One afternoon in late 1987, Jaime Pardo Leal, the most prominent leader of the leftist Patriotic Union (UP) party, was shot dead in his car some 50 kilometers east of Bogotá. The circumstances surrounding the murder were powerfully captured in the pages of Colombian weekly, Semana:
Jaime Pardo Leal knew they were going to kill him. His family knew they were going to kill him. The Patriotic Union knew they were going to kill him. Journalists knew they were going to kill him. The whole country knew they were going to kill him. And finally, they killed him. It was 3:45 p.m. on Sunday, October 11.
Everyone knew Jaime Pardo Leal was going to be killed because he was trying to achieve something that in Colombia, at that moment, could not be allowed to succeed: the construction of a legitimate, popular, unarmed form of left-wing politics. Recent developments in Brazil offer eerie echoes of this scenario.
A few months before Leal’s death, an uneasy ceasefire between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC) guerrilla group and the government had broken down, as skirmishes escalated in the countryside. The decade had seen a steady rise in both political and criminal violence, with the differences between the two increasingly difficult to discern. Smaller guerrilla groups continued their own armed insurgencies, while increasingly powerful drug cartels sought to expand their operations and resist extradition to the United States using all means possible, from industrial-scale corruption to urban terrorism. Paramilitary groups, with links to both cartels and the armed forces, rampaged in the countryside, purportedly to protect landowners from the guerrillas, though also targeting inconvenient civilians in their dirty war.
For decades, Colombian politics had been dominated by a Liberal-Conservative duopoly. It was in this context that in 1985 the Patriotic Union was established as an attempt to create a genuine electoral left. It brought together groups who had never been involved in the armed struggle, like trade unionists and urban intellectuals, along with former FARC members.
The FARC itself did not demobilize, as this was not a stipulation of the ceasefire. Despite evident political and tactical differences between the UP and FARC, there was continual suspicion—fanned by the mainstream parties and the media—that the UP was simply a front for the guerrillas. Leal overcame these difficult circumstances to come third in the 1986 presidential elections, with some five percent of the vote—a record for a leftist party.
However, over the next five years over 3,000 UP members and candidates were assassinated. This included Leal’s successor Bernardo Jaramillo, shortly before he could stand in the 1990 elections. The party was literally exterminated. While the individual gunmen who committed the murders were often caught, the drug traffickers and paramilitaries who had ordered them were never brought to justice.
These dynamics demonstrate that when violence in political life becomes normalized, and mainstream politicians treat the electoral left as illegitimate or suspect, violent parastatal actors are emboldened to commit mass murder with de facto impunity. Under conditions of weak state governance over much of the national territory during the 1980s and ‘90s, Colombia’s Conservative and Liberal governments played such a role largely by omission rather than active promotion. It suited the duopoly and economic elites to ensure the space of politics remained foreclosed to the Left. Even if they were not actively involved in the violence, little was done to prevent state or private sector actors from collaborating with paramilitaries on an ad hoc basis.
This changed in 2002 with the election of hardline right-winger, Álvaro Uribe. Uribe came to power promising to put an end to leftist insurgency and open the country to business. Paramilitaries—with whom the president had long-standing associations—would play a key role in these efforts.
As journalist Dawn Paley explains in her book Drug War Capitalism, paramilitary violence is used not only against the organized left, but also as a means of pacifying unruly populations and regions to facilitate the penetration of capital. Uribe’s presidency saw a ramping up of paramilitary violence against trade unions and community leaders. This transferred the costs of the conflict onto the rural poor and drove massive internal displacement.
The ostensible demobilization of the paramilitary umbrella organization Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC) in 2006 amounted to little more than a process of corporate restructuring. As they downsized into smaller, more covert and more efficient organizations, these groups, paradoxically, became more systematically incorporated into the Colombian state.
Since the 2018 election of Uribe’s protégé Iván Duque, who is fiercely opposed to the 2016 peace deal struck between the FARC and the government, these groups have once again been emboldened, leading to a spike in violence against activists, community leaders, and former FARC combatants.
The Colombian case illustrates how mainstream political actors can cultivate conditions favorable to parastatal violence. But it also shows, somewhat counterintuitively, that this shocking political violence can emerge without any formal suspension of democratic processes.
Of course, Colombia has had to reckon with the aggravating factor of a bloody armed conflict. It is nonetheless significant that the all-but-extermination of left politics there occurred under a democracy with ostensibly stable institutions. It is often presumed that under formal democratic conditions, demands emanating from society will to some degree find expression in public debate and, ultimately, the political process. Paramilitary violence is designed precisely to prevent this from occurring.
