercing cries of howler monkeys drown out conversation.
After dusk, a day of work completed, the members of the court gather on the top deck to sip beer under a mesmerizing night sky, singing along as Rubens Barros, 38, the boat’s chief law clerk, strums a guitar to songs like “Sina,” by the Brazilian composer Djavan.
Still, not everyone is impressed when the floating courtroom makes its way through the heavily forested Bailique Archipelago, an assortment of islands on which about 7,000 people live. “They pursue cases involving humble people, but what about large-scale deforestation or political corruption? There’s no riverboat going after the biggest thieves,” said Andreia Figueiredo, the principal of the small public school in Itamatatuba.
One defendant who had been accused of shooting his neighbor’s water buffalo stated, “We used to be free in these parts to settle things our own way,” he said. “Now the city people on this boat want to tell a man how to live his life.”
Until recently, local oligarchs supplanted the judiciary with their own domineering rule. Mob justice remains common, and lynchings still occur. All too often, the region’s residents reach for machetes to settle feuds. “That’s where we come in,” said Sgt. Eurismar da Cruz, 47, a police officer from Macapá who serves as a bailiff in the riverboat court. Wielding pistols, he and other bailiffs fan out each morning on a small speedboat in search of people suspected of committing crimes.
Not all who board the riverboat are suspected of breaking the law. Some seek the other services available onboard, including receiving social security cards, voting papers, and water purification tablets. Whether the residents of this watery world are seeking official documents or child support payments from ex-husbands, there’s no question that the Rey Benedito is a helpful addition to their lives.