Right-wing militias on the loose

On Wednesday, a police team picked up two men from a luxury condominium by a lake in Brasilia. They also seized posters with photos of heavily-armed men in full military gear, calling for a military coup in Brazil. The suspects had sent a mail, titled “Death sentence to the traitors of the motherland”, to the country’s top judges.

“We call on the people to kill politicians, judges, prosecutors, Mayors, their advisers, relatives, and demons of all sorts in defence of themselves,” the mail said. For a year, judges have been receiving death threats from anonymous groups. A Supreme Court judge, Celso de Mello, said on Thursday the people behind the threats were “fascists” and “Bolsonaristas” — the fanatic followers of President Jair Bolsonaro.

Under Mr. Bolsonaro, the system of checks and balances between the institutions has been creaking as the far-right leader often projects the Supreme Court and Congress as his enemies. But the most vicious attacks on these institutions come from the Bolsonarista groups, which are hyper-active on social media, with a massive troll army crammed with fake accounts and bots. Their weapon of choice is fake news.

“Extreme right-wing groups work tirelessly to delegitimise the democratic institutions in Brazil. These groups make and distribute fake news as a way to take advantage of people's fears and vulnerabilities. As people hope for a solution and as a fix to the fears, they promote the narrative of pro-military intervention,” said David Nemer, an assistant professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, who tracks social media trends.

Since 2018, when Mr. Bolsonaro launched his presidential campaign, Brazil has been a laboratory of fake news and hate. Now, as his government fails completely to control the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread and multiple scandals land in the highest court, the Bolsonaristas are ramping up their hate machinery. Leading the pack is “300 of Brazil”, which is “inspired by the Battle of Thermopylae during the Persian Wars” and whose members appear in public in army fatigues. They have a clear agenda: “To make the Supreme Court judges understand, if necessary, coercively, that they are not demigods”.

A movement for Bolsonaro

Led by a 30-something woman called Sara Winter, who claims to have cut her teeth into “revolution” in Ukraine, “300” was created in a social media “live” event as the leader appeared with two notorious bloggers to create a “movement in support of Bolsonaro”. Using their strong social media presence, Winter and her fellow-travellers recently launched a campaign to raise money for “information war tactic training” to attack the judges and parliamentarians. They managed $12,000 in a matter of days.

But the “300” actions are not restricted to the virtual world. As Mr. Bolsonaro encourages weekend events in the capital to rally his supporters against the quarantine, the group has been setting up camps at various locations. After last Sunday’s gathering, where several “300” members were seen with weapons, an illegal act in Brazil, federal prosecutors called for action against the “armed militia”. But that hasn’t stopped the group from using their dog-whistle tactics to fire up the far-right base of Mr. Bolsonaro and try to subdue the opposition with online attacks. “Sara Winter's group is clearly fascist. It is a paramilitary group formed to intimidate the opposition, and, as she says, to exterminate the left from Brazil,” said Henry Bugalho, a popular Youtuber who analyses the Brazilian politics on his daily show. “They want to deny others any space in political debates.”

Such tendency, unfortunately, is flowing from the top. In a video, released to the public by the Supreme Court on Friday, Mr. Bolsonaro is seen attacking his opponents in a profanity-filled rant. The meeting, called to discuss measures to tackle the pandemic, turned into a hysterical show as the President launched an all-out attack on the Governors and Mayors who are taking quarantine measures to check the spread of the virus. “I am going to give arms to the people against this dictatorship of quarantine,” Mr. Bolsonaro is seen saying in the video.

Senator Randolfe Rodrigues said the video “shows the worst intentions of the President”. “He talks about arming everyone. He has already shown that he has direct relations with the criminal underworld. He has already shown that he wants to legalize the militias. He does not want to give arms to people; it is for militia groups, whom he wants to use for his ambitions,” said Mr. Rodrigues, the leader of the opposition.

(Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo)


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