Brazil, What Now? An Execution in Rio

Image: Jean Wyllys.

What do you do when a superficially random killing can be read as a warning to you and a lot of people in your political circle? And not just them, but your family members and friends as well. What is, at first sight, random terror then becomes something close to total terror.

Early on Thursday morning, 5 October, four orthopedic surgeons from São Paolo who were attending a conference in the upmarket neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro were about to leave a nearby beachfront eatery called Nana 2 when three black-clad gunmen leaped from a white SUV and opened fire, thirty-three rounds in thirty seconds. Three of the four doctors, Diego Ralf Bomfin, Marcos de Andrade Corsato, and Perseo Ribeiro Almeida died in the attack and a fourth, Daniel Sonnewend was injured. There was no robbery. It was so shocking, that the question “why?” overshadows the one of how this awful tragedy must be affecting all the families, friends, colleagues, and patients of the victims, and how to support them. In this kind of murder, the victims and everyone around them are just pieces in a game, disposable lives in a dark cause. And the cause must be identified as well as the killers if the masterminds are to be found. When the stakes are high, the killers are also disposable, for the sake of the dark cause whose leaders keep killing, for they are serial killers.

It was a professional job and, given Rio’s reputation for violence or what has been called its political economy of death, questions were immediately raised about the motives. This is where city councillor Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes were shot and killed in March 2018. The bullets used in the killing came from a lot sold to Brasília military police in 2006, which has also been linked with the massacre of seventeen people in the working-class areas of Barueri and Osasco in metropolitan São Paulo. The drive-by murder of Franco and Gomes is yet to be solved. Or maybe it has already been solved, and the law of omertà applies as, for one thing, investigations have veered a bit too close to the Bolsonaro family. Rio’s militias, which go back to the 1980s, may have grown from supposed attempts of ex-cops and military men to combat petty crime and high-level drug trafficking in the neighborhoods but they soon found it was good business because they could charge for protection, transport, gas and electricity, Internet, lodgings, as well as taking over the criminal activities themselves. They now control about ten percent of the metropolitan area of Rio, which means that they must have their own protectors, so the chain of command reaches very high.

It’s not so easy to kill a public figure who has some form of state protection, and who is always cautious. But for trained militiamen, killing that person’s brother and his friends when they’re relaxing together near the sea is relatively easy, and the message is even more potent because the circle of fear spreads much more widely. You can be an orthopedic surgeon at a conference, but your professional or apolitical status won’t save you from being riddled with bullets when the executioners want to send a message to your sister, your brother-in-law, and what they represent in terms of being a nuisance for other projects of drug dealing, arms peddling, power brokering, and everyday terror. It would also be a show to demonstrate that brute force is still alive and well after last year’s electoral defeat of the far right, this time using left-wing politicians, human rights activists, and their families as pawns in the spiral of fear game.

Diego Ralf Bomfim, was the brother of federal congresswoman Sâmia Bomfim, who reported receiving death threats last year, and brother-in-law of her husband, congressman Glauber Braga, both from Marielle Franco’s party PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party). It’s probably not coincidental that Marielle’s sister Anielle Franco, now Minister of Racial Equality, has also recently received death threats and hate messages of the type, “Piranha … I hope she meets the same end as her sister … dirty cow … black rubbish”. It’s quite possible that all these scenarios are interconnected by high-ups, still more or less undisturbed in structures created for them by the former Bolsonaro government and its official institution, the Hate Cabinet. These structures may have disappeared in name, but they haven’t been dismantled with Lula’s election victory last year.

That is one reading of the crime. But there is another one, which is also political and just as terrifying because, in some ways, the two readings are interconnected because it is very difficult to disentangle the interests of militia gangs and those of the rich and powerful. The mainstream newspaper Folha de Sāo Paolo gave an early explanation of the Barra da Tijuca killings, speculating that Perseo Almeida might been mistaken, because of a close physical resemblance, for a member of a rival gang, who has been linked (in investigations at least) with a Marielle Franco murder suspect, former military police officer Adriano da Nóbrega (whose mother and wife were staffers in the office of Jair Bolsonaro’s son Flavio, in the Rio de Janeiro state legislature). The thesis that a Comando Vermelho (CV – Red Command) informant got “confused” and reported the presence of “gang members” in the eatery gained traction in the media when the doctors’ killers were found dead just two days later. According to the police, the CV, which judged and punished their error with a death sentence, notified them and the press of this summary trial.

CV, now with some 30,000 members and with operations extending to the Amazon and outside the country, for example with the Colombian guerrilla group FARC in the cocaine trade, began in the late 1970s as a prison alliance between common criminals and leftwing guerrillas. Its name, Red Command, was given by the prison guards but as the gang expanded its control of the favelas and the military dictatorship ended, nothing leftwing was left but the name. Its power is such that, as Benjamin Lessing writes, the CV has for a long time, “systematically engaged the state in armed confrontation”. A recent report by The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project ACLED notes that, as a result, “Clashes involving state forces account for a disproportionately large share of reported fatalities.

