Sun, Oct 07, 2018 - Page 7 News List

‘Brazil is at war’: An election plays out amid homicidal violence

Latin America’s largest democracy last year suffered a record 63,880 homicides, and the state of affairs is driving some to support the hardline policies of candidate Jair Bolsonaro

By Tom Phillips  /  The Guardian, FEIRA DE SANTANA, Brazil

Illustration: Constance chou

Francine Farias had just completed a census of her tumbledown settlement on the outskirts of one of the world’s most violent cities when she heard a volley of gunfire and her count was rendered out of date.

One unpaved street away, her next door neighbor, 17-year-old Ruan Patrick Ramos Cruz, lay dead in the dirt after being repeatedly shot in the head and chest by unknown assassins.

“First I heard four [shots], then two more,” said Farias, a community leader in Loteamento Alameda das Arvores, a settlement of 288 rundown homes on the southern fringe of Feira de Santana.

“It’s devastating to see one more young person die because of crime — a young man with his whole future before him,” added Farias, 31, who said her neighbor had become mixed up in drugs. “He’s the third since I’ve lived here. All of them the same age.”

Cruz was the 296th person this year to die in Feira de Santana and the latest victim of an escalating murder crisis that has arguably made public security the key issue as Brazil holds its most unpredictable presidential election in decades.

Ahead of today’s vote, the country’s uncontrolled violence is fueling support for the far-right pacesetter Jair Bolsonaro, who has opened up a 10-point lead over his closest rival, Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, with many followers saying that security is the main reason for championing the 63-year-old politician.

Many are horrified at the rise of a pro-torture populist notorious for his vicious and incendiary remarks about women, black people, indigenous communities, human rights and Brazil’s LGBT community.

However, Latin America’s largest democracy last year suffered a record 63,880 homicides — more than 6,000 of them in the northeastern state of Bahia, where Feira is located — and Bolsonaro has promised no-nonsense fixes, including loosening gun laws.

“Why has violence gone up? Why have weeds overtaken your backyard? It’s because you didn’t eradicate them, so of course they’ll grow,” he told a campaign event in the Amazon earlier this year. “Have we eradicated crooks in Brazil? No!”

“If someone breaks into our house or our ranch, we must have the right to shoot them — and if we kill them, it’s their problem for dying, not ours,” he added. “This is the only way we are going to put the brakes on these crooks.”

Robert Muggah, head of the Brazilian think tank called the Igarap Institute, said that crime had been catapulted up the political agenda by both “a sense and an objective reality” among voters that the situation was declining.

The public had also been focused by a series of “spectacular events of egregious violence,” including prison massacres, a surge in bloodshed in northeast Brazil, the collapse of efforts to “pacify” Rio’s settlements, the still unsolved assassination of Rio councilor Marielle Franco and the stabbing of Bolsonaro himself.

Yet, experts and those on the frontline of Brazil’s murder epidemic have said that presidential hopefuls have not come close to adequately addressing one of the most urgent issues facing Latin America — a region with 8 percent of the world’s population, but 33 percent of all homicides. Each day, more than 400 people are murdered in the region, each year more than 145,000.

“So far, I haven’t heard a single decent proposal. They [just] talk, talk and talk,” said Gleidson Santos, a crime reporter who estimated that he has visited more than 1,000 murder scenes in Feira since he began covering the beat in 2004.

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