By Gabriel Stargardter
FLORIANOPOLIS, Brazil (Reuters) – The day after a Workers Party (PT) official was shot dead by a supporter of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in July, the Federal Police guarding his leftist campaign rival sent a classified memo to senior colleagues across Brazil.
They were calling for backup.
In the document seen by Reuters, the officers warned that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s safety was threatened by “radicalized opponents,” increasingly armed with deadly weapons due to Bolsonaro’s loosening of gun controls. They asked the top Federal Police officers in each state to reinforce Lula campaign events with bulletproof cars, tactical teams, drones and intelligence reports.
“The current scenario is unprecedented in the history of Brazilian democracy and increases the challenge of guaranteeing the physical safety of the candidate,” they wrote.
The memo is part of a series of red alerts about political violence in the run-up to the Oct. 2 election, Brazil’s most fraught since the end of military rule in 1985. Its warnings about an armed and angry resistance to the PT also offer a glimpse of the lingering challenges Lula may face if, as polls suggest, he beats Bolsonaro next month.
The nationalist former soldier has demonized Lula and his allies as criminal “communists.” He has sought military backing for his unfounded claims of voter fraud, which are undermining faith in Brazil’s voting system. And he has urged his followers to arm themselves to guard against any electoral chicanery.
Some of them have responded by stockpiling guns and lashing out at leftists during a tense campaign marred by high-profile cases of violence.
In their July 11 memo, Lula’s federal security team cited several “acts of violence and hostility,” including the murder a day earlier of Marcelo Arruda. A local PT treasurer from southern Brazil, he was shot dead at his Lula-themed birthday party by a man shouting support for Bolsonaro.
Such violence is not unprecedented in Brazilian elections. State and municipal candidates are often attacked by local rivals and Bolsonaro nearly died in 2018 when he was stabbed by a mentally disturbed man on the campaign trail.
Yet Bolsonaro has also overseen a sharp rise in political attacks. Electoral courts flagged a jump in assaults on candidates from the 2018 election to the 2020 cycle. Federal university UNIRIO’s Electoral Investigation Group reported 214 politicized assaults in the first half of 2022, up 23% compared with the same period in 2020.
Critics accuse Bolsonaro of arming his supporters and incentivizing violence against his leftist foes.
This month, a Bolsonarista killed and nearly decapitated a Lula supporter in rural Brazil during a heated political debate, police reported.
On Saturday, a man walked into a bar in northeastern Brazil and shouted “Who here is a Lula voter?” before stabbing to death the man who responded, “I am,” according to Ceara state police.
Not all incidents have been fatal. In at least two cases, Bolsonaristas were arrested for launching suspected fecal matter at Lula events. Police have sought to investigate one Bolsonaro supporter for fantasizing online about the murder of Lula and another for using the leftist’s image for target practice.
With just days to go until the first-round vote, the country is on edge. Nearly 70% of Brazilians say they are scared of being physically assaulted because of their political or party preference, according to a Datafolha poll released this month.
“I don’t wear red in public anymore,” said Gabriel Oliveira, referring to the PT’s trademark color, at a recent Lula campaign event in the southern Bolsonaro stronghold of Florianopolis. “The people who support Bolsonaro are very aggressive.”
Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
If the lead-up to the vote is tense, many fret its aftermath could be worse. After months of sowing doubts about Brazil’s voting system, many fear Bolsonaro will follow former U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy of refusing to accept defeat.
Brazil’s democratic institutions, which are regularly lambasted by the president and his allies, are girding for the prospect of chaotic and potentially violent demonstrations.
In July, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin said Brazil “may experience an episode even more severe than the Jan. 6 (attack last year) on the U.S. Capitol.” This month, in a decision upheld by a majority of the court, he suspended some of Bolsonaro’s executive orders that have contributed to a surge in gun ownership, citing “the risk of political violence.”
