Political assassinations have marred successive Brazilian elections but the pace of these killings has more than doubled in 2020, with the power of militia groups blamed for much of the violence.
More than 165 politicians in Brazil have been murdered in the past three years, an average of one a week, Globo reported, citing a report by Brazil’s Electoral Research Group (Grupo de Investigação Eleitoral – GIEL) of the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro.
But this year alone, 91 candidates had been killed by the end of October, almost double last year’s tally, while dozens more have survived attempted attacks.
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According to the GIEL report, between January 2019 and September 2020, the states most affected by this political violence were São Paulo (50 killings), Rio de Janeiro (45) and Pernambuco (44), all key areas for Brazilian organized crime.
And high levels of impunity in Brazil continue to perpetuate the cycle of violence with only about 30 percent of homicides being investigated, according to a recent study carried out by NGO Sou da Paz. Rio de Janeiro is ranked as the worst state with only 11 percent of political homicides resulting in an investigation, followed by Pernambuco with 21 percent.
Some of the attacks have been highly daring.
On November 9, Ricardo de Moura, a politician running for councilman in Guarulhos, outside São Paulo, survived after being shot twice while broadcasting live to his supporters online. The attack was recorded on his cellphone.
On November 4, Valmir Tenório, a city council candidate was shot dead in Paraty, a major tourism hotspot near Rio de Janeiro, after allegedly having a romantic dispute with a drug trafficker.
Yet, while São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have seen most attacks, the violence has not been confined to Brazil’s most populous states. More than half of these acts of political violence took place in smaller cities of less than 50,000 inhabitants, demonstrating how criminal groups are seeking to co-opt local politicians or cow them into silence.
“Violence is a means to an end. It is not directed against the elections, but rather to infiltrate in the electoral process. The objective is to interfere in the elections in order to benefit from illegal activities,” Felipe Borba of the State University of Rio de Janeiro and coordinator of the Electoral Research Group (Grupo de Investigação Eleitoral – GIEL), told Globo.
“The few investigations that are carried out indicates that a lot of the murders are ordered by political opponents who see the victim as a threat to their criminal activities, their electoral dominance or an obstacle to getting elected,” Pablo Nunes, a researcher who coordinates the Center for Studies in Criminology and Citizenship (Centro de Estudos de Segurança e Cidadania, CESeC), writes in the Brazilian magazine Piauí.
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Militias expanding their sphere of influence, criminal groups defending their drug trafficking routes, political feuds passed down across generations – a number of causes have been blamed for this concerning rise in violence.
But much of the attention this year has been given to the growing influence of militias, criminal groups often made up of active and retired police officers, prison guards and firefighters and whose power has been growing rapidly in Rio de Janeiro and other large cities.
And the expansion of that power is now focused on controlling local politicians, according to experts. “Political candidates that oppose these paramilitary groups risk a death sentence if they try to campaign in areas under their control, something which had an ever greater influence in this pre-electoral period,” Bruno Paes Manso, a researcher on Brazilian militias, told Efe.
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According to Paes Manso, author of a book on the history of the militias’ connections to politics, “despite formally existing in a democracy, hundreds of (communities in Rio) are controlled by a tyranny, militia bosses with money laying down the law and terror on the population.”
“This is the dilemma for Rio: do you prefer drug traffickers or militias? As if there was no third option: the rule of law,” he told Deutsche Welle.
One of the largest militia groups in Rio de Janeiro, Escritorio do Crime (Office of Crime), was connected to the most high-profile political assassination in recent years, that of Rio councilwoman, Marielle Franco, in 2018.
But the country’s traditional gangs, such as the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), have also been infiltrating the electoral process.
In the run-up to this year’s municipal elections held on November 15, the PCC were reportedly using their power to prevent certain candidates – particularly from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) – from campaigning in areas under their control, most notably in Ribeirão Preto, Campinas and Baixada Santista.
Solange Freitas, another candidate for the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira – PSDB) in São Vicente, a town near São Paulo, survived an assassination attempt on November 11 when a man on a motorcycle shot five times at her car’s window. “They said that if I climbed in the polls, they would kill me,” Freitas said.
“Since the start of the campaign, the PCC issued a warning, that was then amplified to all political parties. Here in São Vicente, practically no candidates could campaign in certain communities,” said Freitas after the attack.
At the start of October, PSDB candidates went to the police in Baixada Santista to report that they had been threatened while handing out campaign materials in the area.
In Campinas, there were reports of candidates of diverse political parties being threatened. One candidate received a voice note on WhatsApp warning him not to enter a community in which he intended to campaign. Police sources also told news portal UOL that the PCC may have been hired by candidates to threaten political opponents.
And the PCC has also reportedly backed certain candidates. On November 9, authorities announced they were investigating Renan Bortoletto, a candidate who was running for city councilor in Ribeirão Preto, near São Paulo, as his political campaign was allegedly being funded by the PCC, who used social networks to promote him to favela residents.
Finally, longstanding political feuds are continuing to be resolved with violence. On August 6, Abson Mattos, running for city council in Pedras do Fogo, in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, was shot dead after being outspoken about alleged corruption by the city’s mayor and council.
Abson Mattos had already survived an assassination attempt during his last political campaign in 2016 when a bullet grazed his head. In 2009, his cousin, Manoel Mattos, was famously killed after also denouncing political corruption.
In one of his last messages sent to supporters, Abson Mattos declared, “they may even shut me up with a bullet, as they have said…but my messages and my story will keep circulating.”