In 2002 Herald journalist Catherine Masters and photographer Kenny Rodger went behind the prison walls and toured Brazilian back streets to find out who killed Kiwi sailing icon Sir Peter Blake

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Inside the faded pale blue concrete walls of Amapa State Prison, Sir Peter Blake's killer, Ricardo Colares Tavares, talks incessantly in Portuguese.

His muscle-bound sidekick, Ismael Pantoja da Costa, with a freshly-healed bullet wound on his left arm, sits silently, leaving the talking to his leader.

It is hard to tell if Pantoja da Costa, arms and torso bulging in a sleeveless black-and-white striped soccer shirt, and wearing shorts, is embarrassed, ashamed, nervous, or feels nothing at all.

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He will not meet our eyes, shooting only the occasional covert glance at the journalists from the same country as the tall, blonde sailor he helped his mate to shoot in the back, steal from, and leave dead on his boat that fateful December night.

Hands hidden under the table, he will not let us see the stumps where the tell-tale two fingers are missing from the second knuckle, blown off when his 38 calibre pistol was blasted from his hand by Sir Peter in a rapid exchange of gunfire.

The four others also charged with latrocinio (armed robbery leading to death) remain locked in the grimy cell they all share.

Although the judge has given us permission to interview them about the slaughter of a national hero, the criminals have decided it will cost us NZ$1000 for the honour of talking to them.

Colares Tavares' boyish face would be good looking if it weren't for his intense eyes, perhaps crazed by a lifetime of drugs if his lawyer is to be believed, and the sinister way he smiles as he makes his incredible demand.

He fidgets menacingly with a pair of small pink-handled scissors he picked up off the table.

He says they need the money to pay their lawyer so they can get the best possible sentence, to be served in this stark prison, crammed with 700 drug dealers, petty thieves, rapists and murderers.

''We are only 22 and 23 [Pantoja da Costa is, in fact, 27] and have families,'' he says through an interpreter. Macapa journalists have already been here.

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They have told their story for free and the journalists have gone away and printed bad things, he complains.

They are disappointed at our refusal to give them money, stand up and go, leaving us still wondering why Sir Peter really had to die that night.

The magical Amazon, rich in rainforest, precious metal and with abundant animal life not found anywhere else on the planet, has lured explorers for centuries.

Sir Peter was attracted by the lushness and remoteness of the jungle and the lure of the world's biggest river with its giant otters, two-metre-long alligators, an abundance of shy pink dolphins and capuchin monkeys. A fifth of the world's oxygen comes from here, around 20 per cent of its fresh water and about 30 per cent of what is left of the world's forest.

He had conquered oceans and this was a new challenge he was relishing.

Said crew member Rodger Moore, who grappled and was knocked unconscious in the attack: ''I think the Amazon is one of the few addresses in the world that conjures up difference and excitement.

Seamaster crew member Rodger Moore points to where he was struck on the cheek with what he thought was a pistol as he gives evidence related to the murder of Sir Peter Blake. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Seamaster crew member Rodger Moore points to where he was struck on the cheek with what he thought was a pistol as he gives evidence related to the murder of Sir Peter Blake. Photo / Kenny Rodger

''He wanted to go to these exciting areas.''

Rather than be called the Third World, Brazil is designated as a developing country, and the gap between rich and poor is staggering. The northern border of Amapa, the state where Sir Peter was murdered, is the second poorest region in the country. Overall Amapa, the fastest growing of the 27 states, has the highest crime rate in the country, and that includes environmental crime.

Here the jungle is protected, so it is an offence to cut down the rainforest, or hunt protected fish, turtles, jaguar, birds and alligators. Yet these activities are rife.

More significantly it boasts the fifth-highest number of murders per head. For every 100,000 people there are more than 70 homicides a year. In New Zealand the rate is 2.5.

The bandits lived in Santana, a small, impoverished port town where rickety wooden houses sprawl among occasional, more expensive and secure concrete homes. The population is around 80,000.

The man who has admitted the murder of Sir Peter Blake Ricardo Colares (centre) sits with his fellow accused Rubens Souzar (left) and a Fereral Police officer. Photo / Kenny Rodger
The man who has admitted the murder of Sir Peter Blake Ricardo Colares (centre) sits with his fellow accused Rubens Souzar (left) and a Fereral Police officer. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Sir Peter had been warned by the river police not to drop anchor off Santana, because of the likelihood of bandits. Instead he chose a resort area further along the river near Macapa, the state capital, which straddles the equator.

In the 18th century the Portuguese erected a fort at Macapa to keep the French from coming to plunder the Amazon gold they mined using black slave labour. A colourful mix of Portuguese, African and Indian cultures now exists, with distinctive features and striking faces.

There are no roads connecting Macapa to the rest of the country - locals have been known to fly their cars out so they can holiday in the southern part of the jungle. Only 11 per cent of the roads within the state are sealed.

