The American pilots, Joe Leopre and Jan Paladino, are being interrogated today by police in Sao Paulo amid reports that they might be charged later today with involuntary manslaughter before they are released, as anticipated, after the questioning.
The pilots are in police headquarters in Sao Paulo this morning for a day-long interrogation that precedes their anticipated release, which is expected sometime between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. The pilots have been detained in Brazil since the Sept. 29 mid-air collision over the Amazon in which 154 people on a Gol 737 airliner died.
Keep in mind that it is no longer in dispute that the Sept. 29 crash was caused by a series of air-traffic control human errors and technical breakdowns that added up to a catastrophe. The pilots could be charged in some form before (and if) they are allowed to leave the country later today.
Here is an explanation of why:
Reacting to the ongoing air-traffic control protests, which have caused a major internal crisis with delayed and cancelled flights and crowds sleeping overnight in airports, the government -- and especially the military and the federal police -- are desperate to buy time for cover and to let things cool down as the investigations into the crash drag on for as much as a year. This is the argument being made by some authorities in Brazil: The pilots could be charged with something before they're let go, just to deflect blame from the controllers and the military till things settle down. (This, of course, would be a travesty of justice).
By the way, Brazil has several forms of "indictment," one of which isn't a formal criminal charge but basically a notice that you are a subject in a criminal investigation. The lesser form of indictment doesn't conform to the U.S. sense of the word as a charge that you must stand trial as an accused criminal. If that is what in fact comes up, watch how readily some elements of the U.S. news media will screw up the linguistic nuance.
Once it became clear that Brazil's poorly staffed, badly maintained air traffic control system (which is run by the military) was at fault, underpaid, sullen controllers staged a protracted work protest that has caused chronic delays in Brazil's air traffic for six weeks. That came to a head on Tuesday, when a federal court finally ordered that the pilots be released in 72 hours. Aware that blame was shifting their way, controllers threw a new tantrum and shut down three of the country's major airports.
It's now approaching prime summertime/Christmas holiday travel season in Brazil, and the controllers are making a point about blame: Send it our way and we'll really shut the system down. Thus the American pilots -- who have been charged with nothing and presented with no evidence that they are guilty of anything -- cannot be seen leaving Brazil as the innocent men they in fact are.
That's why the police authorities -- mindful of the anti-American hysteria that has driven much of this case -- might well announce some kind of charge, possibly a low-grade "indiciar" indictment, that is legally taken to mean: There are indications this person may be involved in what could be a crime, and this person must answer further questions in a future legal proceeding.
The pilots, if they are released tonight, will be legally bound to return to Brazil if summoned for further judicial proceedings.
But it could get worse. Some police and military authorities are trying to get a court order today that would prevent the pilots from leaving. But that's a long shot.
Most of the bets are that the pilots get out tonight. Just in time for the evening news in Brazil, expect to see two brave and innocent Americans, Joe Lepore and Jan Paladino, perp-walked in Sao Paulo for the benefit of a media mob.
As someone in Brazil who has followed this closely told me this morning: "Once you understand that it this point it's not about Jan and Joe or the airplane accident, but about enhancing the police chief's career through publicity, and avoiding the appearance of Brazil knuckling under to U.S. pressure, what's going on becomes much less confusing."
And don't forget, Venezuela's newly reelected President Hugo Chavez, who rides anti-Americanism like a surfboard, is in Brazil on a state visit. Hugo announced in Brazil yesterday that Brazil's president is planning a trip to Havana soon to visit Fidel Castro while Fidel is "recovering." A fellow with a fine-tuned publicity monitor like Lucky Lula wouldn't want to be standing hat-in-hand at poor old Fidel's death bed having just knuckled under to the Americans, now, would he? How mortifying (to use that word deliberately) would THAT be?
Meanwhile, the air-traffic-control tantrum continues, after protests that shut down airports Tuesday night and hobbled the system for two days afterward. If you are flying in Brazil, keep in mind that you could be subject to serious delays and/or cancellations. The same with flights to and from Brazil.
And remember this, too: Brazil is one of the most crime-ridden of the countries that have a solid tourism business. Street crime is rampant and getting worse. Three times this year, for example, armed bandits have attacked shuttle buses that take foreign tourists from the airport in Rio to their hotels, robbing all aboard.
But the masked bandits are not anti-tourist, just opportunistic. Last night, for example, robbers in Rio blocked a car whose passengers were Brazil's Chief Justice, Ellen Gracie Northfleet, and the Supreme Court vice president, Gilmar Mendes.
"The Justices were dagged out of the car by the armed men and were kept under the barrel of guns, while policemen in charge of their security, driving in two other cars, watched the whole scene without reacting," Francesco Neves writes this morning on Brazzil.com, the online news magazine.
The masked gunmen stole the car the justices were in and all of the justices' valuables. The security detail accompanying the justices explained later that they didn't react because they were afraid the gunmen would harm the officials.