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Brazen political killings overshadow Brazilian elections

29 September 2016, 16:42

Rio de Janeiro – The gunning down in broad daylight of a Rio city council candidate ahead of nationwide municipal elections is stoking fears that Brazil's already toxic politics are headed into dangerous new territory.

The main headline from Sunday's polls is expected to be the hammering of the leftist Workers' Party, which many here blame for Brazil's punishing recession and sprawling corruption scandals.

Already reeling from the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff and her replacement by centre-right rival Michel Temer, the once dominant Workers' Party looks set to lose a slew of local seats, including the mayor of Brazil's biggest city Sao Paulo.

But analysts say that a recent spate of killings points to a darker political shift in Rio, the second biggest city in Latin America's leading economy, as police-linked militias muscle in.

Candidate Marcos Vieira de Souza, nicknamed Falcon, was murdered on Monday while campaigning for the right-wing Progressive Party in Madureira, northern Rio, by masked shooters.

His execution-style slaying remains unsolved but Brazilian analysts and media quickly linked it to militia activity. De Souza, who headed one of Rio's biggest and richest carnival samba schools, was also a police officer and had been cleared of militia-related charges back in 2011.

Another candidate for municipal government – Jose Ricardo Guimaraes, who headed a private security firm – was shot dead the previous day at a rally in Itaborai, also in metropolitan Rio.

They were among 15 candidates or politicians murdered in and around Rio over the last 10 months, according to police.

"We're seeing a series of murders in northern Rio suburbs that are a new phenomenon and everything points to a link with political conflicts," said Michel Misse, an expert in security at Rio Federal University.

Militia 'taxes'?

While Brazil's bloody drugs gangs are well known, the militias have a far more shadowy presence.

Comprised of former or rogue police officers, the militias operate like death squads against criminals and run protection rackets.

While their main activity has been in battling gangs, the militias have also long tried to extend their influence into the political sphere. Those efforts now appear to be evolving into a new strategy.

Leading newspaper O Globo reported on Wednesday that Rio militias were seizing Sunday's elections as a way to expand business while influencing the vote.

Gangs have informed candidates that they must pay an "election tax" in order to campaign, with fees running from 15 000 to 120 000 reais ($4,600 to $37,000).

According to Globo's investigation, militias even deal with candidates concerning the distribution of future posts should a candidate win an election.

The militias have abandoned putting up their own candidates for election, a direct approach that previously ended in scandal and prosecutions, Globo quoted the head homicide detective for the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio as saying.

"They have learned," said senior investigator Giniton Lages. Instead, the militias "get close to the government and support it."

In an apparent illustration of this militia-style politicking, a group of 30 men burst into a newspaper distribution facility in Niteroi, outside Rio, on Tuesday to stop circulation of two dailies that were publishing a report on a candidate from the centre-right PMDB party.

"The situation is very complex. We know very little about these underground relationships," said Alba Zaluar, an anthropologist at Rio State University.

"There's no serious policy of investigating public security."



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