Did Brazil’s evangelical superstar have her husband killed?

w ^hen Flordelis dos Santos de Souza boarded an air force jet from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília on the morning of 1 一月 2019, she felt she was witnessing the beginning of a new dawn. Brazil was about to install a far-right religious nationalist, Jair Bolsonaro, as president, and she, a black gospel singer from one of Rio’s most violent and impoverished favelas, had won a seat in parliament, asserting her place among her country’s powerful evangelical elite. 在 57, she was a church leader and a social crusader, celebrated for standing up to some of Rio’s most dangerous gangsters and for taking in dozens of children rescued from lives of deprivation and crime. She had devoted her life to building a multimillion-dollar evangelical empire, which had grown to include nine churches. Now she was a politician, 也.

At her side was her husband, Anderson do Carmo de Souza, also a preacher, 16 years her junior, who managed her political career. “I want to thank all of you who had faith and gave Flor a place in this movement to change Brazil, isn’t that right love?” Anderson said into a camera as the pair stood on the airport runway, waiting to fly to the capital at the invitation of one of the country’s most powerful politicians, Rodrigo Maia, then speaker of the lower house.

By that time, Flordelis was one of the most famous evangelical figures in Brazil. Thousands would gather each week at her churches – collectively known as the Ministério Flordelis – to sing along as she belted out feelgood anthems with names such as God’s in Control and Justice Will Come. The largest venue – a converted bus depot that regularly held 5,000 worshippers – was called the Cidade do Fogo, or City of Fire. In a gift shop at the entrance you could buy white coffee mugs stamped with Flordelis’s picture and the message: “A miracle awaits you!!”

Flordelis was not just known for her charismatic preaching. Over the previous four decades, she had built an extraordinary family around her. In addition to her three biological children, she had formally and informally adopted dozens more, and taken in others who had turned up at the family home and never left. The precise number of adopted children is unclear, but the most commonly cited number is 55. Her husband had been one of them, joining her household at the age of 15.

A video posted on Flordelis’s official YouTube channel shows her sweeping through congress on the day of Bolsonaro’s investiture, chatting to members of an almost entirely white, male cast of political heavyweights including Bolsonaro’s chief of staff and his senator son, Flávio. In a packed hall, she cheered the new leader’s slogan: “Brazil above everything! God above all!”

“I’ll never forget that day,” Flordelis told me just over two years later, in April 2021, over coffee at her house. Her light brown eyes sparkled as she recounted her first experience of life among Brazil’s ruling class. “I was at the presidential inauguration and all I could think about was the little girl from the favela, 你懂?“ 她说. “I was over the moon – happy, happy, happy. I’d achieved things I could never have dreamed of. God went so far beyond my dreams, so very far.”

But just a few months after Flordelis became a congresswoman, everything fell apart.

在 16 六月 2019, according to her account, she and her husband spent a romantic evening strolling down Rio’s Copacabana beach before pulling over to make love on the bonnet of their car as they drove home.

When they arrived at their gated house in Niterói, a city across the bay from Rio, at around 3am, Flordelis claims she went upstairs, leaving Anderson in the garage, looking at something on his phone. Moments later, he was shot.

Two of her sons drove Anderson to hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Speaking to journalists later that day, Flordelis wept and claimed that her husband had been the victim of a botched robbery and had died defending their family. But within hours of the shooting, police had detained two of the couple’s children – Flordelis’s 38-year-old biological son Flávio, and an adopted son, 卢卡斯, 谁是 18. Not long after the arrest, Flávio reportedly confessed to shooting Anderson.

In the following days, the Brazilian media carried lurid details about the murder, including claims that the pastor had been found semi-naked, and that he had been shot multiple times in the groin. They also alleged that the couple might have spent part of the evening at a swingers club. Most shocking of all, some speculated that Flordelis herself was behind Anderson’s death.

A year later, in August 2020, police formally charged Flordelis with masterminding her husband’s murder. Several of her children and a granddaughter were also charged. Parliamentary privilege meant that, unlike the other 10 alleged co-conspirators, Flordelis was not sent to prison before the trial.

反而, her movements were restricted and she was ordered to wear an ankle bracelet, which she concealed beneath floor-length dresses when she attended court.

“She’s 100% innocent,” Flordelis’s bear-like lawyer Anderson Rollemberg told me as he muscled his way through a scrum of journalists to one of her first hearings, in late November 2020. The trial was held in a 12th-floor courtroom that looked out on Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue. Despite all the attention and resources that had gone into the investigation, the case remained mysterious. Even within Flordelis’s own household, nothing seemed certain.

