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the outskirts of one of the world’s most violent cities when she heard a volley of gunfire and her count was rendered out of date.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.
Illustration: Constance chou
“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.
“Given the gravity of the situation, given the sheer magnitude and scale of homicidal violence, what is striking is how weak the proposals have been,” Muggah added.
On the campaign trail, the candidates have tried to talk tough on crime, or the causes of crime.
Center-left candidate Ciro Gomes, who is third in the polls, has vowed to “cut the head off” organized crime, while leftist Guilherme Boulos has pledged to end a futile war on drugs responsible for “a veritable genocide” of young, poor black men.
Haddad — who replaced former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as the Workers’ Party candidate, but is struggling to catch up with Bolsonaro — has blamed soaring violence in northeastern Brazil on crime syndicates from Rio and Sao Paulo squabbling over lucrative new markets created by the “China-style growth” of the Lula era.
He promises a “unified public security system” and vows to federalize some crimes so that state authorities can focus on fighting homicide, rape and robbery.
However, no candidate has talked tougher than Bolsonaro, whose plan to throw “everything” at the “hoodlums” has struck a chord for millions of voters.
“You can’t treat this kind of person as if they were a normal human being. You’ve got to shoot. If you don’t shoot, you’ll never sort all this out,” the right-wing populist said in one interview.
Speaking to reporters earlier this year, Bolsonaro’s son and campaign coordinator, Eduardo Bolsonaro, said that supporters were fed up with do-gooder activists hampering an effective crackdown on crime.
“How much money will human rights NGOs [non-governmental organizations] get [under a Bolsonaro presidency]? Zero!” he said.
Such rhetoric has impressed violence-weary voters.
In Iati, a small rural town in the state of Pernambuco, Antonio Tenorio said that he saw potential saviors in Bolsonaro and his running mate, the retired army general Hamilton Mourao.
“Brazil is in such a state that Bolsonaro and this general of his are the only guys who can restore some order,” said the 67-year-old farmer, brandishing a kitchen knife that he had started carrying for fear of being assaulted by drug addicts.
Paulo Henrique Villas Boas, a Bolsonaro supporter in Recife, Pernambuco’s violence-stricken capital, agreed an iron fist was the answer: “Brazil is at war — an informal war.”
That last claim rings true when you spend time on the heavily militarized frontlines of the drug conflict ravaging communities up and down Brazil.
“The weapons that they have today are just as powerful as ours,” said a member of Feira de Santana’s elite police unit as they swept into the Expansao do Feira IX settlement in search of gang members, wielding submachine guns and assault rifles.
Locals fled indoors, or looked on passively from their doorsteps, as the six-member team filed past, across fetid open-air sewers and rubbish-strewn wastelands, frisking and interrogating a succession of young black men as they went.
“What are you? BDM? Katiara?” one officer asked a suspect, referring to the two factions vying for control of Feira’s drug trade.
Colonel Luziel Andrade de Oliveira, the regional military police commander, said his troops were gradually winning a constant “game of cat and mouse” with gangsters that he blamed for 80 percent of murders.
In one operation, officers seized nearly 100 firearms, he added.
Roberto da Silva Leal, Feira’s civil police chief, also said progress was being made to make Brazil’s 13th most violent city safer.
Homicides rocketed in June and July, with 18 people killed in one weekend alone, but fell dramatically last month, he said.
Still, Leal said that security forces alone would not fix what was in many ways a social crisis: “If we carry on with just the police working on this, we are going to have a very serious problem.”
Robinson Almeida, a Workers’ Party politician who until 2014 ran a regional anti-homicide initiative called Pact for Life, said that the only way to tackle Brazil’s “intolerable” murder crisis was to simultaneously tighten its borders, crack down on organized crime and reduce drug consumption.
“You’ll never solve the problem just declaring war on drugs,” he said.
In Loteamento Alameda das Arvores, many locals have given up on politicians solving the problem altogether and are seeking their own fixes.
Twenty-four hours after her teenage neighbor was interred, Farias was preparing to meet an entrepreneur who she hoped might bankroll a social project to get young men off the streets and away from drugs.
She said she felt so neglected by politicians that she would boycott today’s election.
“Has anyone said anything about public security apart from Bolsonaro, who just says he wants to kill all the crooks?” Farias said.
“I don’t see any real proposals. [So] what’s the point in exercising my right as a citizen?” she said, adding: “Even if my own father was a candidate, I wouldn’t vote for him.”
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