The Name of Death

Image of The Name of Death
Release Date: 
May 21, 2018
Seven Stories Press
Reviewed by: 

“Cavalcanti’s book is about one unique human named Julio Santana—a professional killer with a code of honor and a sincere belief in God and redemption.”

The Name of Death is a gripping, fast-paced, and highly consumable tour through the steamy jungles of hell. In truth, journalist Klester Cavalcanti’s book is a brief summation of the life of professional hitman, Julio Santana.

By his own account, between 1971 and 2006, Santana killed almost 500 people, almost all of whom were shot to death in the wild, rural north of Brazil. As Julio’s uncle Cicero once told him, gunmen in northern Brazil can get away with

professional butchery because the police don’t bother to trouble them. Despite all of his contract killing, Julio was only arrested once after the botched murder of a woman guilty of infanticide. 

Cavalcanti’s work mostly focuses on Santana’s genesis from a simple peasant boy living near the Tocantins River to a professional killer. Like many stories about man’s sinfulness, Santana fell because of money, specifically the money that his uncle Cicero flashed before his eyes. For Julio, a boy who lived in a home without electricity or a refrigerator, modern conveniences like Coca-Cola were worth forfeiting his soul over.

Santana’s first kill targeted a pedophilic rapist who sold dry goods all along the river. Julio’s next kills were done while he worked alongside the Brazilian military and the military police during the Araguaia Guerrilla War. Here, young Julio saw the Brazilian state routinely torture, mutilate, and kill suspected communists (surprisingly, despite Julio and the author’s sympathy for these victims, Cavalcanti admits that they were all active communist guerrillas).

The Name of Death presents Julio Santana as a killer with a conscious. In many ways, Julio, despite all of the blood on his hands, is more moral than the system around him. The Brazil that is portrayed in this book is an almost lawless place where brute force is used to protect private honor, small town capitalists and landowners, and the military government.

The Name of Death also makes clear that northern Brazil and the country’s interior bears no resemblance to the technocratic civilization of Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. In these tropical lands, law and order only comes from the barrel of a gun, and most people live in ways that would be familiar to the Bronze Age warriors of Homer. 

Cavalcanti’s work represents the very best of biography and investigative journalism. The gunman Julio Santana, who could have easily been portrayed as a monster, is shown to be a deeply religious hitman who recognizes the immorality of his business. The only reason why he kills is to make money and provide his family with a better life than the one he grew up with. Sadly, after decades of contract killing, Santana left everything behind in 2006, and even then he could not call himself a rich man.

The Name of Death is about rampant amorality, rural poverty, and the decisions that some people make in order to put food on the table for their loved ones. More importantly, Cavalcanti’s book is about one unique human named Julio Santana—a professional killer with a code of honor and a sincere belief in God and redemption.