Ťhe favela where Flordelis was born, Jacarezinho, is one of the biggest in Rio: a riverside tumble of tin-roofed shacks on the city’s industrial north side. According to local historian Gabriel Rumba, its first inhabitants were runaway slaves, who set up homes on what was then farmland, seeking refuge from slave patrols in the late 19th century. Over the following decades, Jacarezinho developed into a sprawling favela, housing as many as 60,000 人们.

在 1961, the year Flordelis was born, two revolutions – one spiritual, the other criminal – were under way, which would reshape the community and Brazil itself. Although Jacarezinho had long been steeped in samba music and Afro-Brazilian faiths such as Umbanda and Candomblé, by the 60s, when Flordelis’s mother, Carmozina, converted to Christianity and joined the Assemblies of God pentecostal church, that was starting to change. The Assemblies of God had been imported into the Brazilian Amazon half a century earlier by two Swedish evangelists. Missionaries from this and other pentecostal churches had found millions of ready converts among the country’s marginal populations, from isolated Amazon settlements to urban slums such as Jacarezinho. “Pentecostalism was just really good at helping people, especially poor people, cope with the problems they faced,” said Amy Erica Smith, an American academic who has studied Brazil’s evangelical boom.

Pastors promised struggling families that they could turn their lives around immediately – getting their children off drugs, their husbands to stop drinking, and helping them save money. The slogan of another pentecostal juggernaut, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which was founded in Rio in 1977, was simply “Pare de Sofrer!” (“Stop Suffering!”). This was an easier message to sell than the immense structural change proposed by Catholic Liberation Theologians, said Smith.

Pentecostalism was more fun too. “People could get up and dance.” In just a few decades, Brazil, a traditionally Catholic nation, would become home to one of the world’s largest evangelical Protestant populations.

在 1976, when Flordelis was 15, her father, Francisco – the accordionist in a Christian group – was killed in a road accident. In their grief, she and her mother threw themselves into religion. Her mother would hold regular prayer sessions for the poor at their family home, a redbrick shack down a tapered Jacarezinho back-alley called Guarani Street, and Flordelis would sing at these meetings.

Flordelis and her mother founded a local storefront church. And as their congregation of factory workers and domestic workers grew, outside in the streets another transformation was taking place. During the 80s, Jacarezinho was already associated with a generation of gangsters whose nicknames – Half-Kilo, Fatty, Stepladder – hinted at their reputations as benevolent, if sometimes violent, rogues. Towards the end of the 80s, cocaine and automatic weapons began flooding Rio’s cinder-block favelas, raising the murder rate to one of the highest in the world. 之间 1980 和 1994, violent deaths tripled. At its worst, the body count in Rio was more than 11 一天.

Hélio Luz, who ran Rio’s civil police during the early 90s, told me about the first time he seized an automatic weapon from a teenage boy during a raid on a favela just south of Jacarezinho in the early 80s. “我像, damn, what’s this bloody kid doing with that?“ 他说. A few years later, such sights had become normal.

By the mid-90s, a struggle for control of the favelas was raging between three different drug factions and the police – a conflict that has since claimed thousands of mostly young black lives. Flordelis, then in her early 30s, set out to save young gang members from prison or a violent death. Each Friday at midnight, she and a posse of adolescent followers would set out from her church and trawl the dingy back alleys, on a mission to confront young gangsters and convert them. She called it Evangelismo da Madrugada (Pre-dawn Preaching).

“Nobody did the kind of work we did,” Flordelis told me. “My mum thought I was mad. My family thought I was mad. Everyone thought I was mad. But my desire to do something has always spoken louder than common sense. Flordelis can’t live if she’s not doing something for someone else.” (She often refers to herself in the third person.)

One night, Flordelis recalled, she ran into a drug trafficker called Cocada, who had recently become the local boss. She was surrounded by his heavily armed entourage. “You’re the boss of nothing, not even your own nose,” she scolded him. “Because if my God wants to, he’ll turn you into a leper right now and your nose will fall off and there’ll be nothing you can do.”

“She’s crazy – she’s nuts,” Cocada scoffed, according to Flordelis’s account, and ordered his men to let her pass.

“What others call madness, we evangelicals call the authority of God,” Flordelis said.

