His family controls water, milk, and the Subway franchise. Doda de Tião is a candidate from a rural area, but he could be from anywhere, for that matter.
A goat skull was set down in the center of the lunch table on Sunday. Inside, I saw the animal’s brain, that had been diced, seasoned, and cooked. I was in the house of the state deputy, Paulo Rogério Rêgo, of the Brazilian Labour Party (PTB), in the rural area of Queimadas, a city of 41,000 residents located in the wilds of Paraíba. Beside me were five members of the Rêgo family, who control local economic power and politics.
We traveled to Queimadas, 141 kilometers outside of João Pessoa, to understand how people like Paulo Rogério—or Doda de Tião, as he is known by locals—wield power. He is part of a large contingent, politicians who fly under the radar of press coverage and yet hold real power, capable of directly affecting the lives of millions of people. We decided to go there because, among politicians elected in 2014, Doda had the highest percentage increase in assets during his term in office, for cities with an electoral roll of up to 100,000 residents—the overwhelming majority in the country. His wealth grew 716% in four years, from a little over R$ 500,000 to R$ 4.5 million, according to data from the Superior Electoral Court.
But in Queimadas, where the average monthly income for a worker is R$292.50, I didn’t just meet Doda de Tião and his family: I gained insight into how Brazilian politics works in the far corners of the country.
The photographer Janine Moraes and I were met by a family advisor, who made a point of picking us up at the airport of nearby Campina Grande. I tried the goat brain that Sunday in a 30°C heat, as flies landed on the plates, and much to my surprise, I enjoyed the pot roast. “To eat goat we must drink cachaça,” Doda’s brother Joventino said to me, and the others concurred. Your first time in Queimadas, it is advisable to follow the family’s lead. We drank the cachaça.
40 Years in Power
Doda is running for his third term as state deputy. In 2010, when he was elected for the first time, he declared assets of just R$10,000, a sum bizarrely attributed to an airplane that, in the following years, disappeared from his tax returns. During the 2014 election, he reported having R$557,500 in land, real estate, and bank accounts. By 2018, after two terms in Paraíba’s Legislative Assembly, he told the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) he had R$4.5 million—almost half of it in cash. From the first election until now, his declared assets had increased 450 times.
Doda’s success, in politics and business, is intimately tied to his family.
The story of how the Rêgos came to dominate the region over the past 40 years combines the following ingredients: water, milk, jobs, and money, lots of money. And a bit of cocaine.
During the lunch at which I was served goat’s brain, I was surrounded by Queimadas’ most powerful residents. In front of me sat the mayor, José Carlos, or Carlinhos de Tião, who is in his second term. The secretary of infrastructure, Joventino, who was already mayor of a nearby city, was to my right. Beside him, Maria do Socorro Rêgo, wife of the city council president and director of Doda’s reelection campaign. They are all siblings and children of a local legend: Tião de Rêgo, a former mayor and city councilman, who died in 2016. Because of him, all the Rêgos use the suffix “de Tião” as a nom de guerre in politics.
Everyone wanted to know what we would publish about the family. They aren’t used to reporters. The city doesn’t have newspapers, and the community radio employees are allies.
Water and Milk
Over coffee at his mother’s house, Doda explained to me that his assets grew because his private businesses prospered during his terms in the Assembly. He is the owner of a supermarket and a utility pole factory, and he has rented out properties and plots of land. But the family’s most traditional business is water distribution.
In the past, a large part of the supply came straight from the family’s well, which today is nearly dry. Now the transport is carried out with potable water trucks, and the service is coordinated by the prefecture, which is run by Carlinhos de Tião—it is the Rêgos that determine who will receive water in the municipality, one of the driest in the country, with a rainfall index that never surpasses 600 mm per year (less than half that of Rio de Janeiro’s, for example). Doda is known as the “water deputy.”
The matriarch of the family, Maria da Paz, or Dadá, has a notebook in which she writes the names of those who ask for the truck to come to them. She is known as the “water councilor,” even though she’s never held public office.
Because of their prestige, the Rêgos sponsor children from other families, a common practice among oligarchies from the interior of the Northeast. They are “padrinhos” (godparents) for more than 2,000 children. When they accept a new godchild, they give them milk, a symbol of wealth. Even today, Dona Dadá keeps plastic bottles of milk, filled on site, to offer the various people who pass by the house every day asking for help.
The influence is so ubiquitous that it’s not uncommon to find photos of the patriarch Tião do Rêgo in the houses of the local residents, hanging on the walls or above the furniture, usually beside one of the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as a symbol of loyalty.
Maria do Socorro, Doda’s sister and the director of his campaign, tells me that they have an additional privilege: learning the result of the polls before the official announcement. Queimadas has five electoral sessions, and after the voting ends and soon after the result of each session is printed and sent to the TSE, the polling officials “run to [her house].” The ballots of the just over 31,000 voters are then counted manually by members of the family.
