RIO DE JANEIRO — On a recent Sunday morning here, a few hundred shirtless men wearing camo pants tucked into army boots got together to run in formation down the beach to Copacabana.
As they ran, with tourists and Brazilians alike gawking from the sand, they yelled “Cazuca,” the name of a young army sergeant killed in February during an armed robbery in western Rio.
Marcelo Soares Corrêa, a retired paratrooper and congressional candidate, led the men — all active or retired members of Brazil’s armed forces — in an anti-communist call-and-response: “Our flag will never be red!”
Corrêa is one of nearly 100 military veterans seeking office in Sunday’s national elections in Brazil. Nearly all of them are aligned with Jair Bolsonaro, the ultra-right wing, authoritarian presidential front-runner famous for a long history of sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks. And like Bolsonaro, military candidates such as Corrêa say their hard-line approach is needed to eradicate the twin problems afflicting Brazil: rampant political corruption and violent crime.
“The only good criminal is a dead criminal,” Corrêa told VICE News. “If you let the armed forces really get to work, they will completely eliminate the crime that has taken over the country.”
This turn toward militarism is setting off alarms bells in a country that emerged only 33 years ago from a military dictatorship notorious for torturing, disappearing, and exiling its opponents. Yet rather than run away from Brazil's ugly past, Bolsonaro and his allies have appropriated it as a symbol of better days. On the campaign trail, these soldiers turned politicians routinely and explicitly praise the military regime. Bolsonaro counts as a personal hero Colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra, who was found by Brazil’s National Truth Commission to have supervised the torture of more than 500 people during military rule.
Though Brazil has always had ultra-nationalist hardliners, what makes this year’s election different is that their rhetoric has much broader appeal.
“This nostalgia for military order is a response to both political corruption and urban violence,” said Bryan McCann, a historian at Georgetown University. “But it’s completely misplaced. The dictatorship was characterized by widespread corruption, and military enforcement, where it’s been tested within Brazil, has not been a successful constraint on urban violence.”
To many observers, Bolsonaro’s rise, whether he prevails in Sunday’s election or not, represents a deeper threat to a democracy made already fragile by a corrupt political establishment. Some even fear an outright military takeover — a possibility that, although unlikely, is not unreasonable: Bolsonaro’s vice-presidential running mate, a retired army general named Antonio Hamilton Mourão, has on at least two occasions said that a coup may be the only solution to Brazil’s problems.
In an interview with VICE News, Mourão insisted that he didn’t think a coup was necessary at this moment. But he didn’t discard the possibility. “If the country is the Titanic that’s sinking, will we, the military, behave like the orchestra? Will we start playing and go down with the country?” He said. “I think not.”