For the local boys who Flordelis enlisted to her late-night salvation army, these sorties into drug dens and cocaine-fuelled dance parties in search of lost souls were an unforgettable adventure. “It was such a thrill,” Wagner Andrade Pimenta, one of Flordelis’s first foster sons, told me. “We were in awe of her and felt honoured to be part of that group.” Flordelis had found her following.

w ^agner was 12 或者 13 when he joined Flordelis on her divine mission. He abandoned his family and moved into the first floor of “Mother Flor’s” overcrowded house on Guarani Street, where Flordelis’s three biological children – Simone, Flávio and Adriano – and at least five other local teens were already living. Wagner told me he considered his new mother an instrument of God.

According to Flordelis’s autobiography, published in 2011, the first to arrive had been Carlos, a 19-year-old cocaine addict and low-level drug trafficker whose cousin was one of Jacarezinho’s most notorious killers. At home, Carlos’s task had been to stash weapons – “He even hid grenades under his own mother’s mattress once,” Flordelis wrote – and he had sought shelter with Flordelis in the hope of escaping the drug world. Next came André and Valdemir, who were running from problems at home. Valdemir only stayed briefly, but André, whose brothers were involved in drugs, became a permanent fixture. Then came Luan, a 14-year-old who, according to Flordelis, “had suffered very serious family conflicts”.

Flordelis brushed off my questions about whether it was a good idea for so many young men to be living with a much older woman they hardly knew. “I always say to them that they weren’t invited into my life, they invaded it,“ 她说.

There was a fifth young man among the residents of Flordelis’s home by the time Wagner arrived, although this detail is omitted from her official biography. His name was Anderson do Carmo de Souza and, according to his family lawyer, Ângelo Máximo, he was a local boy who had briefly dated Flordelis’s daughter, Simone.

Máximo told me Anderson was 15 when he moved into the house on Guarani Street in 1992. Flordelis was 31. By that time, Máximo claims that they were an item. “He fell in love – and off he went … normal teenage behaviour,” Máximo said. (Flordelis maintains they met at her church and did not start a relationship until he was 18.)

By February 1994, 至少 10 people appear to have been living at Guarani Street when, according to Flordelis, 37 street children, 包括 14 babies, appeared on her doorstep. They had allegedly been shot at as they slept near the railway station in Rio’s dilapidated downtown. Somehow the survivors made their way to Flordelis’s house. “I didn’t know anything about child protection laws,” she admitted. “When I saw those children I said, ‘I’m going to keep them’ – and I did. The way I saw things, God had sent me those children. He had sent them to Flor-de-lis,“ 她说, emphasising the syllables of her name.

Wagner remembered Flordelis’s house – which, by the mid-90s, had almost 50 residents – as a crowded and squalid place. Residents slept on the sitting-room floor or even under the kitchen table. In one bedroom, Wagner claimed, there were a dozen or so babies sharing cots, whom the older boys would feed and bathe. “Anyone who sat on the sofa caught scabies,” said Wagner. “Every time. Just imagine all those people living together.”

But it was also a time of optimism and ambition. “At the start, there was this real feeling of union, of unity. It was all so new, so exciting,” Wagner recalled. “And we scraped by and built this big family.”

razilian journalists started turning up at the favela to hear the tale of the thirtysomething woman with nearly 50 kids. “It was odd because she was this young, beautiful girl – and there were so many children,” said Priscila Brandão, a reporter from Brazil’s top broadcaster, TV Globo, who was among the first to visit the home, in July 1994.

Brandão’s 70-second report offered a glimpse of life inside Flordelis’s unconventional shelter. In one image, around 10 children and a teenage boy huddle in front of a small television. In another, a scraggly-haired Flordelis holds a small baby in a white bib and pink shorts. Anderson – then 17 和, according to Máximo, already the head of the family – appears leaning against a wall. He has the shy and surly look of a teenager, and has one arm around the shoulder of a much younger girl. “I remember there was this smell of rotten fruit, because stallholders at the market would give her their throwaways, and that was how she’d feed the kids,” said Brandão. “But we didn’t get the impression anything bad was going on.”

Flordelis told me that those early reports brought the attention of child welfare officers whose scrutiny forced her largely undocumented clan to flee Guarani Street and go into hiding in a series of temporary homes. But they also brought some more favourable publicity. In the years that followed, Flordelis and Anderson, who was by then her husband, paraded their family on TV chatshows watched by tens of millions of viewers. They were hailed as heroes. “Flordelis is a real mum – a special mum,” gushed one of Brazil’s most celebrated television presenters, Xuxa Meneghel, as she welcomed Flordelis’s family on to a Mother’s Day special in 2002.