In this article, Jean Wyllys is writing about himself in the third person because the subject concerns him personally, as someone very close to the events, but he’s also analyzing the issues as a political observer and journalist, in this case writing from part of the inside of a terrible occurrence. Nearly five years ago, Wyllys, three times elected and Brazil’s first openly gay congressman, former PSOL member, and friend of Marielle Franco, had to renounce his seat and go into exile after receiving many death threats and having to live with a permanent police escort after this murder. As with Marielle, besides racism, homophobia was prominent in the attacks. Wyllys was advised by Pepe Mújica the former president of Uruguay (who was tortured and imprisoned in solitary at the bottom of a well for fourteen years by the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s), “Look after yourself, lad. Martyrs aren’t heroes”. But, for Wyllys, there was more to it than that: “I’m scared because the president’s son has employed in his office the mother and wife of a hitman. The president has always openly defamed me, insulted me, and used homophobia against me. I’m not safe in this milieu.” It’s not difficult to imagine how much a man who is so unsure of his virility that he adores Putin’s masculinity shows, sleeps with his guns, and declares himself to be the imbroxavel (never-fails-sexually) “macho of all machos”, must hate a gay man who has the courage of his convictions.

After his yearned-for return from exile, Wyllys has found that the milieu hasn’t changed much. He and another former exile, philosopher, artist, and writer Marcia Tiburi, another former member of PSOL, and candidate for governor of Rio de Janeiro who also received death threats, are now launching their book O que nāo se pode dizer: experiências do exílio which, in the form of letters to and from each other, is an attempt to understand a politics that entails a risk to life and the fears and anger associated with that, especially for those who express disagreement with, and try to combat the political, economic, social, moral, and religious interests of fundamentalist antidemocrats. The launch was programmed in Rio de Janeiro right at the time the doctors were murdered.

Knowing what he knows about other places, about how rights defenders are eliminated everywhere, and, of course, being right in the thick of the concocted hate that is seething in Brazil, Jean Wyllys is well aware of the risks to himself and is able to connect the dots leading to the milieu of the people who killed the doctors, and also connecting him, Marcia, Marielle, Anderson, Anielle, Sâmia, Glauber, PSOL, gay rights, human rights, land rights, and much more. Whatever, the motives for killing doctors, the general climate of violence and impunity, the symbiotic relationship between state and militia armed forces, and the powerful interests that are, backstage, moving the strings of violence, Wyllys knows he has implacable enemies and that Rio de Janeiro with its lawlessness is one of the least safe cities in Brazil. Echoing Pepe Mújica, his friends begged him to cancel the launches.

His answer, about very close-up threats and natural fear is a reflection on how, in this particular case, to respond to the pervasive milieu of fear and hate everywhere. Good ethics can be very strengthening.

At first we thought about cancelling the launches, but we understand that if we do that it means attracting the whole story to ourselves. The press will say we cancelled because of the killings, and we’ll then be dragged into this terrible, negative story against our wills. And we have our own bad story. Yet we’re somehow related with these killings because we’re on the left. This is an attack against the left but, at the same time, we’re not directly connected with it. So, we think it’s better for us to go ahead with the events, with all the security we’ve been given [from the state protection service]. We mustn’t be propagators of fear, and we need to show that we’re leaving that behind us. We’re leaving this situation of victim. We’re not going to embrace victimism, which is exactly what the right wants us to do. Then they’ll say that we’re using this tragedy for our own benefit. It’s a really complex situation and difficult to deal with but we still think we should go ahead, with a lower profile maybe, and without attracting these terrible murders as a personal thing to ourselves. We feel we have to do our job, even with this complex mix of many things, and dealing with fear, which we mustn’t give in to. We’re both well-known figures and if we succumb to this fear, we’re giving out a message to the public, from our positions, that we’re afraid, and we’re somehow ducking behind privilege and passively authorising the use of fear against people. If, by contrast, we deal with our fear and continue with these events which are about a book that talks about the experience of exile, and is, in principle, unrelated with this tragedy, we think it’s the right thing to do.

The “right thing to do” is one of the big questions that Lula’s government must now either act on or ignore (and thus nurture with impunity the dangerous status quo). How can a person feel safe in a city if he or she can be mistaken as a member of a criminal organization and executed, with friends, when relaxing in a seaside bar, as just one, or a few more victims that disappear in the annals of vicious turf wars that mostly escape serious official investigation? How is it possible to speak of the rule of law in Brazil (and especially in Rio de Janeiro), when criminal organizations act as a parallel state? How can it be that these groups act more swiftly than the state, meting out the death penalty among its rulings, in a country where the death penalty has been officially abolished since the nineteenth century? And what about the role of tolerated, not to say cossetted, organizations constantly beaming out fake news and lies, when manipulated reports and photos can confuse informants of criminal organizations when identifying targets, as well as simply and directly targeting people for ethnic, sexual, religious, or ideological reasons that have been blown up into some or other false scandal?

Wyllys and Tiburi both know that the painful experience of their exile, what it meant to them, and where it came from are somehow connected to the killings of the doctors, but they’re clear that the connections must be made on their terms and not those of the propagators of terror. They’re well aware that they aren’t up against individual hatred but something that is ideologically molded to become a cultivated, normalized, collective phenomenon and, as Caroline Emcke writes in Against Hate, “all those who interpret it as a spontaneous or individual phenomenon are unwittingly helping to keep it fed” (xvi). Wyllys and Tiburi have refused to adopt hate and fear for themselves. “Those who answer hate with hate have already allowed it to deform them, already come closer to what the haters want them to be. Because hatred can only be contested with what the haters lack: careful observations, unstinting precise distinctions, and self-doubt” (xvii). And this is how both of them have always tried to contest hate.

If Lula’s present government fails to follow their example, hate will continue to thrive in Brazil. And there will be a lot more murders because that’s how hate tries to assert itself.