RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - At the tender age of 26, Gabriel Monteiro gave up his dream of being a policeman to run for city councillor in the upcoming Brazilian municipal elections.
He saw politics as a better opportunity to spread his conservative ideas - such as increasing the use of force against criminals - than the country’s security forces, infamous for being some of the deadliest in the world.
Monteiro is one of a record number of former and current policemen or military officials running for office in municipal elections in mid-November. Observers say the trend is the result of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity, which is encouraging like-minds to enter politics.
When Monteiro hit the streets of Rio de Janeiro on his campaign, supporters at the event rushed to take selfies with the Youtuber, who has 5.7 million followers on social media. They seemed less interested in his policy proposals.
“I am tired of seeing scoundrels in the government and the police. As a soldier, I cannot get these guys out of there, but as a councilor I can have more oversight," Monteiro said.
There are some 6,750 candidates with law enforcement backgrounds on the ballot for the election on November 15, according to a VICE News tally using the Superior Electoral Court’s database - an increase of 12.5 percent over the last municipal elections in 2016.
The election of right-wing President Bolsonaro in 2018, a retired captain who has been dubbed the “Tropical Trump” and given speeches that praise Brazilian dictatorship torturers, has emboldened aspiring conservative candidates with a background in law enforcement.
"Two years ago, Bolsonaro was seen as a savior for burying Brazilian dictatorship issues and for returning the military prestige, investment and political power,” said Luiz Alexandre Costa, a sociologist and professor of military law at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “Many security officials were elected in 2018, which has increased their confidence of success in the election this year based just on the fact that they are military and represent, by common sense, order, security and honesty.”
On social media, Monteiro’s posts mimic the formula that got Bolsonaro, whom he admires, elected. He posts videos claiming that "a good bandit is a dead bandit," and denounces those whom he considers corrupt. He also posts media of himself practicing shooting his gun and wearing a police uniform.
But his reputation as a policeman is questionable. During his four years in service in Rio, he was expelled for desertion in August (although reinstated a week later) and was the focus of 16 disciplinary proceedings, which his lawyers considered illegal and a persecution, they told VICE News.
Like Monteiro, 87 percent of military candidates are linked to right-wing or center-
right parties, according to a recent report from the Forum on Public Safety, a think tank.
Military candidates conservative base accounts for 3.8 percent of the Brazilian electorate, about 18.5 million possible votes in a country of 147 million, says the report. Most candidates of this nature use similar strategies to win votes: they use Bolsonaro's image in campaign advertising, adopt a law-and-order rhetoric and use their military rank to bolster their image.
Captain Jorge Portella spent 30 years as a police officer before he decided to run for councilor in the city of Rio. Using his military rank with his name during the campaign, he has focused on promising to make schools safer, via a security protocol for teachers and students.
“The protocol teaches how to protect yourself during police operations near schools; preventing bullying; and what to do in case of snipers in schools. I want to prevent massacres like Columbine and the Brazilian case in Suzano ," he said to VICE News during his campaign.
Law and order rhetoric is attractive to Brazilians, but cities that elect police and military councilors tend to have double the number of homicides of non-white men, according to a study by the Brazilian Institute of Education and Research.
"When elected, military officers tend to use their connections with their battalions to favor their electoral basis - which for the most part leaves out the peripheries and black people," explained the author of the research, Lucas Novaes, a political scientist.
Some experts fear that the growth of law enforcement candidates could boost the influence of militias - unregulated armed groups formed by former police officers that position themselves as security alternatives against drug trafficking groups and other roots of violence.
Militias have a strong presence in the State of Rio de Janeiro, including lowland cities and the capital. They have some control in nearly 60 percent of the city of Rio, the second largest city in Brazil, according to a collaborative study made the University of São Paulo, Fluminense Federal University, the data lab Crossfire, and two reporting platforms, Disque-Denuncia and Pista News.
Militias carry out contract killings, traffic weapons, and extort the population, according to research, and one of these organized criminal groups is suspected of murdering Marielle Franco, in 2018, a left-wing councilwoman in Rio known for defending minorities.
This year, militias are supporting some candidates and prohibiting others from campaigning in their domain areas.
“Some law enforcement candidates who have no connection to the militia can propagate their ideologies of violence against opponents and criminals extermination,” said Alves.
“The militiamen aren’t seen as criminals, they are known as an arm of state law enforcement, like heroes and who were honored [by the Bolsonaro family].”
Rio’s police admitted in an email responding to a request for comment from VICE News that it has not been effective in fighting militias, but that the current state administration created a task force in an attempt to bring down their influence in local elections. In the last three weeks, several operations were carried out, resulting in the arrest and death of several militia members and in the shut down of illegal businesses.
If Monteiro and others like him are victorious in next week’s local elections, there could be implications for the whole country, said Alves.
“Military candidates' victory will increase their projection at all government levels and will be decisive for strengthening their political power in the 2022 presidential election."