The Murder Scandalizing Brazil’s Evangelical Church
Late on the evening of June 15, 2019, Flordelis dos Santos de Souza and her husband, Anderson do Carmo, left for a night out in Rio de Janeiro. They had been looking forward to a break, after an exhausting few months. Flordelis was a celebrity in Brazil: a gospel singer and the pastor of her own Pentecostal ministry, the Ministerio Flordelis, with six churches and thousands of followers. Born in the favelas, she had become famous for adopting troubled kids left behind by the drug wars, and her life story, an archetypal Brazilian redemption tale, had been made into a movie starring some of the country’s best-known actors. That February, she had taken office as a new member of the National Congress. Anderson was busy, too. He managed the ministry’s affairs and Flordelis’s political career, and also oversaw their home: a compound with four separate structures, to accommodate their family. The couple had fifty-five children, mostly adopted; twenty-two of them, ranging in age from three to forty, still lived at home. Flordelis was fifty-eight, Anderson forty-two. They had been together for twenty-six years, an inspiration to their followers.
From their house in Niterói, a sprawling port city across Guanabara Bay from Rio, they headed for the beach at Copacabana, an hour’s drive away. At the beachfront promenade, they strolled through the late-evening crowds, stopping at a sidewalk café for a snack of fried fish. Later, in a burst of romantic feeling, Anderson climbed on a chair and called out, “Te amo! Te amo! ”
Around two o’clock in the morning, they realized that church services would begin in just a few hours, and they headed home, with Anderson driving and Flordelis playing Pet Rescue on her phone. The streets were deserted as they came off the expressway. To her alarm, Flordelis recalled later, two people on a motorcycle drew alongside them, and then appeared again a few blocks farther on. Niterói had become more dangerous in recent years, after a drug-trafficking gang known as Red Command moved in from Rio. The neighborhood where Flordelis and Anderson lived was middle class, but much of the surrounding area was run-down, and a rough favela covered a nearby hillside.
When the couple pulled up to their house, at the dead end of the street, no one was around. Inside a set of wooden gates at the driveway entrance, Flordelis slipped off her heels to climb the stairs, while Anderson stayed in the car, e-mailing last-minute instructions to employees for the day ahead. From the stairs, Flordelis called out to remind him to close the gates behind him.
Before bed, Flordelis habitually checked on all the kids. As she made her rounds, she saw light under the door of a son’s room and went in to talk with him. Not long afterward, she was startled by what sounded like gunshots, followed by screams. She recognized the voice of a daughter calling out, “Meu pai, meu pai! ”—“My father, my father! ” Outside, a couple of her sons placed Anderson’s bloodied body in the car and rushed him to a hospital. Flordelis followed, but by the time she arrived Anderson was dead. In the autopsy, coroners found thirty bullet holes in his body, with many concentrated around his groin.
The tragedy was major news in Brazil: a celebrity’s husband had been brutally killed. Amid an outpouring of sympathy, Flordelis and her family held an overnight vigil in the largest of her churches, where Anderson’s body was displayed in an open casket, according to local custom. Flordelis appeared overwhelmed with grief, nearly fainting alongside the bier. The next morning, at a cemetery on the outskirts of Niterói, Flordelis and several of her daughters clutched one another at graveside, singing together as his coffin was lowered into the ground.
But the public’s concern for Flordelis was quickly overtaken by suspicion. By the time the funeral was over, police had arrested two of her sons. Within twenty-four hours, one of them confessed to buying the murder weapon, while the other admitted shooting Anderson. In the next few days, six more siblings were arrested.
That August, the police issued an indictment against Flordelis, charging her with involvement in the killing. There was an immediate uproar. Her political party suspended her. Actors who had appeared in the film about her life expressed regret for promoting her story. Five of her six churches closed; parishioners had already stripped her name from the last one, calling it the City of Fire Ministry. Throughout, Flordelis insisted that she was innocent, the victim of a conspiracy among “powerful interests.” She was fitted with an electronic anklet that tracked her movements, but when I arrived in Brazil, last December, she was still free, and determined to clear her name.
As Flordelis came to prominence, evangelical Christianity was booming in Brazil. In a country riven by poverty, corruption, and violent crime, evangelicalism holds a potent appeal: people with difficult lives can come to church and, with a few words, be converted and redeemed. A third of Brazil’s citizens have embraced Pentecostalism in recent decades; the number of evangelical parliamentarians has doubled. Evangelicals have been a major pillar of support for President Jair Bolsonaro. A former Army captain with severe right-wing views, Bolsonaro won office, in 2018, with an anticorruption agenda and a promise to fight “gender ideology,” a capacious term that includes same-sex marriage and other progressive causes. Though raised as a Catholic, he travelled to Israel in 2016 to be baptized in the Jordan River.