As the Right has become resurgent across Latin America over the last few years—nowhere more so than Brazil—many have warned of potential military coups as the way elites will try to bypass democratic pressures. But they may be looking in the wrong place. The more immediate and plausible threat to democracy and open left politics comes from the building of parastatal apparatuses of violence.
Politics and Violence in Brazil
Around the same time that Colombia’s unarmed, democratic left was being smothered in its infancy, Brazil’s was beginning to flourish. After two decades of military rule, the growing mobilization of trade unions, social movements, and emergent leftist political parties over the course of the 1980s placed increasing pressure on the country’s Junta to relinquish power.
Free elections to the legislature were held in 1986, a progressive constitution was passed in 1988, and the first direct presidential elections were held in 1989. Fernando Collor de Melo the little-known governor of Alagoas and scion of a rural oligarchy, narrowly defeated Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers Party (PT) in a campaign defined by relentless red scare tactics against Lula in the media. However, unlike in Colombia, political violence was mostly absent from this process.
Over the course of the 1990s, although repeatedly unsuccessful on the national stage, the PT and other left-wing parties made inroads in municipal and state elections, often implementing radical reforms once in power. Meanwhile, social movements and trade unions continued to organize in creative tension with the electoral left, even as the PT drifted further to the center.
When the PT eventually achieved power nationally in 2003, they went about creating participatory forums in which grassroots movements could feed into the formulation of government policy. And crucially, they created an environment in which political violence against the Left would prompt vocal condemnation simultaneously within political institutions and from the streets.
Like in Colombia, violence has exploded in Brazil since the 1980s, particularly in the form of gang and police violence overwhelmingly affecting poor, black urban populations. In the countryside, violence by landowners against social movements and indigenous peoples is also a major issue. Nonetheless, the organizational strength of both social movements and political parties in Brazil and their symbiotic relationship have relatively successfully defended a space for leftist politics. Leftist proposals have found institutional expression in Brazil in a way that has never been possible in Colombia.
However, around the same time that the PT took power in the early 2000s a new force was emerging in Brazilian politics that now represents a serious threat to this state of affairs. Since the 1980s, Rio de Janeiro has been the site of bloody urban warfare as competing drug trafficking factions do battle over lucrative, territorialized markets.
During Brazil’s military dictatorship, Rio was the birthplace of police death squads, often financed by the mafias that, to this day, run Brazil’s illegal lottery, the Jogo do Bicho. These groups killed at least nine hundred people under the dictatorship. Following the transition to democracy they morphed into the organizations today known as militias.
The militias emerged as groups of off-duty and former police officers and firefighters who banded together to provide protection for favelas and other low-income communities from drug traffickers. Initially, they enjoyed significant support in these areas. But they soon began turning their territorial control into massive extortion networks, raking in millions by taxing the communities they claimed to protect and killing anyone who got in their way. As they grew, militias began to monopolize lucrative markets in favelas, for basic services such as the provision of gas, electricity, cable TV, informal vans and moto-taxis. More recently they have become engaged in land speculation via the age-old Brazilian practice of grilagem, or appropriating land with the use of falsified documents. In all of their operations, the militias’ profits ultimately rest upon their control of urban space.
When the militias were experiencing major growth in the early 2000s, then-Rio mayor César Maia positively compared the militias to Colombia’s AUC, and downplayed the threat they posed compared to the city’s drug trafficking factions. However, their huge profits and growing political influence were turning them into an even more insidious, albeit less visible, threat.
Organized crime including the bicheiros, militias, and traffickers is in fact the single biggest campaign contributor to Rio’s political class, ensuring that criminal interests remain deeply integrated into Rio’s political system. As leading militia scholar José Cláudio Souza Alves points out, the militia bloc “is not a parallel power. It is the government. The militias are formed by government agents themselves—assassins and militia members who are also representatives and city council members. Without this direct connection to the political system, there wouldn’t be militia activity to the extent that there is today.”
While claiming to confront crime and provide security for vulnerable communities in Rio, militias have become powerful mafias. They are deeply involved not only in extortion rackets, arms trafficking, and political corruption, but even in the drugs trade they originally arose to suppress. The militia epitomizes the contradiction at the heart of violence in Brazil: that the same forces claiming to provide order are those that play the most powerful role in reproducing violence and impunity.