Wealthy and influential benefactors appeared, including Marco Antonio Ferraz, a fashion photographer who made it his mission to help Flordelis. Two weeks after Flordelis’s appearance on Meneghel’s programme, Ferraz travelled to the home where Flordelis and Anderson were raising their family in Jacarepaguá, on the westside of Rio. “They were facing real deprivation. They hardly had any food. No luxuries whatsoever,“ 他说. “And I decided to fight their corner.”

Ferraz’s first impression of Flordelis was that she was timid. “She hardly looked me in the eye,“ 他说. “She becomes this hurricane when she picks up the microphone and she has to sing or to preach the gospel – but she’s actually extremely shy.”

Walking around Jacarezinho with Flordelis, Ferraz was bowled over by the scenes of violence and heroism he saw. On one visit he remembers they came across a 13- or 14-year-old boy who was being dragged away by drug traffickers, and Flordelis intervened. “She didn’t allow it. It happened right in front of me. I saw it. It took me a week to get my head back to normal,“ 他说. On another occasion they ran into the boss of the favela as he and his troops patrolled the area. “She asked him to put down his gun. I remember this clearly,” Ferraz said. “It was a machine gun and he took it off and she prayed for him … For me it was surreal. For her it was normal.” Ferraz remembers gang members shedding tears as Flordelis spoke, telling them to lay down their weapons and surrender to Jesus. “I saw this kind of thing so many times. I saw her do so much good.”

In the following years, Ferraz became one of Flordelis’s most energetic champions and closest friends, using his contacts to secure her donations of food and clothes – including, 他说, Dior handbags – and to further her career. “We had this way of introducing her: ‘Look, this is Flordelis, this lady who has 55 adopted children, and we’re going to do projects to try to help her,’” he said.

Ferraz decided to make a film about Flordelis’s activism in the favela, and he recruited Brazilian soap opera stars for the project. “It was wonderful,” Flordelis told me. “When you’re born and raised in the favela you never imagine that one day you’ll get right up close to the people you’re used to seeing on TV … Suddenly they were inside my home. I considered it a miracle.”

In October 2009, the film premiered at Rio’s international film festival, and Flordelis’s family got a red carpet reception. Flordelis blew kisses to the cameras just as she had seen Oscar-nominated actors doing on television. “I felt like a real artist,” she told me. The film was a flop, but for a while it helped Flordelis and Anderson to pay the bills. According to Ferraz, Anderson carried around suitcases of pirate DVD copies that they would sell after church services.

The film also helped land Flordelis a record deal with one of Brazil’s top gospel labels, MK Music. Over the next decade, Flordelis released five albums, featuring songs of redemption and self-help that are sung in pentecostal churches across Brazil to this day. They brought her a huge audience. 在 2017, she and Anderson performed for tens of thousands of fans on Copacabana beach at a gospel event called the Louvorzão or Big Worship. They also made her rich. “I earned more than I do now as a congresswoman,“ 她说. “There were months where I earned more than 150,000 reais (about £20,000) a month,” a vast sum in a country where the minimum monthly wage is 1,100 (£146).

Flordelis and pastor Anderson travelled the world, visiting the US and Europe on numerous occasions. During one trip to New York she remembered her husband falling to his knees in Times Square, throwing open his arms and bellowing: “From the favela to New York, my love! Only God does this!” Flordelis told me they had stood there hugging and crying in disbelief: “I will never, ever, ever forget it.”

一种s her fame grew, Flordelis began to believe she had a future in politics. In the four decades since she opened her first church, Brazil’s evangelical community had exploded in size, from less than 7% of the population in 1980 to more than 22% 在 2010 – and as much as 30% today. The number of evangelical politicians in the lower house of congress had risen from 21 在 1994 到 69 在 2016. That same year, Bolsonaro, a Catholic congressman and aspiring presidential, flew to Israel to be immersed in the river Jordan, in what many saw as a tactic to win over evangelical voters.

在 2018, Flordelis decided she would try to join the so-called Bible Caucus, embarking on an exhausting marathon of church appearances she hoped would translate into votes. “You’ve no idea how hard I worked,” said Flordelis, who ran for office as part of a joint ticket with her political mentor, the evangelical media mogul and MK Music boss Arolde de Oliveira, and Flávio Bolsonaro, the president’s rightwing senator son. “I’d visit churches morning, noon and night. I’d do three or four services each night.”