Federal prosecutors in Sao Paulo have also expressed concern about the sixfold increase in weapons permits for hunters and hobbyists – known as CACs – since Bolsonaro began loosening firearms laws in 2019. In July, they warned the deluge of guns inspired “well-founded fears about what could happen amid possible violent protests” around the election.
Reuters reported this month that Brazilian gangsters are increasingly using legally acquired CAC weapons to commit crimes. But it also seems ordinary Brazilians are stockpiling firearms in case Lula wins and fulfills a vow to “disarm” Brazil.
Handgun imports to Brazil climbed this year to their highest value since records began in 1997, trade data show. Nearly $57 million worth of revolvers and pistols have been imported so far in 2022, up from less than $12 million in all of 2018.
“I believe in the (stockpiling) hypothesis because we’ve seen it in other countries, and other elections,” said Bruno Langeani, a firearms expert at the Sou da Paz Institute, citing an uptick in arms sales during the 2020 U.S. campaign.
Once seen as a rising superpower, Brazil has suffered a turbulent decade. A vast corruption scandal jailed Lula until his convictions were overturned. A record economic slump drove the impeachment of his successor, Dilma Rousseff. Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic added to one of the world’s worst death tolls.
Ten years of troubles have resulted in stark political polarization – embodied by Lula and Bolsonaro – that has become increasingly menacing on the campaign trail.
In July, a man threw a homemade explosive device filled with feces into a crowd of Lula supporters at a campaign event in Rio de Janeiro.
In June, at a Lula rally in the city of Uberlandia, a drone flew overhead, releasing a liquid that reeked of feces and urine, according to witnesses.
Rodrigo Luiz Parreira was arrested for allegedly masterminding the attack. The farmer told police he was angry Lula had come to Uberlandia, according to his statement. So he hired two people to fly the drone and release a harmless fly-control liquid over the leftist’s supporters, he said. State prosecutor Marcus Vinícius Ribeiro Cunha told Reuters it was unclear what the liquid was.
Police have identified some threats online.
After a Brazilian’s botched attempt to assassinate Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner with a gun that failed to fire, Facebook user Irony Alves De Paula Junior, which police believe to be his real name, wrote that the shooter should have used a Brazilian brand of firearm.
“Piece of shit Argentine gun. If it were a (Brazilian-made) Taurus, he would have blown that shithead to hell,” he wrote on the site. “That’s a good idea for us to try with that bearded frog (Lula), but it has to be a Taurus.”
Federal Police officers found the post and have called for a criminal probe into Paula Junior, according to a person involved. Paula Junior, who regularly posts pro-Bolsonaro and anti-Lula comments, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Federal Police have also sought to open two other criminal probes over threats to Lula, according to the source.
The latest involved a pro-Bolsonaro businessman who posted a video on Instagram firing an assault rifle at an image of Lula. Luiz Henrique Crestani later deleted the video and posted a statement acknowledging he was “antagonistic” towards the leftist but denying seeking to “incite” illegal acts.
Crestani is from Santa Catarina, a wealthy southern state with a prominent German and Italian diaspora, where guns and Bolsonaro are held in high esteem. In 2018, over 75% of Catarinenses voted for Bolsonaro, the second-highest state total. The state has the most gun clubs per capita in Brazil.
Security was tight at a Lula event in state capital Florianopolis this month, with snipers on top of buildings and a chopper flying low over the flag-waving crowd.
Lula has just 27% support in Santa Catarina, against 49% for Bolsonaro, according to the latest survey by pollster Ipec. A campaign source said he had considered skipping the state. In his speech, Lula said some had suggested he stay away as “this is Bolsonaro territory and I wouldn’t be well received.”
Marcia Hofmann, a 70-year-old Lula supporter there, said Bolsonaro fans often shout abuse at her when she wears PT garb in the street. She worried that many of them were now armed.
“The Bolsonaristas are … very violent,” she said. “So I’m a bit scared.”
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Haynes and Claudia Parsons)