The archetypical face of violence in Brazil, and especially Rio, is the black teenage gang-member wearing flip flops and clutching an assault rifle in a favela alleyway. In reality it should be a figure that is often mistakenly seen as the antithesis to this: an older, whiter, former policeman, living in comfort in a gated condominium. Despite appearances, this second figure carries the phone numbers of corrupt politicians and professional criminals on his phone, acting as an intermediary between these worlds. Meanwhile, he engages in mass murder in favelas to protect his rackets, while proclaiming that “bandido bom é bandido morto” (“the only good criminal is a dead one.”)
Bolsonaro and the Militias
If Rio’s criminal-political-security nexus has gradually “metastasized” over the last two decades, national Brazilian politics have recently come under a far more acute form of attack. Amid the economic crisis and corruption scandals engulfing much of the political class, far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro was able to ride to victory on a wave of popular anger.
During his almost three decades in obscurity as a deputy in Congress, Bolsonaro made frequent statements calling for violence against the Left. Back in the 1990s he declared that he was “favorable to torture” and that the country’s problems would only be solved “with a civil war, killing about thirty thousand”. He dedicated his vote in favor of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 to the notorious military regime torturer Colonel Brilhante Ustra, who had tortured Dilma herself when she was a political prisoner.
During the election campaign he joked about “machine-gunning PT supporters.” A few days before the second-round vote, live-streaming to a crowd of thousands of supporters on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista, he promised that once he came to power the country would see a “cleansing,” in which leftists would either have to “leave or go to prison.” “These red criminals will be banned from our homeland,” he cried.
This rhetoric occurred in the context of what, by Brazilian standards, was an unusually violent election year. In April, prior to his imprisonment on corruption charges, Lula’s campaign caravan was shot at in the southern state of Paraná, although no one was hurt. The candidate for the mainstream right-wing Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), Geraldo Alckmin, stated that the PT was “reaping what it sowed,” blaming the party for increasing polarization.
In this poisonous atmosphere, PT supporters faced frequent attacks or worse during the election campaign. Shortly after Bolsonaro took office in January, federal deputy Jean Wyllys from the leftist Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSOL) went into voluntary exile, after receiving numerous threats of violence. Wyllys’ announcement was met with taunts by Bolsonaro on Twitter.
Of course, Bolsonaro himself also survived an assassination attempt during the 2018 election campaign. All evidence suggests that the individual responsible, who had at one time been a member of PSOL, had severe mental problems and was acting alone. However, the incident has been used by the president’s team to insinuate a leftist conspiracy against him. In reality, political violence and the rhetoric promoting it have come almost entirely from the Right.
The most ominous recent example of political violence has clear parallels with Colombia in its blurring of boundaries between political and criminal, state, and non-state violence. On March 14, 2018, Marielle Franco, a PSOL city councilor in Rio de Janeiro and figurehead in the struggle against police violence in the city, was brutally murdered, along with her driver, Anderson Gomes. In December 2018, police uncovered a plot to kill Marcelo Freixo, Marielle’s political mentor (twice runner-up in Rio’s mayoral elections and now a federal deputy for PSOL).
In both cases, militias are thought to be responsible. PSOL, which broke away from the PT in 2004, today occupies the far left of Brazil’s party-political spectrum, making it a prime target of Bolsonaro’s anti-left rhetoric. At the same time, its strong presence in Rio de Janeiro and consistent opposition to militias in the city have made it a target of extra-political intimidation and violence. As revelations about Marielle’s murder have slowly emerged, it has become increasingly difficult to identify where the first phenomenon ends and the second begins.
In addition to his expressed support for the military regime, Bolsonaro has also defended paramilitary groups on the record. In 2003, he declared his support for a notorious death squad in the state of Bahia, saying “as long as the state doesn’t have the courage to adopt the death sentence, the crime of extermination, in my understanding, is very welcome.” In 2007, Marcelo Freixo led the campaign for an official enquiry into Rio’s militias, which offered the first proper glimpse into their massive scale and influence. Ever since—justifiably, as the recent plot against him shows—Freixo has had to remain under armed guard.
In a statement to Congress in 2008, Bolsonaro branded Freixo a “coward” for taking such precautions. In the same speech, he argued, “there are milicianos who have nothing to do with electricity, the sale of gas. [Rather] […] he has his own weapon; because he organizes the security in his community.”
Jair Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Flávio, in his former role as a state deputy in Rio, paid official tributes to known militia members and was the only deputy to vote against Freixo’s inquiry. Later he implied that judge Patricia Aciola, murdered in 2009 after convicting dozens of militia members, had brought it on herself by disrespecting police officers.
