A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.
On May 10, Brazilian federal police launched Operação Bravata ("Operation Intimidation"), a crackdown focused on hate crimes, threats, incitements made online, and suspected terrorist activities. The central target was a man named Marcelo Valle Silveira Mello, who was detained by police in his house in Curitiba, the capital city of the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. He was indicted for the crime of racism—yes, that can be illegal in Brazil—incitation of violence, terrorist threats, and death threats, particularly against women.
While Mello expressed virulent misogynist sentiments and called for violence against women in general, he appeared to single out Dolores Aronovich, a professor at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC) and the publisher of the feminist blog Escreva, Lola, Escreva. Aronovich said she received death threats from Mello and his counterparts for five years between 2013 and 2018. During that period, she said, she filed countless police reports and thousands of screenshots that registered his aggressive behaviors and threats towards her husband.
Mello’s most serious move against Aronovich seems to have occurred in 2015, when he created a domain with her name and posted in favor of things such as male infanticide and burning bibles, in addition to making allegations that she’d given one of her students an abortion in a UFC classroom. “Mello did those things because he blatantly hoped I’d be recognized by the public and eventually get lynched or assaulted,” she said.
Mello’s behavior is just one part of the long, horrible tradition of men seizing upon the internet as the ideal outlet through which to promote hatred and violence toward women. Sometimes these men still live with their parents, or have past personal frustrations. They often act as if they’re entitled to something they feel they deserve—high-paying jobs or sex with beautiful women, for instance.
Online forums, in particular, have given rise to incel, a wannabe subculture in which men blame women for their inability to get laid, fostering toxic misogyny and vehement anti-feminism; many men who identify as incels often wish violence and rape upon women. These desires aren’t necessarily hollow: Alek Minassian, the man accused of the Toronto van attack on April 23 that killed ten people, warned of an “Incel Rebellion” in a Facebook post the day of the attack. And while Mello never explicitly identified as an incel himself, his dogma certainly appeared consistent with the worldview. He’s called upon men who felt they were largely ignored or passed over by women to respond with force and violence, and argued in now-deleted forum posts that rape is a man’s right in response to female rejection or “being friend-zoned.”
Aronovich was not assaulted or threatened by Mello or his supporters in person, but the personal attacks did not relent either. “You see, most people are cowards," she said. "I’ve been threatened during lectures I made. But no one confronted me directly, even when there were disagreements. I always felt welcomed.” In 2015, after Mello had created the page about Aronovich and hundreds of other sites to disseminate hate and misogyny, he was approached by the crew of the Brazilian TV show Profissão Reporter. During the interaction, Mello denied attacking Aronovich, appeared to attempt to assault the show’s cameramen, and claimed that even if he was arrested he'd be out sooner than later.
Nonetheless, the harassment and the threats against Aronovich in 2015 led to one victory: the new law 13.642/2018, also known as “Lei Lola” (or “Lola’s Law”). Authored by federal representative Luizianne Line (from the Worker’s Party of the Brazilian state of Ceará), the law allows police to investigate cases of online misogyny and renders hate speech towards women illegal. It was effectively signed into law by President Michel Temer on April 3, 2018.
When we reached her, Aronovich was pleased that Mello had been taken into custody. She stressed that other women dealing with similar experiences shouldn’t give up. “I had no other option,” she said. “Even if I had chosen to drop the entire subject, they wouldn’t stop. The threats would never stop. I’m either the only feminist that many of these people have seen or I somehow managed to morph into a hatred icon. People think that it bothers me if they call me fat, but to me that’s not a threat. I’ve dealt with rape, death, and incriminatory threats. To me, that’s been the worst part… I hope this serves as an example to other people who have behaved like Mello and thought they wouldn’t be punished.”
"He blatantly hoped I’d be recognized by the public and eventually get lynched or assaulted."
The judge who sentenced Mello to be held in jail until his trial explained that he believed his confinement to be a matter of public safety due to his penchant for recidivism. In addition to Mello’s indictment, federal police were investigating those they believed may have acted in connection with him by confiscating their cell phones and computers.
These concerns seem warranted. Mello has an expansive history of toxic behavior on social media—making hateful declarations, harassing feminists, and writing racist and misogynistic comments on pages of all kinds—and is notorious in Brazil for that very reason. He was the first person in the country to face criminal charges for online racism in 2009, when he was sentenced to 14 months in jail for comments he had made on Orkut, a now-defunct social networking site operated by Google. His attorneys appealed the court's decision and claimed that Mello was mentally insane, and therefore unaware that his activities had constituted a crime. He was released early.
The police investigated Mello again in 2012 during Operação Intolerância ("Operation Intolerance"), their first attempt at cracking down on malicious trolls like Mello. At the time, Mello and his friend Emerson Eduardo Rodrigues Setim were running a website registered under the name “Silvio Koerich,” an opponent of Mello’s who ran in the same online circles. While Koerich may have shared some of the same misogynist sentiments as Mello, the two were known to disagree; the latter was more vehement and inflammatory in his prejudices. In an attempt to frame Koerich, the site featured hateful and shocking posts about Jews, black people, women, the LGBTQ community, and residents of northeastern Brazil, which is home to a larger population of Afro-Brazilian and indigenous peoples, many of whom fall on the political left. The site also openly supported Wellington Menezes de Oliveira, the man who in 2011 killed 12 children—ten of whom were girls —in a school shooting in Realengo, on the western outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. According to the federal police, there were also strong indications in private messages between Mello, Setim, and their cohorts that they were planning to attack students in the Social Science program at the University of Brasilia.
As a result, in 2013, both Mello and Setim were convicted of crime incitation against minorities, circulating child porn, and online racism. In Brazil, outspoken or demonstrated racism has been illegal since 1989, be it in the form of racial discrimination, defamation, or hate crimes. Both were sentenced to six and a half years in a regime semiaberto, or “semi-open prison,” which meant they were allowed to go out in public during the day but forced to sleep in the prison at night. But in 2015, their sentences were reduced and they were released early. While Setim was officially let go because of his status as a first-time offender and good behavior, the official reason for Mello's release remained unknown to the public.
“I can’t understand how someone who’s already been convicted for such crimes gets to keep doing the same things and isn’t immediately sent back to jail,” Aronovich remarked.
What's worse, during Operation Intolerance, the Brazilian federal police discovered evidence that Mello and Setim may have encouraged Oliveira to carry out the shooting on behalf of the misogynistic and child sex abuse cult they belonged to, Homini Sanctus (Latin for "Male Spirit"). Oliveira is believed to have been radicalized by way of the same online forums Mello and Setim frequented. According to federal police investigations conducted in 2012, Oliveira had taken to various online communities to vocalize his anger at having been bullied during his adolescence and his larger frustrations with society. Evidence showed that members of the forum urged Oliveira to take action in response, which is believed to have ultimately led to the shooting in Realengo.
Despite his past and well-known reputation for promoting prejudice, Mello continued wreaking havoc. In 2013, he created a popular misogyny forum called Dogolochan, a platform he and his followers used to openly share posts encouraging other men to rape women, practice child abuse, and harass feminists. In order to undermine the people who reported him, Mello would use their names to sign his hateful posts. For instance, the names “Silvio Koerich” and “Robson Otto Aguiar” names were used to register different domains and posts in an attempt to implicate them. News of his arrest helped cast public scrutiny onto Dogolochan and other forums like 55chan.
“We really can't pathologize these cases, but I honestly believe that Mello and his followers are mentally ill after all the absurd things they did,” Aronovich concluded. “The thing is, [violent] misogyny and racism aren’t just flaws. They’re crimes.”
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