From a Donkey’s Backside to a Helicopter
The residents of Queimadas tell us that Tião, who lived from 1940 to 2006, was a simple man with no possessions, who campaigned on a donkey. His descendants prefer other vehicles: 4×4s and a helicopter.
In a city in which at least one in five residents depends on the social welfare program Bolsa Família, the Rêgos are owners of the largest local businesses, which include supermarkets, quarries, building supply stores, a lumberyard, a notary’s office, a pharmacy, a bakery, an event venue, a utility pole factory, landholdings, and farms—in Paraíba and Bahia.
They are the largest employers in the region: a battalion of 2,000 people, according to the family. The number is high if we consider that the total number of licensed professionals in the city, according to The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), was 3,300 in 2016.
Beyond providing employment, the Rêgos also make use of the old tactic of exchanging favors. As they go around the city, they receive a flood of requests: a hospital bed, work for a relative, the payment of a light bill, a little bit of money. They have no shame about making promises, even right in front of us.
I witnessed a number of phone calls in which Socorro spoke with a woman who introduced herself as Marica. She asked for a bed for her husband at a hospital in Campina Grande. “I’m trying, but the bigger hospitals are harder. If it were here, we would solve it. But be patient and we’ll find a way,” she told her.
Doda also gets requests. He says he only goes to his supermarket early in the morning or at the end of the work day to avoid the crowds. “If I show up in the afternoon, 30 people appear. Unemployment is very high here, people are suffering. People ask for so many things... I like to help, but there are times when so many people come that we can’t even assist the most pitiful wretch.”
Mayor Carlinhos says he’s less of a charity worker than his father was. “When he was mayor, it wouldn’t even be 5 a.m. and there would already be 20, 30 people at the gate asking for water, milk... They looked like zombies,” he said, sitting in a rocking chair on the balcony of his mother’s house. Shortly beforehand, a couple had passed by and asked for a job for a third person.
He explains that he does favors when the person really needs the help. “But I do it the right way, registering the donation at city hall.” I ask if the mayor can use money from the municipality for private interests. “If it’s municipal money, from taxes, etc., it can be used.”
I spoke with Cláudio Henrique de Castro, a control analyst at the State of Paraná Court of Auditors and a specialist in administrative and electoral law. He is very clear: this is completely illegal. “The mayor is committing a rosary of crimes,” he said.
Castro says that it is only possible to distribute resources for charity in very specific cases, like when a city has a public emergency, for example. Even then, the donation has to be approved by the legislature. “As it’s being done now, they are considered electoral crimes, as administrative and fiscal corruption, by distributing public resources for private interests,” he said.
As we are in an electoral period, says Castro, Carlinhos could even be removed from city hall and Doda may have his campaign suspended for having benefited from the favors granted by his brother. Both could be disqualified and forced to return the money.
Oranges and Bolsa Família
According to Carlinhos, Queimadas, which means “burnt” in Portuguese, got its name from the semi-arid climate, where the soil is dry and hard and the crops suffer. It is known as the “city of stones” because of the rocky formation of the Bodopitá mountain range, with peaks over a thousand meters high. The region has at least 12 archaeological sites—all poorly preserved and vandalized.
Carlinhos told us this information while driving his truck into downtown. He closed the window to keep the dust out and pointed out the family properties in the distance. They’re medium-sized plots (“mini-fields”, as he puts it), that look unusable. He honks and greets everyone who appears on the road.
We continue through the town until we reach Master, his supermarket, the largest in the city, on the main street. In one of the aisles, a woman asks him for R$100. He advises her to go to the city’s social welfare office and say that he sent her.
Carlinhos’ office, like Doda and Socorro’s at their respective businesses, is high up and enclosed in glass, allowing him to see from above—and also to be seen. The space was decorated with cowboy trophies and liquor bottles. Socorro’s office has photos of her father, her idol. Doda’s office, in the supermarket, is already treated like a “cabinet,” where he receives allies.
On the same stretch as Master, there is a Subway franchise and a crafts store, both owned by Carlinhos. Crossing the street, I see another big supermarket, Sacolão. This one is Doda’s. A few meters ahead, there is a building supply store that belongs to Socorro.
None of the establishments, however, is in the real owner’s name.
The properties were distributed among city officials and other family members. Sacolão is registered under the name of Doda’s wife, Delusia, and a cook who receives R$954 per month, in addition to Bolsa Familia.
The building supply store officially belongs to Socorro’s son, Ricardo, and to a guard who also receives less than R$1,000 per month. On paper, Master is owned by their mother, Dadá, and their older brother, Roberto Carlos, who had an illness as a child and does not participate in the family business.
