(IPS) – Rio de Janeiro will be the most fiercely contested city in Brazil’s upcoming local elections, with an average of 25 candidates for every seat on its municipal councils, and dozens of poor neighbourhoods being militarised in order to prevent violence and allow candidates to campaign safely.
Close to 3,500 navy and army troops have occupied "favelas" (shanty towns) under the control of paramilitary militias — illegal armed groups usually headed by police or former police officers — or drug trafficking gangs.
The goal is to ensure that candidates in the electoral campaign can safely visit these areas.
The plan provides for the occupation of 27 favelas for three days, or according to requirements, until Oct. 26, when the second round of voting will take place if none of the candidates for mayor wins an absolute majority in the first round, on Oct. 5.
Opinion polls indicate that the elections are likely to go to a second round.
City councillor Andréa Gouveia Vieira, who belongs to the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and is seeking reelection, regards the elections as "illegitimate" because "nearly half the population lives in closed-off territories," where they cannot vote freely because of coercion by illegal armed groups.
An estimated 1.7 million people, 28 percent of Rio’s total population, live in favelas that are to some extent controlled by militias. The influence of the armed groups has resulted in the election of a number of city councillors and state lawmakers in previous years, demonstrating the militias’ political ambitions.
However, although previous governments have tolerated them, some of the militia leaders have been jailed since 2007, and the police and justice system have renewed the crackdown on paramilitary groups.
A case in point is that of the Guimaraes family, four of whose members have been arrested on charges of heading a militia calling itself the League of Justice.
The family splits its political loyalties three ways, favouring the governing Workers’ Party (PT) and two opposition parties. City councillor Jerónimo Guimaraes has been in prison since December 2007, and since then two of his children and his brother, state lawmaker Natalino Guimaraes, have also been jailed.
But his daughter Carmen Guimaraes, of the PT, who changed her surname to her father’s nickname Jerominho, continues to campaign for a seat on the local council from prison, where she has been since Aug. 29.
Another city councillor, Josinaldo da Cruz, known as Nadinho, who is regarded as the leader of the oldest militia, dating from the 1980s in the Rio das Pedras favela, was arrested for just one day on charges of ordering the murder of a policeman, allegedly his rival in the militia. Nadinho continues to be active in local politics.
In testimony before the parliamentary investigative committee set up to carry out a probe into the militias, at the Rio de Janeiro state parliament on Sept. 9, Nadinho revealed that three lawmakers had been elected with backing from the paramilitary groups.
If the allegation proves to be true, it would demonstrate the penetration of criminal activity at the highest echelons of the police. One of the national lawmakers accused, Marcelo Itagiba, was secretary of public security for the state of Rio de Janeiro, and another implicated legislator, Marina Magessi, is a former inspector in the civilian police and was chief of important police stations.
The third lawmaker named by Nadinho, Alvaro Lins, was the civil police chief for Rio de Janeiro state and was elected state legislator in 2006. However, he was expelled by his fellow parliamentarians later that year because of strong indications of his links with militias and other criminal gangs.
The military presence does not affect electoral conditions in Rio de Janeiro, as the armed forces protect candidates allowing them to campaign in the favelas for three days. Afterwards, though, the people are left at the mercy of organised crime, city councillor Gouveia Vieira told IPS.
People "are still constrained, and cannot even take advantage of the opportunity to talk (to candidates)" because of fear of reprisals, she said.
Nevertheless, the initiative of involving the armed forces is an important "first step", because it signifies "awareness among public institutions that the situation in these communities is serious and deserves special attention," she said.
These "territories must be liberated," the electoral authorities must block the candidacies of criminals, Congress must introduce legislation to that effect, and parties must reject candidates with "dirty backgrounds," Gouveia Vieira said.
If all else fails, she said, citizens will be exhorted "not to vote for those who are linked to the world of crime."
The presence of the armed forces has "symbolic importance" as a sign that "these elections will not follow the same logic" that has contaminated part of the police, the justice system, the market and personal relations in Rio de Janeiro, Silvia Ramos, the coordinator of the Centre for Studies on Public Security and Citizenship (CESeC) at the Cândido Mendes University, told IPS.
It is another blow against the militias, which are the main target because they have organised themselves in order to assume increasing political power, she said.
This is in addition to the losses they have already sustained by the imprisonment of several of their leaders and the determination of the present state government not to tolerate them, in contrast to the preceding state administration, she said.
The militias originally gained popular support as "the lesser evil" when compared to the drug traffickers. But they became more violent, imposing their business activities, such as selling cooking gas and running "protection" rackets, and terrorising the population, she said.
The results of the local elections will indicate whether the militias have lost support because of their increasingly violent behaviour, Ramos said.
According to Itamar Silva, the coordinator of the non-governmental Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses (IBASE), military occupation of the favelas "solves nothing" and is a problem for candidates who have to appear in public alongside the army.
The people cannot look on "tanks in the public square as a sign of freedom," he said.
In the meantime, candidates linked to the militias are campaigning from their prison cells, and carrying on their long-term plans to gain more power, which will not be affected by a military presence lasting two or three days, Silva said.
"The most perverse thing about this," he complained, "is that pitting an armed force, however legal, against irregular groups that are also armed, does not promote internal organisation of the community, but quite the reverse."
Wresting power from one militia leader in this way only opens the doors for another, instead of making way for "new community voices, which all end up being smothered," he said.