Those appearances paid off. On Sunday 7 十月 2018, a total of 196,959 voters put their faith in Flordelis, a huge victory that propelled her into the Chamber of Deputies representing Rio de Janeiro. “We won! Thank you to the Lord Jesus Christ, who has always blessed us, to my family and to you!” she tweeted as she prepared to begin her four-year term in congress. “Our work is only just getting started.”

Four months later, in February 2019, Wagner flew to Brasília with his wife, Luana Rangel, to watch Flordelis be sworn in. “We felt so proud,“ 他说. “It was such an achievement. That whole journey from Jacarezinho – all the persecution, hardship and poverty – and you make it all the way to Brasília.” Wagner’s wife, who he had met while she was working as one of Flordelis’s assistants, remembers sitting in the congressional chambers, munching on nibbles as Flordelis was sworn in. “The pastor [Anderson] was so happy,” she told me. “Like a chick running around in the trash.”

The Bolsonaro administration, whose hardline conservative agenda had been backed by 70% of evangelical voters, welcomed Flordelis with open arms. Brazil’s first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro, invited her to breakfast at the spectacular, marble-clad Alvorada presidential residence on the banks of the Paranoá lake. “Wow! Yet another magical moment in my life! Walking around that house. Having breakfast with the first lady!” Flordelis told me. “It was just wonderful to be there with her!”

Yet Wagner and Luana sensed something was amiss. Flordelis had become “much more haughty” after her election, claimed Luana. “You know: someone who’s never had anything and who suddenly has it all?” She added: “She always thought she was a star – but when she became a congresswoman her tone was like she didn’t need us any more.”

Some feared the couple’s successes had also gone to pastor Anderson’s head. “He wasn’t a saint,” Ferraz, the photographer, told me. He was worried by his friend’s unhealthy affection for the trappings of power and wealth. “He loved this. He loved it.”

One morning during their trip to Brasília, over breakfast at Flordelis’s airy official flat near the congress building, Luana claims to have overheard a strange conversation between Flordelis and her daughter Simone. “I remember Simone said to Flor, almost joking, something like: ‘Mum, now you’re a congresswoman, we don’t need him any more do we?’ And I was like: ‘You don’t need who?’” Wagner, 也, recalls disconcerting remarks about Anderson. “He won’t make it through this year,” he claims Flordelis told him in early 2019. “He’s hindering the work of God.”

According to police chief Allan Duarte, the head of the murder investigation, by the time Wagner and Luana claim to have been hearing hints that Anderson’s life was under threat, Flordelis’s plan to murder her husband had long been in the works. “She’s cold. She’s calculating. She’s sly,” Duarte said when we met at his rundown police station in a poor neighbourhood on the edge of Rio. At the station’s front desk, beside copies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine The Watchtower, a list of recently murdered police officers, and an advert for Narcotics Anonymous, investigators had pasted a quotation from Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish conservative often cited by Bolsonaro supporters. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil,“ 它说, “is for good men to do nothing.”

In nearly a decade working murder cases, Duarte estimates he has been involved in about 1,000 investigations – 90% linked to the ongoing war between drug traffickers, police and the paramilitary gangs who now control swathes of Rio. But Anderson’s murder, which took place just five miles away, was different: “It was the first time I’d come across this kind of situation: an intra-family criminal organisation whose [sole] objective was to snuff out the life of a relative.” Duarte claimed the conspiracy had started a year earlier, and had been led by Flordelis, who allegedly resented Anderson’s insistence on controlling the family finances. “I consider Flordelis a psychopath,” Duarte told me.

Interviews with witnesses suggested that the plot included at least one attempt to hire a hitman, as well as repeated efforts to kill Anderson by poisoning his food. Police IT experts had discovered that one of Flordelis’s informally adopted daughters, Marzy, had used her phone to search the internet for terms including: “Poison to kill a person that is lethal and easy to buy” and “Where to find a killer”. After those efforts failed, Duarte believes a plan was hatched for Flávio and Lucas, another of the couple’s unofficially adopted sons, to shoot their father. Armed with 8,500 reais (£1,100), they bought a pistol from a contact in the Complexo da Maré, a sprawling slum near Rio’s international airport, and at about 3.30am on Sunday 16 六月 2019, Flávio allegedly fired the shots that killed him.