Carlinhos became the subject of an investigation by the Federal Police Ministry for using a woman who didn’t know how to write her own name as an “orange” (a proxy owner). According to the indictment, Luzinete Pereira de Lima found out at the Caixa Econômico Federal bank that she was one of the owners of Correl—Comercial Rego, which the Department of Federal Revenue describes as a food store in Campina Grande. Today the company is under Carlinhos’ name.
In 2012, the Paraíba Court of Auditors received a complaint about the family’s alleged use of fictitious companies in municipal contracts during Carlinhos’ first term as mayor.
The inspectors went to the address of the companies hired to supply water by potable water truck and collect garbage, which were closed during business hours. As the investigation progressed, they concluded that the firms didn’t exist, a matter of “obvious money laundering.” The court ordered the mayor to pay R$3.4 million and sent the information to the Public Ministry and the Federal Police. There are no indications, however, that the investigations have been carried out, nor are there any other investigations pending at the police station and the district attorney’s office in Queimadas.
In 21 years as a local prosecutor, the closest Marcio de Albuquerque came to inconveniencing the Rêgos—with whom he has cordial relations—involved a murder case. In 2012, an employee of Carlinhos’ campaign, Sebastian Coutinho, was killed for being a witness, according to the boy’s mother. She produced photos of Carlinhos with one of the crime suspects, but according to the prosecutor, they were not enough to prove the politician’s involvement.
Cocaine and Paranoia
The patchwork of suspicious properties is denounced within the family. José Ricardo Rêgo, known as Preá, is the brother of Doda and Carlinhos, but he broke with his family at the start of the year and allied himself with his opponent, also a candidate for state deputy, Jacó Maciel, from the Avante Party.
Addicted to cocaine (which he calls “the devil’s vitamin”), Preá was involuntarily hospitalized by his brothers in 2015. While he was heavily medicated, he says that they forced him to sign a power of attorney to transfer the businesses he ran to them. The affair is confirmed by the brothers, who say that Preá was in no condition to handle the businesses.
In the city, Preá was already accused of being a drug dealer involved in blowing up ATMs—which he denies. He says that the suspicion arose because he owns two quarries and has dynamite at his disposable. “I have my ethics, I don’t owe anyone,” he states.
On my way to see Preá, I was greeted by a brand-new car, with no license plates, parked in front of the prosecutor’s office. “Get in the car,” a man said. We hesitated. The man insisted: “Don’t you want to meet our friend?” The driver and the other man in the passenger seat were allies of Preá. Later on, I realized that even without holding public office, the brother has the same prestige as Doda and Carlinhos in the city. People come to him when they need a doctor, a trip, or money.
They brought us to the Britamix quarry in Massaranduba, around 40 kilometers from Queimadas. Preá was wearing a dusty orange shirt with the Camargo Corrêa construction company’s logo on it. We spoke with him in his improvised office, a shipping container from which he observes the quarry. He showed us his calloused hands several times, to prove he works hard. He asked permission, during the interview, to snort cocaine outside of the room.
Preá lives in fear of being ambushed by his brothers. At certain times during our conversation, he made gestures to show that he was armed. When he spoke about sensitive subjects, he lowered his voice. He thought he was being bugged.
Rape and Loyalty
In 2012, five women were raped in the city, an incident that became nationally known as the Savagery of Queimadas. Two of the victims died. A nephew of the Rêgos, Tião’s son out of wedlock, participated in the crime. He is serving his sentence in a semi-open prison, in João Pessoa. Doda pays the rent of an apartment for him to use during the day.
We talked to Fátima Monteiro, the mother of one of the two dead girls. On the sofa in her living room, she showed us a bag of photos of her daughter. She cried, saying she had gained 30 kilos and spent five years away from her home because of what happened—the house where she lives is some 200 meters from the site of the rape.
Fátima says that her family was always close to Tião’s and that, today, various relatives hold positions in city hall. “We have to know how to separate things, they were not to blame. There was a lot of suffering. But they helped us with work and a doctor,” she said.
Other residents related similar situations. A significant number of them do business with the family, receive employment, or are godchildren and welcome the Rêgos’ patronage.
Fireworks and Rodeo
I participated in a rally for Doda, in Barracão, a rural community close to Queimadas. The show had a big screen, a confetti storm, and a fireworks display. Speakers blasted the campaign hit: “Doda, Doda... It’s Doda in the lead.” A man cheered and started dancing with a can in his hand. He was removed by one of the security guards.
One of the employees of the community radio station, Josias, was responsible for bringing crowds to the rally. He said he sent buses to pick up voters in the remotest regions of the rural area. I asked if this was the only way to get people excited about going to a rally on a Saturday night. He responded, laughing, that he had one more “incentive.” I asked him which. He responded with gestures I didn’t understand. I pressed further. “An incentive, a soda, a snack, you know?” he said.