Brazilians from surrounding states have poured into the area looking for work after the Government attracted more than 1000 new companies to set up in Amapa.

Macapa is surrounded by rapidly growing shanty towns, where you can find cheap alcohol that is so potent the guide books warn against drinking it.

The best jobs are those held by public servants working in federal departments and for these lucky ones the pay is good.

At the last census, employment in the state had grown by 33 per cent while in the rest of the country it fell by the same amount. But there are still not enough jobs for hordes of lesser-educated people who scrape by working as maids or hawking what they can on the street.

The unemployed receive no dole cheque so must make a living one way or another.
Although the townspeople are warm and welcoming, there is danger everywhere.

The federal judge in the case, Anselmo Goncalves da Silva, just 36, has been here two years and says it is a violent city.

Guns are easy to come by in this town. The head of the robbery squad with the local civil police, Tito Guimaraes Neto, shrugs.

This is a border area, it's easy to smuggle them.

He has travelled to the border with French Guiana where only one agent controlled the huge flow of people between the countries.

Even some policemen are involved in the robbery gangs in Macapa, he says.

There are plenty of remote areas where criminals can go to practise how to be accurate with their illegal weapons.

The policeman who arrested Colares Tavares and who must pay for his own bullet-proof vest, says his job is dangerous - but while he has shot at many criminals, he has never been shot at.

Tito Guimaraes Neto, however, says the law works in favour of criminals.

They are arrested and after some time they are released.

But if poverty is an excuse for murder, then Colares Tavares and his gang seem not to qualify.

All the bandits are listed as having jobs, although they are apprenticeship-type jobs which don't pay much. Robbery is more lucrative.

Colares Tavares' lawyer claims his client comes from a very poor family. But his cousin told the court he came from a good Catholic middle to upper-class family.

The story is that his mother suffered a break-down after the events and flew to Sao Paulo for treatment. Poor families could not afford the airfare.

His aunt lives in one of Santana's more expensive concrete homes. She came to the door and waved a friendly greeting but said she could not talk to us on lawyer's instructions.

She did not turn up in court and nor did his uncle who runs a small grocery shop, again indicating a reasonable level of wealth in the family.

Sir Peter Blake, with behind him The keel of Team New Zealand America's cup yacht in 2000. Photo / Bastiaan Beentjes
Sir Peter Blake, with behind him The keel of Team New Zealand America's cup yacht in 2000. Photo / Bastiaan Beentjes

Lack of education and illiteracy does not seem to be an excuse for these men either.

Children all receive at least a rudimentary education provided by the state and those with families who can afford it receive better education at private schools.

One of the gang finished high school education.

An accomplice, Antonio Goncalves de Lima, a taxi driver whose nickname is Uncle Martinho, accepted Sir Peter's stolen rifle as payment for moving the injured Pantoja da Costa.

Prosecutors indicate he was an educated man.

They say that with the wide publicity in the press about the robbery and the fact there was a missing rifle, it would not be believable that Goncalves - normally well informed about current events - did not know whose rifle it was.

It was, of course, the rifle that jammed as Sir Peter was trying to rush to the deck to protect his crew, as Colares Tavares led the gang aboard with military precision, helmets and hoods covering their faces, as if they had done this sort of robbery many times before.

Now, as these same bandits are led back to their cell, we are offered a tour of the prison.
Inside the gates and within the concrete walls there is a square of the distinctive almost red mud of the area with mango trees to give shade to the inmates when the sun beats down.

Local vendors stop for shelter and a chat on the streets of Fazendinha on the Amazon river where the man who murdered Sir Peter Blake, Ricardo Colares lived. photo / Kenny Rodger
Local vendors stop for shelter and a chat on the streets of Fazendinha on the Amazon river where the man who murdered Sir Peter Blake, Ricardo Colares lived. photo / Kenny Rodger

It is still stinking hot in winter, the rainy season of the Amazon, and this is the only ground where the prisoners are able to exercise and sometimes play soccer against each other.

It has been regularly drenched and is covered with holes still half-filled with water.
Watchtowers surround the outside walls. Some appear unoccupied, but at least one is manned by a guard with a machine gun.

Administration director, Dr Roberto Emerson Vieira dos Santos, who accompanies us on our tour, tells us it is hard to avoid prisoners escaping.

Usually they dig their way out in tunnels.

The prisoners have just had lunch, a substantial meal of meat and rice and it is the same food as that eaten by the guards.

Our guides open another gate in a second concrete wall, inside the first one, and we go a step closer to where the men are held.

There is a lone prisoner here, a pretty transvestite washing near some outdoor basins. She is allowed out only when prisoners are in their cells to stop her from being victimised.
He, rather she, is in for robbery, says Dr Roberto. And attempted homicide, he adds a few seconds later.

