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Common crime or political murder?
IPS, José Pedro Martins
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A string of murders of mayors leads to concerns about increasing violence.

Brazilians were plunged into sadness and indignation on the morning of Jan. 20, a rainy Sunday, when the body of Santo André Mayor Celso Daniel was found in an empty lot beside railroad tracks in the industrial zone of São Paulo, the cradle of the country’s opposition union activity.

The mayor, one of the founders of the Workers Party (PT), had been kidnapped the night of Jan. 18, while returning home with a friend to Santo André, a community in the São Paulo metropolitan area. He had been shot eight times, mainly in the chest and face, giving weight to the hypothesis that his murder was a political crime.

It was also the latest in a string of recent attempts on the lives of PT leaders. PT Mayor Antônio da Costa Santos, of Campinas in São Paulo state, was murdered Sept. 10. Police have no suspects in the case.

After Santos’ murder, several PT mayors received a threatening letter signed by a group calling itself the Brazilian Revolutionary Action Front (FARB), which claimed responsibility for the slaying. Since then, PT mayors of several other São Paulo cities have been attacked.

On Nov. 11, masked men entered buildings owned by Mayor Airton Luíz Montanher of Ribeirão Corrente. The next day, unknown persons shot at the house of Catanduva Mayor Félix Sahão Junior; no one was injured. Also in November, a wooden cross was found in the doorway of the PT’s headquarters in the city of Bebedouro. Mayor Davi Peres Aguiar of Bebedouro had received a threatening letter.

On Nov. 28, Mayor Geraldo Cruz of Embu das Artes was slightly wounded when homemade bombs went off in his house. The home of his secretary of government, Paulo Giannini, was also attacked.

Daniel, an engineer and university professor, was coordinator of the governmental platform of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who is making a fourth run for the presidency (LP, Feb. 7, 2000). He was serving his third term as mayor of Santo André, where his administration was considered a model of citizen participation.

Rep. José Dirceu, president of the PT, called Daniel’s slaying a "political crime" and said there was a "conspiracy" against the opposition party.

The PT made spectacular gains in the municipal elections in 2000, especially in São Paulo state (LP, Nov. 27, 2000), where it won most of the mayoral seats in large cities, including the capital, which has a population of 10.4 million, and Guarulhos and Campinas, which have 1 million residents each.

Daniel was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote in Santo André, one of the country’s major industrial centers.

Although police investigators said that Daniel was kidnapped by common criminals, his captors made no ransom demand.

The murder prompted an immediate outcry against rising crime, especially in the large cities of São Paulo, the country’s largest and wealthiest state. According to public safety officials, 12 kidnappings were reported in São Paulo in 1996 and 18 in 1999. The figure rose to 63 in 2000 and 307 last year. In January, 37 kidnappings were reported.

Among those abducted in the second half of last year were Silvio Santos, owner of the Brazilian Television System (CBT), and Washington Olivetto, one of the country’s best-known publicists.

The case of Silvio Santos was solved quickly, and his kidnapper, Fernando Dutra Pinto, died in prison early this year under conditions that have never been determined. Olivetto is still being held.

São Paulo Mayor Marta Suplicy, also of the PT, asked the state government to take immediate steps to increase public safety. "First it was Silvio Santos and now the mayors; we’ve reached the limit," she said.

Leaders of other political parties also mourned Daniel’s death and called for immediate action. On the day the mayor’s body was found, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso made a televised statement expressing concern and calling for action.

On Jan. 21, Cardoso met with São Paulo state Gov. Geraldo Alckmín to discuss a stepped-up war on crime. Among the measures discussed were involving the Federal Police in investigations of certain crimes, increasing sentences for illegal possession of firearms from the current two years, and restrictions on inmates whose behavior could jeopardize prison security.

In the past several months, there have been a number of jailbreaks in São Paulo. In January, leaders of criminal gangs escaped by helicopter from a maximum-security prison in Guarulhos.

Some hard-line measures — including life sentences and calling out the army to fight crime — are also being discussed.

There is still no consensus on how to stem the crime wave in Brazil, which ranks among the top countries in Latin America in kidnappings and homicides (LP, July 24, 2000). In Campinas alone, 600 people were murdered in 2001.

Daniel’s murder seems to have brought the country to the breaking point. The next few months are likely to see an increase in calls for anti-crime measures. And if the murders of Santos and Daniel are proven to have been political assassinations, they will have repercussions in October’s presidential elections.



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