Political violence poses risks to Brazil’s election
In historically violent Brazil, a recent trend of crimes motivated by politics is worrisome. Cycles of polarization and hate are not easily overcome. The October election is likely to see new violent incidents. Skirmishes between supporters of the far-right and the left are the most likely, but even the safety of presidential candidates could be at stake.
On the night of Saturday, 10 July, prison guard Jorge Guaranho broke into a birthday party held by police officer Marcelo Arruda in the southern Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. The two men shot at each other, and Arruda died. Guaranho entered the party with shouts of support for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. His victim was an active member of the left-wing Workers Party (PT) and had even run as the PT’s vice mayoral candidate in the previous city elections. His birthday celebration had PT presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as its theme and decoration.
The crime made the headlines of Brazil’s largest media outlets in the following days, leading the two titans of Brazilian politics, Bolsonaro and Lula, to comment on what happened. However, the crime did not shake Brazil. In a country that counted 41,000 homicides alone in 2021, Brazilians have grown accustomed to seeing graphic violence on television and in newspapers on a daily basis. At a societal level, violence has become desensitized.
Arruda’s murder, however, is part of a recent trend of violence motivated by politics. It echoes the 2018 stabbing to death of the capoeira instructor Moa de Katande, famous in the milieu of Afro Brazilian arts in the northern state of Bahia, who was killed after an argument about politics.
Gabriel Feltran, a sociologist at São Carlos University, says that Arruda’s killing can be seen as part of a pattern of deadly crimes against left-wing politicians, activists, and journalists that are rhetorically justified by a far-right discourse that identifies these activists as enemies to be eliminated. Among the victims are Marielle Franco, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most-voted city councilors and a vocal LGBTQ+ advocate, who was killed in 2018 by a former member of Rio Military Police’s elite squad. Two more casualties include Dom Phillips, a British reporter for the Guardian, and Bruno Pereira, a former government official at the national indigenous affairs agency, both of whom were killed in the Amazon earlier this year.
While it remains unclear who was ultimately responsible for these crimes, supporters of Bolsonaro spread disinformation about the victims. A judge from Rio de Janeiro state court falsely linked the left-wing lawmaker to narcotrafficking, while a businessman spread the conspiracy theory that the British journalist was part of an international strategy to invade Brazil’s territory through the Amazon.
Far-right circles also promote narratives depicting members of left-wing parties, union leaders, activists, and journalists as “criminals,” “sellouts to foreign powers” and “communists.” Such dramatic language combined with a violent society increases the risk of crimes motivated solely by politics, as shown by the deadly shooting in Foz do Iguaçu. The perpetrator and the victim did not know each other, yet an argument escalated to a death.
Violence from groups on Brazil’s far-left in recent years has been most closely associated with demonstrations. In 2014, a journalist from Band, one of the largest media outlets, was killed by a mortar launched by a group of left-wing anarchists in Rio de Janeiro during a conflict with the police. At a 2021 anti-Bolsonaro demonstration in São Paulo, activists from the far-left Workers’ Cause Party (PCO) punched center-right Social Democratic Party (PSDB) members.
Local analysts have argued that Bolsonaro’s own hate speech has fed this climate of political violence. Many have pointed to speeches he made while running for president in 2018. In rallies, Bolsonaro said “members of PT should be shot dead” and that “they should be sent to the Ponta da Praia,” in a reference to a place used to torture dissidents during the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985.
Politicians’ careless use of violent rhetoric in a society already desensitized to everyday violence makes a deadly attack targeting either former president Lula or current President Jair Bolsonaro a distinct possibility.
There is recent precedent for this. In 2018, while on the campaign trail, Bolsonaro was stabbed by a lone wolf assailant. Bolsonaro and his supporters claim his survival means he is a messianic figure (coincidentally, his middle name is Messiah). Bolsonaro insists that his attack was directed by a left-wing political group. However, while the attacker was registered with a left-wing political party between 2007 and 2014, two different police investigations concluded he acted alone and the individual has since been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Former President Lula also suffered an attack in 2018, when his campaign bus was shot at. This year, his staff requested further protection from the Federal Police, arguing that a recent rise in civilian gun ownership in Brazil posed an increased risk. Local media has also reported that Lula has worn a bulletproof vest at public rallies. In two of these events, attendants were attacked with feces, urine, and a crude explosive device.
Brazil, a historically violent and unequal society, is slowly getting dangerously used to politically motivated crimes. This is a dynamic that is hard to dismantle.
Looking ahead, three scenarios for politically motivated violence could take place from now to October, while canvassers are in the streets to show support for their candidates.
- The murder of Bolsonaro or Lula is the least likely scenario for politically motivated violence, but its consequences would be the most dramatic, taking Brazil into uncharted territory. In an environment of easing gun access, a lone wolf hitman could attack either President Bolsonaro or former president Lula. Both will attend rallies with big crowds in urban zones — a very challenging environment for bodyguards and campaign security planning to guard against. An attack of this kind could happen in a big city like Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, although the 2018 targeting of both candidates took place in the countryside.
- Violence between left-wing activists and members of the security forces is slightly more likely: radicals might throw stones at stores, bus stops, or at the police. Even a less serious offense, such as spraying walls with graffiti, could lead to an asymmetrical police response. Most police officers are Bolsonaro voters and identify with his conservative stance against drug liberalization. They are also in favor of the increased use of lethal force against criminals. Conversely, an asymmetrical response by the armed forces is implausible, largely because left-wing leaders would be wary of escalating violence to the point where pro-Bolsonaro hardliners in the military have an excuse to use violence against them.
- The most likely scenario is low-level violence between hardline supporters of Bolsonaro and Lula. As election day approaches, tensions may rise. Canvassers commonly distribute leaflets in the streets about their candidates. This report’s author has seen supporters of presidential candidates fighting in 2018 in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The mood of hatred towards the adversary has set things up for this to happen again.
The risk of politically-motivated violence will persist in the post-election period. While the presidential run-off is scheduled for 30 October, the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) does not officialize the election winners until 19 December. That date has the potential to be Brazil’s version of 6 January in Washington DC. President Bolsonaro, numerous senior military figures, and far-right groups have argued for years that the TSE’s electronic voting system is unsafe, setting the stage for them to contest results they do not like.
Also, they have shared the conspiracy theory that the election will likely be rigged, favoring the left. TSE has even called on the Army to check the safety of the voting system in an unprecedented move. The Army’s participation in these checks has lent credence to these election fraud theories.
The TSE’s headquarters in Brasília is located in an open area, without any other buildings nearby. It means that a big crowd could storm the building or, from a distance, fire at it. The state-level police and the armed forces are legally responsible for the security of TSE. However, the growing partisanship of security forces risks interrupting what has historically been the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil.
Still, the post-election scenarios outlined above remain a worst-case scenario. If the opposition wins the election, the baseline scenario continues to be a peaceful transfer of power. The leading opposition candidate, Lula, has opened dialogue channels with the armed forces. The armed forces have sent ambiguous signals, supporting Bolsonaro’s claims over election integrity, but showing no appetite for a coup d’etat. Over the last four years, generals and high-ranking military officials earned wage increases, more project funding, and more agency over a wide array of policy areas. If Lula wins the election, the armed forces will probably silently negotiate with him to retain at least part of these benefits.
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