The cameras turn on crime show host in murder probe

Presenter accused of ordering five killings so his programme's reporters could be first on the scene.

Picture the scene. Crimewatch ratings are tanking; viewers in this era of reality television have tired of those quaint reconstructions of tough cases that need cracking. And so, at the end of their tether, the presenters dream up an ingenious plan: hiring hitmen and then sending in the cameras to capture it all exclusively on film.

Nick Ross and Fiona Bruce may never have plumbed such desperate depths but their Brazilian counterpart allegedly has.

Wallace Souza, the presenter of the Canal Livre crime show for the past two decades, now finds himself on the receiving end of a police investigation. The 50-year-old, who also happens to be the most popular politician in Amazonas state with a reputation for being tough on crime, is suspected of commissioning at least five murders to boost his ratings.

Mr Souza launched Canal Livre with the help of his brother in 1989. "The courageous brothers, as they're known, bring hope to the less fortunate," read the show's blurb. "Showing a naked and raw reality to call authorities' attention to social problems."

Whether these lofty ideals had much resonance with the 1.7 million residents of Manaus, the capital of the largely-lawless Amazonas state where the show was broadcast, is unclear.

What helped keep viewers hooked, however, was the programme's uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right crime, capturing grisly footage of still-warm victims followed by the dramatic, if belated, arrival at the crime scene of the Brazilian forces of law and order.

"Nowadays everyone is killing," Mr Souza would rail, wagging his finger to camera. "Manaus can no longer live with this wave of crime."

In one memorable episode, a Canal Livre reporter is seen pulling back branches in the rainforest to reveal a charred corpse. "It smells like barbecue," he quips, covering his nose. "The body's still smoking." Investigators now say that this unfortunate victim was one of those whose death warrant was signed by Mr Sousa.

"He went as far as creating facts and ordering crimes be committed to generate news for the programme," Thomaz Vasconcelos, the head of police intelligence in Amazonas state, told Brazilian television.

"The order to execute always came from the legislator and his son, who then alerted the TV crews to get to the scene before the police."

All of a sudden, the show's sixth sense is looking decidedly more sinister. Less Crimewatch, more Murder He Wrote.

The presenter vehemently denies the accusations laid at his door. "To say that a programme that has had a huge audience for so many years had to resort to killing people ... is absolutely absurd," he told the Associated Press in an interview. His team managed to get to the scene so quickly, he explained, thanks to round-the-clock monitoring of police radio frequencies, and impeccable sources at police stations and the morgue, who provided the all-important tip-offs.

Mr Souza has always displayed a strong interest in crime. He served as a police officer for Amazonas state, but left the force under a cloud in 1987. He says that he was wrongly accused of being involved in a scam involving college entrance exams and departed of his own accord. Officials say he was kicked out for stealing fuel and defrauding pension funds.

His reincarnation as a presenter and public-spirited crime-stopper took place two years later and, using the television platform, he swiftly propelled himself into the political arena.

He is serving his third term in the state legislature after winning more votes than any other politician in Amazonas at the last election.

Mr Souza believes that the scandal now engulfing him has been manufactured by his political enemies, jealous of his popularity with the electorate, and by drug dealers who are trying to shut down his crusade against crime in the state.

"I was the one who organised legislative inquiries into organised crime, the prison system, corruption, drug trafficking by police, and paedophilia," he said.

But prosecutors paint an altogether different picture of the politician, saying that he has close links to the very underworld he is reportedly trying to crush, and that he is himself a big player in the local drugs trade.

Not only did the murders give him the opportunity to generate exclusive scoops for Canal Livre, but he could also eliminate pesky druglords muscling in on his turf, they say.

"They organised a kind of death squad to execute rivals who were competing for the drug trafficking business," said Mr Vasconcelos, the police intelligence chief. Mr Souza is facing charges of drug trafficking, forming a gang, and possessing illegal weapons. He has not been arrested because he enjoys legislative immunity as an elected politician.

However, his son Rafael, who worked as a producer on the show, has been detained on charges of homicide, drug trafficking and illegal gun possession, and another 15 people have been arrested.

Investigators received their first clue that all might not be as it appeared following the arrest of Mr Souza's former security guard last October. Moacir Jorge da Costa reportedly confessed that at least one of the nine murders of which he stood accused had gone on to be aired on Canal Livre, his former boss's show.

Absolute rubbish, says Mr Souza's lawyer, Francisco Balieiro, dismissing the security guard's purported confession as nothing more than the desperate strategy of a criminal hoping for some last-minute leniency.

"All the investigations made by the public ministry and the police have not been able to present any proof of any kind," Mr Balieiro quipped to Brazilian television.

State justice officials must now decide whether the case goes forward. Canal Livre may have been taken off the air but Mr Souza is not going to be out of the limelight any time soon.