A wave of violence linked to criminal organizations has overshadowed Brazil's October 2 municipal elections, highlighting the extent of the political power attained by crime groups in South America's most populous nation.
Criminal organizations have been linked to a recent wave of politically motivated violence, particularly in the informal urban neighborhoods known as favelas and lower income areas of Rio de Janeiro state, where more than 20 political officials and candidates for office have been assassinated in the past year, reported Clarín.
The head of the police homicide division in the Baixada Fluminense region, Giniton Lages, told the news outlet that criminal organizations known as "milícias," or militias, have "imposed themselves through gunfire" on recent elections in the Rio area.
One of the most recent incidents of electoral violence in Rio occurred on September 26, when two unidentified gunmen burst into the campaign office of Marcos Vieira de Souza, known as "Marcos Falcon," a Progressive Party (Partido Progresista - PP) candidate for the position of alderman.
The men opened fire on Vieira de Souza, killing him but leaving others in the office unharmed, before fleeing. Police later described the attack as a "summary execution" directed "uniquely and exclusively at the candidate."
In Magé, a town in Rio de Janeiro state, one of the candidates for the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira - PSDB), said he withdrew his candidacy for mayor for fear of suffering a similar fate as another politician who was killed in the parking lot of the Municipal Chamber.
According to Clarín, militias in Rio will only allow candidates and parties to campaign in areas under their control if they pay an "election tax" amounting to approximately $40,000 for an aspiring mayor and $5,000 to $6,000 for candidates for aldermen. If they fail to pay, the militias often threaten and attack the candidates, their organizations and their political allies.
While militias have a strong presence in the many poorer areas of Rio de Janeiro, they are also active in higher income neighborhoods like Campo Grande and Rio Santa Cruz, Clarín reported.
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Rio's militias are composed of current and retired security forces, as well as civilians, who originally banded together to fight drug trafficking organizations that had assumed control over many of the city's favelas. However, in recent years these groups have evolved from simple vigilantism to participation in criminal activities like theft and extortion. And as InSight Crime has previously reported, they have also become more deeply involved in politics.
In addition to the recent killings, there have also been warnings by Brazilian election officials that militias may be financing the campaigns of their own candidates. In the weeks leading up to the municipal election, Gilmar Mendes, the president of the Superior Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral - TSE), said that the influence of criminal groups on local politics in Rio "should be of concern to all the authorities."
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Brazil Militias
On election day, Mendes said that it was "unmistakeable" that both militias and drug trafficking groups were participating in the elections, which he described as the most violent in recent memory. Brazilian Defense Minister Raul Jungmann echoed Mendes' comments, saying that a "perverse" process had resulted in the election of actual members of organized crime groups as well as candidates chosen by them.
The growing level of violence associated with the involvement of criminal organizations in Rio elections could have negative consequences not only in terms of residents' physical safety, but also in terms of their ability to participate in the democratic process. Election authorities reportedly had difficulty setting up polling stations in areas controlled by militias and drug trafficking groups.