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Estado | An Atlas of Political Violence

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Source: Estadão.

By: Leonencio Nossa

Translation: C. Brayton

The Estado de S. Paulo expands its coverage beyond regional organized crime groups to explore the demography and geography of political violence as a national phenomenon.

The journalistic investigation presented in this special section shows that Brazilian politics, in the small towns and big cities, remain subject to violence. At least 1,133 murders have taken place in the lower echelons of the political pyramid in the last 34 years — an average of one murder every 11 days.

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Over the last 17 months, I studied homicide cases in the high courts of various states, in the archives of human rights groups, in the files of parliamentary inquiries (CPIs), in police precincts and registry offices. I traveled through 14 states, where I talked with the families of victims, attorneys, police precinct captains and politicians.

This long-form article raises a list of crimes provoked by the dispute for political power. These are executions committed to guarantee space in the public political machine, to avenge the killing of an ally or to do away with witnesses. I chose to select only those cases in which there were no divergences between different accounts of the same event, as to authorship and motives.

In order to create an X-ray of politics Brazilian style, I begin my count with a killing committed on August 28, 1979 — the Amnesty Law had just taken effect, which made it easier to access public institutions — and looked at cases that had occurred prior to the end of August. I chose the Amnesty Law as a fitting point of departure for my work and the contemporary reality it pretended to document.

On the very first day the law went into effect, city council member Joaquim Eleutério da Paixão, of São João do Piauí (PI), was killed by mayor Raimundo de Souza, both members of the pro-regime ARENA party, as police mentioned at the time. Some  240 km distant and three decades later, in Pio IX, another city in Piauí, a cowboy found a hand protruding from the ground. The date was February 5, 2013, It was the body of Emídio Reis (PMDB), a former council member in  São Julião who had been buried alive by the vice-mayor Francimar Pereira (PP), according to police.

Bloody power disputes were not limited to Piauí of the former Minister of Justice Petrônio Portella (1925-1980), one of the drafters of the Amnesty Law. The law dealt with all political actors, from mayors and legislators and including aides, family members, friends and allies. The death count hit 200 city council members and even a Senator, Olavo Pires (PTB-RO), executed with 40 gun shots on October 16, 1990 after the first round of voting for the governorship of Rondônia, in which he received a majority of the votes.

Alert. The violence that prospers in the shadows of democracy is not monitored. A report by the elections authority detected a mere 100 politically motivated deaths since 1979. In my study, 13 persons were murdered in political disputes in that year alone. In 2012, there were 91 deaths, the most in three decades. 

Clearly, the list presented here is subject to question. My journalistic objective is not to compensate for the lack of an official tally or establish criteria for such a tally. My proposed task is to alert the reader and foment a public, transparent debate on the topic, as befitting a democracy. 

Interactive map of political violence over three decades. Source: OESP

Interactive map of political violence over three decades. Source: OESP

Not only in the backlands. In the course of my investigation, I heard lawmakers say, in the corridors of the Congress, that political violence is limited to underdeveloped regions of Brazil. It is true that the last murder committed inside the Congress took place in 1963, when the senator for Alagoas Arnon de Mello — father of ex-president Fernando Collor de Mello — pulled the trigger against his fellow Alagoan Silvestre Péricles and wound up killing José Kairala of Acre, who had nothing to do with the dispute. But those who analyze cases of violence related to political disputes note connection between local conflicts far from Brasília and the nucleus of political power. There is no such thing as two systems, unrelated.

Aides to politicians in Brasilia and the state capitals were irritated by my request to explain crimes committed by allies of their bosses in the interior, alleging that national and state leaders are not responsible for such occurences. During elections, however, these same leaders show no concern about associating their image with controversial figures suspected of murder. 

I determined that violence prospers in the complicity of the broad political value chain. The effort to bar investigations paves the way for impunity. Party leadership closes their eyes to local disorder. Governors often persecute the police officials and prosecutors assigned to bring criminal charges. 

Although the killing related in this special section results from the dispute for power, political crimes are rarely ideological in nature. 

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