Recent revelations indicate that the links between the Bolsonaro family and militias go beyond just moral support. In January it emerged that Flávio, elected to the Senate in 2018, has likely laundered money through the bank account of his driver, a former police officer with strong militia who’s a close friend to Jair. Flávio also employed the mother and sister of the leader of a group of killers-for-hire known as the Office of Crime, who, in shocking twist, were named the main suspects in Marielle’s murder.
In the week marking the anniversary of her death, two men with connections to the Office of Crime were finally arrested for Franco’s murder. The suspected gunman, Ronnie Lessa, a retired military police officer, lives in the same gated condominium as the president in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca neighborhood. Élcio Vieira de Queiroz, accused of being the getaway driver, appears embracing Bolsonaro in a photo on his Facebook page. The script seems almost clumsily literal. In late May, the uncle of Michelle Bolsonaro, the president’s wife, was arrested along with six fellow police officers, accused of being a member of a militia in the capital Brasília that is responsible for grilagem, extortion, murder, and suspected drug trafficking.
None of this means that the Bolsonaros are directly and knowingly involved in the activities of militias. We will have to await further revelations to understand the exact nature of these relationships. However, it is clear that, to say the very least, their social circles overlap significantly. Perhaps more importantly, there is clear ideological affinity between them.
The Bolsonaros act as a political voice for militias, publicly mobilizing the moral justifications that militias use in the communities they dominate. This is, essentially, that “good guys” at the margins of the state—whether former police officers, off-duty fire fighters, private security contractors, or even armed “upstanding citizens”—should be empowered to defend themselves, by any means necessary, against criminals. If the state cannot uphold a monopoly of violence, the privatization of violence is to be defended, indeed celebrated.
This is best possible light in which militia ideology can be framed, and it is one that attracts significant popular appeal in Brazil. However, it glosses over the central fact that these groups make vast profits from markets in violence, illicit goods, and political corruption. The same mythology frames the rackets of the militias as simply making a few bucks in order to provide security against drug trafficking. However, militias are major players in Rio’s drug trade, often renting their territory out to dealers or participating directly trade. It frames militias as being the opposite of criminals, rather than being criminals themselves.
Following the 2008 inquiry, militias in Rio sought to change tactics and lower their public profile. A form of criminal organization that depends heavily on political corruption cannot afford to be in the newspapers every day. By contrast, the murder of Marielle and the plot against Freixo appear to show a growing boldness on the part of milicianos.
We can only speculate about the extent to which the increasingly antidemocratic and anti-leftist climate might have contributed to this. However, we should be deeply concerned that such groups apparently now feel confident they can assassinate high-profile leftists without facing justice.
As the Colombian example shows, such parastatal violence against politicians may not have had primarily ideological motivations. Though we don’t know all the details of Marielle’s murder, there’s a good chance it was related to specific financial interests that her activism was frustrating. Still, in a climate where much of the political class views leftists as an inconvenient presence, the constraints on private violence against them, whatever the motives, are significantly loosened.
The rightward turn that began in Brazil in 2014 has seen mainstream right and liberal voices play an important role in creating such a climate. They pushed a narrative of the PT, and to a lesser extent PSOL, as being illegitimate political actors, if not outright criminals. After they lost control of this process of radicalization, they downplayed the threat represented by Bolsonaro, presenting the Left as equally responsible for “polarization” and presenting a similar threat to democracy. We should give little heed to such voices, of course. While they may dislike Bolsonaro’s rhetorical excesses and murky connections, they are aligned with much of his program, in particular his ultra-liberal economic agenda.
However, there is one sense in which Bolsonaro’s mainstream enablers may be right. The president does not appear to present a significant threat to formal Brazilian democracy as a dictator-in-waiting. Instead, his true threat lies in the extent to which he is able to promote a parastatal form of authoritarianism that is already growing in the country. In this sense, we disagree with Perry Anderson’s view, in his otherwise excellent recent essay on Brazil, that Bolsonaro’s election does not present a rising risk of something akin to fascism emerging in Brazil.
We need to understand fascism not in terms of its mid-20th century European prototype, but in its contemporary Latin American guise. To properly identify the threat of violent authoritarianism in Brazil, we must look beyond both the state and popular mobilization, to the “para-state.”
Since the end of Brazil’s military regime, under conditions of formal democracy, this para-state has continued to kill poor young black men in Brazil’s urban peripheries and favelas in extraordinary numbers. To understand how, we must understand the two interrelated processes that makes such violence possible.
The first process occurs within the state, through the extensive impunity given to police to kill socially and racially criminalized suspects. Justice Minister Sérgio Moro’s shameful proposed crime bill further extends such impunity, for example by offering reduced sentences to police who can prove they were in a state of “excusable fear, surprise, or violent emotion” when they pulled the trigger. The second process comes from outside the state, as illegal armed groups like militias mobilize contacts within the police and politics to avoid investigation.