“We were at home sleeping when we were woken up by a call telling us that the pastor had been shot,” Wagner recalled. “When my wife answered the phone we looked at each other and said: ‘They’ve done it.’”

By 4am, Wagner and Luana were outside the local hospital, where Wagner says he saw Flávio crouched on the pavement, and another brother, who had apparently helped bring Anderson in, covered in blood. Flordelis arrived about an hour later, in tears. “We’d lived together for 30 years – so we know each other pretty well,” Wagner told me. “She was acting.”

一世n late 2020, as Flordelis and her alleged accomplices went through a series of preliminary hearings, each morning the corridor outside the courtroom would fill with Brazilian reporters, documentary crews, bloggers and even a few foreign correspondents, who would pounce on Flordelis as she emerged from the lift with her entourage. “I’m in search of the truth – all I want is the truth,” she told me one afternoon in mid-December as she walked out of her latest hearing into a sweaty ruck of cameramen.

Inside the courtroom, Flordelis looked diminished, staring mournfully into her lap, scribbling in a notebook or clasping her hands as if in prayer as the details of her alleged crime were recounted. Just behind her sat seven of her children and one grandchild, handcuffed and glum, with whom she was forbidden to communicate. Armed policemen with their blood types sewn on to their grey uniforms patrolled the public gallery.

Occasional flickers of Flordelis’s former glory could be seen. With her immaculate salmon-coloured nails, dresses and black stilettos, she could still look like a gospel superstar. At times her charisma shone through, as she fended off the charges in her preacher’s voice. “I’ve been accused of ordering my husband’s murder for power and money. But what power? What money?” she asked the court one Friday afternoon in December 2020 after a five-hour cross-examination.

It was around this time that I began visiting Jacarezinho in search of people who had known Flordelis. In the 30 years since her midnight preaching missions, the favela has become one of Rio’s most dangerous districts: a stronghold of the Red Command drug faction hidden behind barricades made from steel train tracks and stolen concrete pipes. 这些日子, the graffiti-scrawled streets are patrolled by a ragtag army of young gang members, automatic rifles draped over their shoulders and two-way radios strapped to their belts, while drug dealers call out the prices of their wares. When I mentioned to Duarte that I had been reporting in Jacarezinho, he said air support from armoured helicopters was generally needed for his police colleagues to enter the favela. “We’re at war here,“ 他说.

Many locals were reluctant to speak openly about their community’s fallen star. But one of my guides, a stocky, gravel-voiced preacher named Norma Bastos, was eager to tell the story of how Flordelis had changed her life. “My God, how that woman fought and how she suffered,” Bastos said one afternoon as we sat on white plastic garden chairs in her small riverside church, a 10-minute hike from Flordelis’s former home. Even three decades later, Bastos said she could remember the first time she saw Flordelis in action, coming to the rescue of a teenager who was living rough further up the favela in an area called Azul. Flordelis couldn’t persuade him to come home with her, so she lay down with him in the dirt, and spent the whole night by his side. “She did such great work here in Jacarezinho,” Bastos said, “and this can’t be forgotten. God hasn’t forgotten.”

Bastos was once a gang member, known as Auntie Norma, who would smuggle guns between Jacarezinho and another favela. She had a penchant for Ballantine’s whisky, and used the bar she ran to stash drugs. 然后, a decade ago, her life changed for ever. One of her sons, Jeferson, was holding up cars for money when he was gunned down by police. “A single shot through the heart,” Bastos remembered, tears rolling down her cheeks. “There was this giant hole in his back. You could fit your hand into it.”

今天, Bastos, now 58, runs her own church, the Ministry of Cristaline Water, and inspired by Flordelis, she has embarked on a mission to save young men like her son. Bastos said she “feels such love” for Jacarezinho’s teenage gang members. “It’s as if they’re my own children, who came from my own womb.” On one occasion, Bastos said, she rescued a young man who traffickers had wrapped head-to-toe in masking tape and were preparing to kill. “I ripped the tape off with my teeth.”

Although some of Flordelis’s followers still believed in her, Wagner told me he had severed ties with her in the days after the murder. When we met at his father-in-law’s seafront home on a stormy night just before Christmas last year, Wagner told me he had started to see his teenage experiences on Guarani Street in a different and disturbing light. 往后看, he felt he had been sucked into a cult-like organisation in which he and other impressionable teens were brainwashed by a much older authority figure. As rain lashed the elegant, multi-storey residence, he recalled strange rituals in a cramped prayer room where plaster dolls and melons and sugar and honey were used to cast spells on potential benefactors who Flordelis hoped might help the family.

