ITAMATATUBA, Brazil — As the riverboat anchored at dawn in Itamatatuba, a far-flung outpost of the Brazilian Amazon, the court clerk rose from his hammock onboard. The bailiffs sipped their coffee. The judge rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
“Let’s see what’s on the docket,” said Judge Mayra Brandão, 37, reviewing the day’s cases: a tavern owner wanted for falling behind on child support, an arson threat and a rancher charged with firing his shotgun at his neighbor’s herd of water buffaloes.
I spent a day in October aboard this floating courthouse as it braved choppy currents, malarial mosquitoes and the threat of pirates to provide something exceptional in Brazil’s unruly Amazonian frontier: the rule of law.
The judge and her staff board this three-story riverboat, called the King Benedict, every few weeks from Macapá, the capital of Amapá State, and set out on the Amazon River.
Until recently, local oligarchs supplanted the judiciary with their own domineering rule. Mob justice remains common, and lynchings are frequent. All too often, the jungle’s residents still reach for machetes to settle feuds.
“That’s where we come in,” said Sgt. Eurismar da Cruz, 47, a police officer from Macapá who serves as a bailiff in the riverboat court. Wielding pistols, he and other bailiffs fan out each morning on a small speedboat in search of people suspected of committing crimes.
Their first target on a Friday morning in Itamatatuba, a village of wooden shacks with about 600 inhabitants, was Jhon Beyck Pantoja, 35, the owner of the settlement’s only discothèque.
At a table on the boat’s deck where hammocks hung just hours earlier, one of Mr. Pantoja’s five ex-wives, Talia de Paula, 19, told the court that he had recently stopped paying her $30 a month in child support for their 3-year-old daughter, Manuela.
“The man is a scoundrel, a liar and a philanderer,” Ms. de Paula said, bouncing Manuela on her knee as she glared at her ex-husband.
Mr. Pantoja, clad in shorts and sandals and flashing a gold watch on his wrist, called his predicament “complicated.” He said that he had five children by five wives over the years, and that paying child support for each of them was an unrealistic burden on his meager finances.
“I pay them all when I have the money, but some months are tougher than others,” said Mr. Pantoja, whose outdoor nightclub, Caribe, lures patrons on weekend nights who cling to one another under its strobe lights.
One of the court’s clerks interjected, telling Mr. Pantoja, “Frankly, you just have to stop making more children.” Then the judge issued a quick verdict, ordering the defendant to honor his financial obligations to his ex-wife or be jailed for three months.
As Ms. de Paula smiled at the outcome, Mr. Pantoja scowled.
“The authorities on this boat don’t rely on facts, but on gossip,” he said. “At least I’ll have children to carry my coffin when I die.”
Throughout the day, others shuffled onto the boat. Some sought the other services available onboard, receiving social security cards, voting papers and water purification tablets.
Amapá’s floating courtroom first set sail in the 1990s to address some of the shortcomings in Brazil’s legal system. The country’s judiciary is reviled by many citizens for its gargantuan bureaucracy, slowness in deliveringverdicts and outsize salaries for judges.
Since then, other Brazilian states have created similar projects. The authorities elsewhere in the world, including rural Pakistan and the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, have used buses as mobile courtrooms.
Conditions on the King Benedict are cramped. Staff members’ sleeping hammocks bump each other during the night as currents rock the vessel. The only semblance of air-conditioning is an occasional breeze, allowing for a dress code of shorts and sandals. Sometimes proceedings are halted when the ear-piercing groans of howler monkeys drown out conversation.
Still, the vibe onboard is mellow. After dusk, the members of the court gathered on the top deck to sip beer under a mesmerizing night sky, singing along as Rubens Barros, 38, the boat’s chief law clerk, strummed a guitar to songs like “Sina,” by the Brazilian composer Djavan.
“Each voyage is a bonding experience, but we stick to some basic decorum: Keep your shirt on, respect the person in the hammock next to you, and if you drink beer, then do so in moderation,” Mr. Barros said.
Still, not everyone is impressed when the floating courtroom makes its way through the heavily forested Bailique Archipelago, an assortment of islands on which about 7,000 people live.
“My taxes pay for justice, but I feel the approach is superficial,” said Andreia Figueiredo, the principal of the small public school in Itamatatuba. “They pursue cases involving humble people, but what about large-scale deforestation or political corruption? There’s no riverboat going after the biggest thieves.”
In the last case of the day, bailiffs hauled in Conceição Pantoja, 67, whose brother accused him of firing on a neighbor’s herd of water buffaloes. Mr. Pantoja argued that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, saying he had fired his rifle only to fend off jaguars attacking his own herd.
“Sir, don’t you know it’s illegal to kill jaguars in this country?” Judge Brandão asked the defendant.
Mr. Pantoja was charged with illegal possession and use of a firearm, crimes that could put him in prison for four years. Judge Brandão agreed to rule on his case on the boat’s next swing through Itamatatuba.
“We used to be free in these parts to settle things our own way,” he said. “Now the city people on this boat want to tell a man how to live his life.”