People received stickers with Doda’s face and ballot number as soon as they arrived. Street vendors with neon lights on their carts sold beer, energy drinks, and “capeta” cocktails drinks. Most of the men were already drunk by the time the deputy finally arrived, close to 10 p.m. They had been there since 7 p.m.
The space was crowded with supporters dressed in red, the color that identifies the “Tião's” political group. The opponents wear yellow ones, and the clash between the colors has set the tone for the electoral dispute for decades, independent of the shades of the parties involved.
It was Arnaldo Dias, the owner of the publicity agency responsible for the family’s campaign materials and advertising for the past 10 years, who explained this to me. He was the one who picked me up from the Campina Grande airport, despite my resistance to accepting the favor. He said that, in addition to being a publicist, he was also the Rêgos’ “go-to.”
Arnaldo’s agency edits a magazine about the rodeo, a northeastern tradition that involves cowboys on horseback trying to trap and knock down a bull, pinning him down by the tail. The practice came to be considered illegal because of the suffering it caused the animals.
The cowboy is the main symbol of Doda’s mandate. He was the author of a bill that regulates the practice in Paraíba. The deputy is not a participant, but his brother Carlinhos is.
Coronels of the Potable Water Truck
The family’s operation is very similar to the models of coronelism that were common in the Northeast at the beginning of the 20th century, but adapted to a new version. Before, the coronel exercised power in a village through the exchange of favors, only granted to those who were loyal to him. The major currencies of exchange were, in Tião’s case, water, milk, and patronage.
“It was customary for poor people, and the neediest gave their children to one of these traditional families, since beyond ‘protection’ and ‘security,’ it guaranteed milk for the child,” José Marciano Monteiro wrote in his 2009 master’s dissertation on the power of the Ernesto-Rêgo family in Queimadas.
Today a professor at the Federal University of Campina Grande, Monteiro pursued his doctoral studies. In his book, “Politics as Family Business,” he traced the genealogical tree of the “Tiãos” and found similarities in the way that they and other powerful families from the country’s interior behave.
He established a parallel: the families’ power is fed back to them. They wield the political power and use this to dominate economic power. And vice-versa. Like the specious logic of the Tostines cracker ads: it’s unclear if economic power guarantees success at the polls or if success at the polls is what causes business to grow.
“They are true political dynasties that take turns in power and dominate the State, divvying up the territory by means of ‘family names,’” he wrote. Political reform in these places, according to Monteiro, means nothing more than the new generation of the same family replacing the old.
The difference between the situation today and the coronelism of the past is that now power, at least on the surface, has to come through other sources. “Before, the coronel would determine who would get water from his dam. Now, the city councilors control distribution by means of potable water trucks,” he cited as an example.
“Poor, Thank God”
Tião do Rêgo is descended from a traditional family from the wild region of Pernambuco and Paraíba. His lineage is the same that gave rise to a series of well-known Brazilian politicians, such as the former deputy Vital do Rêgo and his son of the same name, minister of the Federal Court of Accounts, and the federal deputy and current candidate for senator, Veneziano Vital, of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB).
The father, the children say, didn’t care about money and left the family to fend for themselves. All of them have worked since childhood, selling fish, milk, and doing odd jobs (Doda already received a public reprimand for praising a youth involved in child labor).
“Father never looked out for his family. But he is our pride,” says Socorro, who began working as a manicurist at the age of 13, while her father was mayor. Her office is filled with posters and photos of Tião. As soon as anyone enters, they see a big bronze bust of her father, made in Campina Grande.
“We were poor, thank god. That’s why we’re workaholics today,” Socorro continues. “Workaholic” is the catchphrase repeated by all the children. With the exception of Carlinhos, who is affiliated with the PSB, the others are all Brazilian Workers Party (PTB), like their father.
Doda says that this should be his last election, because he wants to retire. He is 51 years old. “I’m missing out on life because of politics. I have an apartment in João Pessoa and I haven’t been to the beach in over a year.”
The deputy also believes that the family’s success in business was what caused Tião to lose his first election (the last of his life), as a city councilor. “When we started to have things, people wouldn’t accept their requests being turned down anymore,” he said.
Tião prohibited his children from entering politics—he thought they wouldn’t be able to take the pressure. In 2008, two years after his father’s death, succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 66, Carlinhos was elected mayor. He needed to continue his father’s legacy.
Socorro says that her children Mariana and Ricardo also want to enter politics. “I try to tell them to give up on the idea, but I don’t think it’s possible,” she said, discouraged. They have everything they need to make it work.
* We came upon the name of Doda de Tião by means of a survey done at the request of The Intercept in the database of the Superior Electoral Court by Open Knowledge, a non-profit organization that created the Political Profile platform. Politicians from cities of up to 100,000 residents were considered, who were elected in 2014 and took office in January 2015, with assets higher than the general average declared to the TSE by the candidates, which was R$388,826.86 in 2014.