Although analytically different, these two processes may, empirically, refer to the very same individuals. Residents of favelas have long lived under such conditions of parastatal authoritarianism. What is different about the current moment is the possibility that such dynamics begin to systematically target political actors.
Post-Fascism in Brazil?
Bolsonaro’s ability to create such conditions, via both the political climate he can foster and through concrete legislation loosening restrictions on parastatal violence, is constrained. The Brazilian state is a large and highly complex federal structure, containing diverse cultures and competing interests. The fact that elements seeking to divert the investigations into Marielle’s murder have not been able to prevent the recent arrests is testament to this.
Brazil itself is also large and complex, and while conditions of violence and impunity are widespread, some of the factors that gave rise to the militia model are specific to Rio. Aside from this, Bolsonaro’s own personal authority has been undermined by the revelations about his militia links, corruption in his party, and his own clownish behavior.
In a recent book, the Italian historian Enzo Traverso uses the term “post-fascism” to define the new wave of right-wing movements transforming global politics, from Salvini to Trump. For Traverso, these movements differ substantially from classical fascism, most notably due to the lack of any real socialist or communist threat. In Europe for instance radical Islam has replaced the Left as the new right’s existential enemy.
However, it is impossible to understand and define such political tendencies without comparisons to classical fascism. Bolsonaro is perhaps the most extremist right-wing president elected in a major democracy in the postwar era. It is worth unpacking his politics in order to evaluate the potential evolution of the para-state in terms of the notion of post-fascism.
Bolsonaro’s own politics combines the anti-left bloodlust of Operation Condor with contemporary reactionary obsessions such as “globalism” and “cultural Marxism.” He makes no attempt to hide his authoritarianism and makes explicit his support for torture and extrajudicial killing. However, fascism cannot be reduced to the temperament of a particular leader. On the other hand, his aggressive anti-leftism makes Bolsonaro’s worldview more akin to classical fascism than perhaps any of his contemporaries.
As noted by Perry Anderson, while Bolsonaro may have risen to public prominence on the back of mass mobilizations against “corruption,” he does not have a mass movement behind him. His own party is a weak vehicle for a variety of parasitic and wingnut interests, several of whom he already appears to be falling out with. His hardcore supporters are more active on the internet than on the streets. Brazil’s elites rallied behind Bolsonaro during the election, but it remains to be seen how long they will persist with him, especially if he proves unable to pass the reforms they crave.
However, while Bolsonaro’s own ideology may closely resemble fascism, actually existing Bolsonarismo, with its eclectic and disorganized support base, does not. It is an ideology without a coherent program or organized foot soldiers. This does not mean it can’t deepen violent authoritarian practices in Brazil, as its ideological affinity and personal ties to the brutal agents of the para-state indicate. On the other hand, the militia also exist independently of Bolsonarismo, having their own political connections and networks of power. They will outlast Bolsonaro. The question is how much he will embolden them during his time in office.
In this respect, divisions within his own government may prove crucial. Although Bolsonaro has brought numerous senior military figures into his government, the armed forces appear politically-divided in their attitudes towards him, with some viewing the rebellious former army captain with contempt and distrust. They may share many of his diagnoses about Brazil’s current woes, but it’s reasonable to presume that many in the military would be hostile to Bolsonaro’s push to outsource the legitimate use of violence.
Whereas the president’s Manichean worldview envisions militias and upstanding armed citizens as auxiliaries of the state in the defense of the homeland, it is unlikely that the military, with its statist tradition and desire to safeguard its own reputation, would see the pursuit of order as being furthered by the arming of vigilantes and gangsters. At the same time, they are aware that they are in government thanks to Bolsonaro and must handle him with care.
It may be no exaggeration to say that, at present, Brazil’s most important political struggle is between the defenders of the state’s monopoly of violence and the advocates of parastatal authoritarianism. For those who remember the flowering of Brazil’s democratic left as the sun finally set on military rule, it is a deeply troubling state of affairs.
This piece was adapted as part of NACLA's collaboration with Jacobin.
Benjamin Fogel is a historian and contributing editor at Africa is a Country and Jacobin.
Matthew Aaron Richmond is visiting fellow at the Latin America and Caribbean Centre, London School of Economics, and research associate at the Centro de Estudos da Metrópole, University of São Paulo. He writes on urban inequality, housing, security, and politics, with a focus on Brazilian favelas and urban peripheries.