Wagner claimed that as part of their initiation Flordelis would baptise her followers with the names of biblical figures. Anderson became “Niel” after Daniel, the Old Testament exile whose name means “God is my judge”. Wagner became “Misael” after Daniel’s son Meshach, a name he still uses to this day. “From now on Wagner is dead and you are my spiritual child,” he remembered Flordelis telling him.

“Today it all seems like such madness,” said Wagner. “But I believed it back then – that I was an angel sent by God, a heavenly child sent to help her to carry out a mission here on Earth.” He went along with Flordelis’s story for nearly 30 年, becoming one of her most trusted aides and a preacher himself. DVDs sold at the City of Fire show the two standing side by side on stage. But these days, he told me, he was convinced most of her mythology was lies.

Chief Duarte – who named his murder investigation Luke:12 because of that chapter’s focus on hypocrisy and lies – told me that police had found no evidence of the train station shooting that Flordelis used to explain the 37 children who ended up in her care. Months earlier, 然而, in July 1993, masked gunmen had opened fire on children sleeping outside the Candelaria church in central Rio. Duarte believed Flordelis’s train station shooting was a fabrication, a narrative she could sell to the press in order to secure financial support from NGOs and charities. “The press lives off sad stories and beautiful stories,” the police chief said. “This is a beautiful story that no one ever bothered to check.”

一世n February 2021, as Flordelis turned 60, her evangelical empire was on the verge of collapse. It was six months after the murder charges were issued, and in Brasília, a congressional ethics committee was debating whether to strip Flordelis of her parliamentary immunity. In Rio, eight of her nine churches had closed. At Flordelis’s remaining church, the City of Fire, where thousands of worshippers had once let out ecstatic screams as she preached and sang, the mood was sombre as fewer than 100 of her remaining acolytes gathered to celebrate her birthday on a Sunday morning.

Flordelis, wearing a black-and-white polka-dot blouse and a long black skirt that covered the electronic tag on her ankle, put on a defiant face, gripped a microphone studded with fake diamonds, and assured them all was not lost. “If I’m here today it’s because of the power of prayer,” she declared, before belting out a succession of hits including The Dream Isn’t Dead, a song that describes how Joseph’s brothers conspired to murder him by throwing him down a well.

Huge stacks of unused chairs sat next to the stage, and hardly a soul entered the gift shop, where dust-covered DVDs were piled in the window. The church’s green room, which once hosted celebrities, politicians and church leaders, was almost empty. “They don’t talk to her, they don’t call … It’s ridiculous,” said Beatriz Paiva dos Santos, a gospel singer, who was one of the few friends to turn up. As she sank into a sofa opposite a wall covered in Flordelis’s gold discs, Beatriz insisted that her friend was the innocent victim of a media witch hunt. She said she had called Flordelis shortly after Anderson’s murder to assure her: “I know it wasn’t you.” “But even if it was, there would have had to have been a really good reason for you to have done it. Because you wouldn’t kill someone without having a motive,” Beatriz remembered saying.

After the birthday party, I drove to the nearby cemetery where Anderson was buried. There were no flowers and no loving words engraved on the marble plaque: just his name, the dates of his birth and death, and the grave number: “J.855 Hibiscus sector.” “It’s abandoned,” said a gravedigger. Apart from on the day of the funeral, he said had never seen Flordelis or any other family member visit the grave.

一世n April, I received a message from Flordelis’s press officer, inviting me to her house. It was part of a media offensive apparently designed to win back public opinion and convince congress not to kick her out. Unfamiliar with the neighbourhood, an affluent enclave of an otherwise down-at-the-heel suburb, I arrived early and found a young man smoking a cigarette at the wooden gates. He introduced himself as Diogo and said he was one of the newest members of Flordelis’s family. Apparently he had come to visit from a neighbouring state a few months earlier and decided to stay.

Inside the property – a cluster of simple, pale yellow houses centred around a small and scummy swimming pool – I found Flordelis surrounded by a gaggle of young children whose precise identities I struggled to establish. She was wearing tight blue jeans and a necklace on which the letters of her name were spelled out on tiny multi-coloured cubes.

“How’s your family?” I asked her as we sat around a table near the kitchen.

“Surviving,” she replied wearily.