One of Bolsonaro’s main backers was Edir Macedo, a self-styled bishop of the Universal Life Church of the Kingdom of God, which has hundreds of branches around the world. Macedo is one of the wealthiest people in Brazil, and his influence has helped him escape prosecution for charges that include tax evasion, fraud, trafficking adopted children, and embezzling billions of dollars in donations.
Macedo is also a media entrepreneur, and his main outlet, RecordTV, is the country’s second most watched channel. During the 2018 election campaign, Bolsonaro boycotted a debate on Brazil’s largest television network, Globo, to give an interview on RecordTV. Bolsonaro’s slogan was “Brazil above everything, God above all,” and, in the end, more than sixty per cent of the country’s evangelicals voted for him. Flordelis won her seat in the same election, with close to a hundred and ninety-seven thousand votes, one of the largest totals for any female candidate in the country.
Bolsonaro appointed the evangelical pastor Damares Alves to be his minister for women, the family, and human rights. Known for her opposition to same-sex marriage, Alves was quickly embroiled in a scandal, involving an Amazonian indigenous girl whom she had raised as her daughter. In a report by Época magazine, Kamayurá tribal elders accused Alves of taking the child from her parents as a toddler, under false pretenses. She denied the charge, but suggested that she had saved the girl from “certain malnutrition and possible infanticide,” while conceding that she had been unable to formalize her adoption because of Brazil’s onerous laws.
In May, 2019, not long after Flordelis took office, she appeared with Alves at a forum in Brasília, where they advocated on behalf of Brazil’s orphans; there were an estimated forty-seven thousand of them, languishing in orphanages while prospective parents waited as long as a decade. Flordelis spoke emotionally of her own experience as an adoptive mother, and called for a process that would take no longer than a pregnancy.
At the event, Flordelis was hailed by Arolde de Oliveira, a former military officer and an evangelical senator. “Flordelis made her passion, love, and determination reach dozens of children,” he said. “Each adoption she and her husband have made is a story that can be used to write a reference book about what love is.” A month later, Anderson was dead.
The highway that Flordelis and Anderson took home from Rio that night winds past battered port facilities and gang-tagged buildings; one is entirely covered with fistlike black emblems and the message “The government is the vandal.” The bridge to Niterói crosses a blue expanse of bay, littered with rusting, half-sunken ships. On the other side is a welter of docks, cranes, favelas, and apartment blocks, marked with more gang tags and festering with uncollected garbage.
Flordelis’s home is built into a hillside, protected by the gates at the street. One afternoon in December, I rang the bell at a security door, and after a moment it unlocked. Inside, just past the spot where Anderson was killed, concrete stairs led up to a jumble of yellow-painted structures with terra-cotta roofs. On a terrace outside the main house, a tiny, ancient woman with long black hair and an expressionless face silently watched me pass. Workmen were banging away inside; everything was covered in plastic sheeting and dust. A young woman emerged and explained that they were in the midst of renovations. She promised to summon Flordelis and disappeared.
While I waited, a heavyset, goateed man wearing a black suit and a garish tie was buzzed in and plodded up the stairs. When I introduced myself, he laughed and said, “Watch out. She’s got a thing for men named Anderson.” He was Flordelis’s lawyer, Anderson Rollemberg. Before long, we were joined by a fortyish man with a military buzz cut—a recently hired bodyguard named Anderson Mello Vilela.
As we talked, Flordelis appeared in the doorway. A petite, dark-skinned woman, she wore a bold-patterned dress and a leather belt, and her hair swept down one shoulder in a ponytail. With a wide smile, she moved languidly from man to man, imparting kisses and coquettish looks. At her urging, we went from the crowded terrace and into her bedroom.
Flordelis had a king-size bed, with a white leatherette headboard and a scarlet spread embroidered with satin ribbons. She climbed on and propped herself up next to a large white Teddy bear, while her bodyguard sat protectively on a child’s bed nearby. Behind her hung a print by the popular Brazilian artist Romero Britto, depicting a cartoonish boy and girl holding a heart between them. On a dresser was a pencil drawing of Flordelis and Anderson do Carmo, next to a framed picture of Santa Claus. With the exception of Rollemberg, who interrupted to caution Flordelis not to spoil their hopes for a Netflix show about her, everyone fell silent as she proceeded, for the next two and a half hours, to tell her life story.
She had grown up in Jacarezinho—Little Crocodile—a favela on the Guanabara shoreline with a fearsome reputation. (I had passed it on the way to Niterói but had not driven through; the neighborhood is controlled by a drug gang that does not welcome outsiders.) The fourth of five children, she was born in 1961. When my translator learned her age, she exclaimed, “Fifty-nine! What’s the name of your plastic surgeon?” Flordelis laughed magnanimously; she’d heard this one before.
Her parents had been members of the Assembly of God, Brazil’s largest evangelical church. Her father, an artist, had painted angels on church ceilings, and she had felt the pull of God from an early age. As a teen-ager, she helped lead prayer sessions, and, when she saw “youngsters as young as eight working for the traficantes,” she told them to “come and pray,” she said.