By Matthew Flynn
[The author writes for the International Weekly Edition of the Gazeta Mercantil, a Sao Paulo-based financial newspaper.]
The kidnapping and murder of Celso Augusto Daniel, a mayor from the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), has outraged Brazilians who are demanding that the government do more to curb pervasive violence. PT leaders also fear for their lives because an increasing number of death threats against party members are being carried out.
Public security has become the dominant issue in this election year, more so because the middle class feels it is a target of organized crime. As thousands filed past Daniel's coffin at Santo Andre's City Hall, crowds outside chanted "Justice! Justice!," and sang the national anthem. An estimated 50,000 people attended the emotional funeral.
Daniel, re-elected in 2000 with 70% of the vote, was serving his third term as mayor of Santo Andre, an industrial suburb of 650,000 people near Sao Paulo. As a rising star within the PT who was chosen to outline the party's political platform for this year's presidential elections, Daniel could have been the victim of a political assassination.
"We are not in a position to dismiss any hypothesis. We could be facing a political crime, revenge, or a common crime," said Saulo de Castro Abreu Filho, the Sao Paulo security secretary.
Daniel's bullet-ridden body was discovered on Jan. 20, less than two days after his kidnapping. No ransom or other demand had been made in exchange for the politician's life. The only witness to his kidnapping, friend and businessman Sergio Gomes da Silva, claimed that two cars stopped the vehicle in which he and Daniel were riding on their way home from eating out. Armed men opened the door of Silva's bulletproof car and forced the mayor to go with them.
Gomes' statement to the police is being questioned, however, and he is not free from suspicion. Three months ago, the PT leadership requested that Daniel cut his political ties to Gomes, who has been under investigation by the district attorney's office regarding unlawful public contracts awarded to his transportation and garbage-disposal companies. Daniel accepted the party's request but maintained his friendship.
Daniel had been receiving death threats for the past couple of months. In November, his office was bombed, but no one was injured. The police blamed taxi and bus drivers who had their licenses revoked by the city for the incident, but no arrests have been made.
Threats and violence growing against PT politicians
The murder of Daniel comes on the heels of another murder of a PT politician. On Sept. 10, 2001, Antonio da Costa Santos, mayor of Campinas, was gunned down on a highway. The police have not yet made any arrests in that case.
A report drawn up by the PT and handed to Justice Minister Aloysio Nunes Ferreira on Dec. 6 said there have been 12 assassinations, 15 attempted assassinations, and 52 death threats against PT members between 1998 and 2001.
"Since it first began to compete in elections in 1982, the Partido dos Trabalhadores' political-institutional representation keeps growing," read the text drawn up by the party's national secretariat on human rights. "PT militants, parliamentary members, mayors, and governors have always topped the list of victims of political violence."
"It's a desperate situation," said Geraldo Cruz, mayor of Embu, who has denounced fraud in the Embu city council, where 18 of the 19 council members were removed. "We don't know who wants to kill us."
The remaining Embu city-council member is from the PT. On Nov. 27, two bombs exploded, one at his house and another in his office. No one was hurt.
One group has claimed responsibility for the recent wave of attacks against the PT. In a written note, the Frente de Acao Revolucionaria Brasileira (FARB) said it targets leftist politicians who it says are moving toward the political center-right.
However, neither the Brazilian Federal Police nor the Civil Police believe that an ultraleftist group is killing members of the country's most popular opposition party. Rather, the leading hypothesis is that cartels and mafias within public administrations or associated with them through public contracts are behind the recent wave of terror.
"We need to defeat organized crime, which is infiltrating our institutions," said PT president Jose Dirceu.
Public security tops political issues
The issue of public security is likely to dominate this year's general election, with various parties offering a plan of action to deal with the violence in an effort to capture the vote of the country's besieged middle class.
"[The middle class] is defenseless," said Tulio Kaha, coordinator of the UN Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Criminals. "This class, unlike the rich, cannot afford armored cars or hire security to defend itself."
"I am beginning to feel afraid to live here. It's horrible," said Dayanne Mikevis, a student of journalism who lives in Sao Paulo. She admits that violence has always been a problem in Brazil, but now it has left the periphery and begun to target ordinary people.
Kidnappings have grown exponentially. In 1999, there were only 13 kidnappings in Greater Sao Paulo; last year there were 251. Homicide has also increased--from 15,000 registered in 1990 to 40,000 in 2001.
Brazil's law-abiding citizens and politicians fear that the country is becoming more like strife-ridden Colombia. The Economist news magazine reports that Sao Paulo is more dangerous than Colombia's capital Bogota.
"An emergency action plan is necessary, and in this case the president's leadership is crucial," said political scientist Fabio Wanderley Reis.
Blame for the crime wave has fallen on incumbents' shoulders, and political parties are drawing up strategies to deal with the issue.
Gov. Geraldo Alckmin of Sao Paulo state admits that part of the blame rests on his shoulders. "We need to act on the social question," said the governor, a member of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasiliera (PSDB).
One of Alckmin's ideas--to ban the use of pre-paid cellular phone service--was shot down by government ministers at the federal level. Alckmin claims that pre-paid cell phones, which do not require user registration, are instrumental in kidnappings and jailbreaks, including the spectacular helicopter escape from a maximum-security prison in Sao Paulo last month.
Alckmin is not the only politician feeling the heat. Three plans developed by the federal government have failed to make a dent in crime, and funding for anti-crime efforts is dropping. Last year, US$536 million was earmarked for public security, while this year the federal budget only allots US$495 million.
President Cardoso has made some minor reforms, such as giving the Federal Police permission to investigate kidnappings. But other politicians are calling for even greater reforms. Proposals include combining the civil and military police forces, which end up competing against one another; using public funds more efficiently; creating a database of crime locations; putting more police on the street; cutting red tape that prolongs investigations; and banning firearms.
Despite the increased politicking during an election year, there is also an increased commitment to make reforms. Breaking four years of no communication with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Cardoso called the PT presidential candidate the day after Daniel's abduction. Later, PT party leaders, including Lula, met with the president to discuss policy proposals.
"If changes in the law are necessary, we will be partners and help see that these changes happen," said Lula.
The PT, considered by voters to be honest administrators but soft on crime, is being pushed to draft a plan to combat organized crime. Not only the party's pledge to clean up corruption in government depends on it, but also its survival as Brazil's largest and most popular opposition party.…