We are not allowed inside the prisoners' cells, but are taken close enough to the locked metal gates to look down a dark corridor and see cell doors lining each side and rubbish littering the narrow floor. Although we cannot see the men we can hear them talking to each other through the walls.

They know someone foreign is here. ''What do you want?'' one calls out and they make other comments our interpreter won't translate.

Even knowing the prisoners are locked away, it is still intimidating.

Many of them deal in cocaine and marijuana, but in Brazil there is no distinction in sentence for the type of drug or the quantity.

But even though there are also murderers and rapists held here, this is not considered maximum security.

The really bad ones go to prisons in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, says Dr Roberto.

Whatever the sentence handed down by the judge - and other sources tell us he has already decided its length - Sir Peter's killers are likely to be doomed to years of boredom and frustration locked together in their small cell, most likely here at Amapa State Prison.

They will rise at 6am and go to bed at 6pm. During the day they may study at the small sparse school at the prison, work at crafts, and sometimes play soccer in the muddy outdoor square. But for much of their day they will do nothing.

Children play tacoball (bat and ball) on the streets of Fazendinha on the Amazon river where the man who murdered Sir Peter Blake, Ricardo Colares lived. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Children play tacoball (bat and ball) on the streets of Fazendinha on the Amazon river where the man who murdered Sir Peter Blake, Ricardo Colares lived. Photo / Kenny Rodger

At night they will have no television to entertain them, just hammocks or rough mattresses to sleep on.

If they behave, and complete various rehabilitation stages, life may improve. But this will be many years away.

We are taken to see the prison outskirts of fields with gardens and crops.

At first we are driven along what seems a back road until the road ends and then we get out and walk - just us, Dr Roberto, our interpreter and a police lieutenant with a loaded gun inside his shirt.

A few hundred metres away there is a small house on poles where about 12 prisoners seem to be just hanging around.

Some sit around under the house and one strums a guitar and sings while skinny, raggy dogs wander all around.

These men have been good and have passed through the rehabilitation stages and are allowed to live as free, although they are still confined.

They are not deemed dangerous any more, says Dr Roberto. They all watch us intently but no one shouts or comes near.

We get back in the car and drive past an overweight prisoner in one of the gardens.
He has 19 children, offers Dr Roberto.

I ask what is his crime. Rape, says Dr Roberto.

Ahead in a concrete building are rabbits, he tells us. I expect to find mangy, sad animals bred to be eaten. Instead I see cages of fluffy white and grey bunnies that look healthy and well cared for.

A big burly but seemingly shy drug dealer called Raimundo tends them lovingly.

He tries to pull one out of a cage as he tells us how wonderful it is to love these animals.
There are some who are named, he says.

He proudly introduces us to Fred, the head rabbit, a big white one he says has fathered many of these other rabbits. The animal stretches like a cat and gets up heading for the cage door towards him.

Some of these animals will be sold to buy food, but mainly they are pets, they are therapy, says Dr Roberto.

It is possible Colares Tavares and his gang will come here one day.

Just as there is no distinction for the drugs people deal in, there is no distinction between the bandits who pulled the trigger and those with them, says Dr Roberto. His gang all agreed to take part in the crime so it's as if everybody had pulled the trigger.

Maybe one day he will learn practical skills like how to toil the land to help him to go straight when he gets out. Or maybe he will learn to love rabbits.


The criminals
Ricardo Colares Tavares
Single. Born April 15, 1979. The gang's leader. A bricklayer's assistant. Shot Sir Peter Blake twice in the back. The loot from the Seamaster was found stashed in the roof of his house. He gave up without a struggle. For someone so young he is an old hand at robbery. He was arrested in Minas Gerais, a state in the south east of Brazil. Civil police say the gang was part of a much bigger group of robbers which prey on boats in the river. Shots are not usually fired in robberies of passenger ferries - few tourist vessels visit here - but Colares Tavares' gang are said to have opened fire at a previous robbery, where they wore hoods and claimed to be police agents. On the Seamaster he carried a pistol which could fire 12 rounds, and had more ammunition. The gang members all live in the same town and all told civil police they took drugs.

Ismael Pantoja da Costa
Single. Born December 6, 1974. General services assistant. Shot at Sir Peter, who also fired, hitting his arm and hand.

Reney Ferreira Macedo
Lives in a de facto relationship. Born April 6, 1979. Electrician's assistant. Held gun at crew.

Jose Irandir Colares Cardoso
Known as Junior. Lives in a de facto relationship. Born July 16, 1976. Federal justice files contain a photograph with severe bruising on his buttocks from alleged torture by police. Held gun at the Seamaster's crew.

Josue Pantoja da Costa
Single. Born March 19, 1972. Fisherman. Held gun at crew.

Reubens Sa Silva Sousa
Single. Born February 14, 1981. Sailor. Steered the getaway boat.