Celso Augusto Daniel, a popular mayor, was returning home from dinner with a friend late on Friday, Jan. 18, when armed men pulled him from his bullet-proof vehicle and whisked him away. Two days later, his bullet-ridden body was found on a dirt road, 50 miles from the center of Sao Paulo.
In a country where organized crime groups make millions of dollars through abductions, cargo theft, and drug dealing - and petty crime is rampant - such scenes are sadly commonplace. But there is mounting evidence suggesting that the crime could have been politically motivated - a throwback to an era when government opponents were routinely targeted by right-wing death squads.
Mr. Daniel, a popular Workers Party (PT) mayor for the Sao Paulo suburb of Santo Andre, was a top political adviser to PT presidential candidate Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, who ranks favorably in the polls for next October's elections. Daniel is the second PT leader killed since September, and the 11th party member to be shot dead in three years. Last week, three other PT members received death threats.
"The truth is that no one feels safe these days," said Mr. da Silva, who goes by the name Lula. "We don't know if we are going to be assaulted at 7 in the morning, at 7 at night, at midday or at midnight. It is something that leaves every man and woman scared and afraid."
If the murders and threats are connected, and intended to intimidate Workers Party candidates, analysts say the threats may have the opposite effect next October. Although the PT has done well in recent elections, taking control of several important states and cities, the party has been unable to convince voters it can be trusted with the presidency. Lula has finished second in the last three presidential elections.
If the killings and kidnappings continue, "then the PT would benefit from it," says David Fleischer, a political scientist and author of Brazil Focus, a weekly political journal. "It could cause a positive backlash in favor of the PT candidate."
In a poll released yesterday by the polling company Ibope, published in Veja news magazine, Lula led with 28 percent of public support.
So far, no one has claimed credit for Daniel's killing. But Saturday, police arrested a fellow officer whose home computer allegedly had been used to e-mail death threats to 19 PT politicians in September. The e-mails were signed in the name of FARB, the Brazilian Revolutionary Action Front, a previously unknown group that claimed responsi- bility for the Sept. 10 murder of another PT mayor, Antonio da Costa Santos, from the Campinas municipality, 40 miles from Sao Paulo. …