For the next three hours, flanked by press officers and aides, Flordelis tried to convince me she was being wronged, repeatedly shedding tears and clasping her hands as she insisted on her innocence. Prosecutors, 她说, had failed to find any plausible motive for the crime. “They say it was about power and money. What power?” she demanded, repeating a line I had heard her say in court. “I’m the congresswoman. I’m the gospel singer with thousands of followers … So what power did I seek to steal from my husband? And what money? I was the one who lost the most here – it was me!”

Flordelis described herself as the victim of a misogynistic and racist conspiracy cooked up by powerful foes in the world of religion, politics and the media. “Flordelis from the favela treads on a lot of people’s toes,“ 她说. “And when they saw the chance to destroy me and push me off the political stage, of course they were going to do it.” Wagner’s allegations that she was leading a cult and had masterminded the murder, 她说, were part of his own plot to take over her empire.

Her children had another motive for murder, 她说. She had learned that her husband had committed “monstrosities” against her biological daughter, Simone. He had harassed and abused her under their own roof. Her only crime, she confided, was to have loved a man who could do such terrible things. “It’s something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life – that I failed as a mother,“ 她说.

The accusations of sexual abuse against Anderson had first emerged at a court hearing in January when Simone, 41, told the judge her stepfather had repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances while she was undergoing treatment for cancer in 2012. She had given her stepsister money to make it stop. “There was no plan. I was just desperate,” Simone said, explaining how she gave 5,000 reais (about £675) to Marzy in exchange for “her help”.

At the time, Flordelis’s lawyer, Anderson Rollemberg, seemed elated at Simone’s admission, which he claimed exonerated his client. On the steps outside court he announced: “We now know who the mastermind of the barbarous crime was: the daughter. A mother can’t be blamed for criminal acts her daughter might have committed.”

These accusations against the dead man were a lie, pastor Anderson’s lawyer, Ângelo Máximo, later told me: it was just another plot to help Flordelis escape jail, he claimed. “Everybody who lived in that house was interviewed by police and nobody ever said anything about rape or harassment,” said Máximo. “They killed the pastor for power and money … She [Flordelis] might not have seen the actual crime happen – but she knew and controlled everything that went on.”

A few weeks after my visit to Flordelis, a judge ruled that she would stand trial before a jury for aggravated murder with nine alleged accomplices, including her three biological children, Flávio, Simone and Adriano, her granddaughter Rayane and her adopted daughter Marzy. If convicted, Flordelis could face up to 30 years in jail. This week the congressional ethics committee voted to strip her of her mandate by an overwhelming 16 votes to one – a decision the lower house is almost certain to uphold when it holds the final vote.

It would be a dark end to a story that has fascinated the Brazilian public for years. Wagner told me he now suspected every step of his mother’s humanitarian crusade had been calculated to help her achieve power and fame – but he acknowledged that good had come from the process. “It was a farce – but as part of this farce she did truly help people along the way,“ 他说.

Whatever her motives, during my visits to Jacarezinho I had met several people whose lives Flordelis had transformed. One informally adopted son, Renato Campos, had faced almost certain death in the early 90s after crossing the favela’s drug bosses, and told me he would be forever grateful that the woman he still called “mum” had convinced them to spare him. 今天, Campos is a father and a pastor who runs a vibrant church deep in the favela.

同时, the cycle of violence continues. In early May 2021, police special forces stormed Jacarezinho and, after one of their agents was shot dead, apparently by local traffickers, embarked upon a killing spree. 总计 27 men were killed that day in Jacarezinho, several of them allegedly executed by police as they tried to surrender. Most were in their 20s. One was 16. It was the deadliest police raid in the city’s history.

The night after the shootings, I ran into pastor Campos on Jacarezinho’s main avenue, during an emotionally charged protest against the police, who kill nearly 2,000 人们 each year in Rio – nearly all of them young black men. As relatives of the victims cried at a vigil nearby, Renato talked about how he could so easily have met the same fate. “I’m an ex-addict and ex-trafficker here in Jacarezinho and today I’m recovered, transformed by the power of God in my life.”

For pastor Norma Bastos, 也, Flordelis remains an inspiration. “She was a warrior woman – and I’m a warrior, 也,” Bastos told me one afternoon as we sat in her house beside the fetid Jacaré river from which Jacarezinho takes its name. “I mirror myself on her – and nothing else matters.”

Additional reporting by Alan Lima

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