Ex-leader of Brazilian landless activists arrested

A charismatic former leader of Brazil's landless rural workers movement was arrested Thursday on suspicion of misappropriating public funds intended for the resettlement of families, the federal police said.

Jose Rainha, 50, a longtime leader of the MST, as the organization is known in Brazil, was arrested in rural Sao Paulo state after a 10-month investigation, police said in a statement.

He was one of 10 suspects wanted in connection with the alleged misuse of public funds meant to support landless activists who are being allocated plots as part of land reform in the region. The police did not specify how much of the funds were allegedly misused.

Officers also had warrants for Sao Paulo state leaders of the federal department for land reform, known by its Portuguese acronym, Incra. Those arrested in the same action included the state Incra superintendent, Raimundo Pires, and two regional coordinators.

The federal police said the suspects used civic associations and cooperatives to illegally funnel public money. They are also suspected of extorting the owners of farms that have been invaded by the MST, illegally harvesting wood in preserved areas, and illicitly appropriating public funds, among other charges.

Rainha maintains he is still a leader in the movement, but a spokesman for the organization said he was removed from the position and has not represented them for about five years. The organization has not issued a statement commenting on his arrest.

Rainha has been arrested at least four other times — most recently in 2003 for carrying a gun without authorization, and in 2005 for taking part in the invasion of a farm.

Under Brazil's agrarian reform laws, the government can take over fallow farmland and distribute it to landless farmers.

The landless movement is allied with the Workers Party of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and current President Dilma Rousseff, but land ownership in Brazil remains concentrated. Nearly 50 percent of arable land nationwide belongs to 1 percent of the population, according to the Brazilian government's statistics agency.

The landless activists frequently occupy farms they deem unproductive to pressure the government to speed up land reform.