Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel

The story of 8-year-old Ágatha Félix has moved Rio de Janeiro and the country as a whole. Last week, while sitting in the back of a van alongside her mother in a cluster of favelas known as Complexo do Alemão, in the north of Rio de Janeiro, Ágatha was shot in the back by an assault rifle. Eye-witness reports suggest the culprits were military police officers.

Ágatha was rushed to a nearby hospital but died of her injuries.

</p> <p>The response was explosive and immediate. Protests were organized all over the city, with demonstrators throwing red paint all over the steps of the Rio state legislative assembly, and NGO Rio da Paz placed 57 crosses outside of Aterro do Flamengo, each carrying the name of a child killed by stray bullets in Rio de Janeiro favelas since 2007.</p> <p>The response of the head of Rio&#8217;s military police, however, was not nearly as immediate. In fact, with the death of Ágatha dominating headlines in the press nationwide, far-right state governor Wilson Witzel remained in silence for a full three days. When he eventually opened his mouth, he managed to cause even more outrage.</p> <p>&#8220;Using a coffin as a soapbox is shameful, especially when it belongs to a child,&#8221; he declared. Immediately, Mr. Witzel&#8217;s opponents picked up on the glaring contradiction in the governor&#8217;s words. Since the beginning of his 2018 election campaign until today, Wilson Witzel&#8217;s entire platform has been built upon coffins.</p> <p>Last year, he was famously pictured at an electoral rally alongside a federal representative destroying a street sign in memorial of Marielle Franco, the socialist Rio councilor assassinated in March 2018.</p> <p>After a hostage situation in Rio de Janeiro last month, which culminated in a mentally disturbed bus hijacker being shot dead by law enforcement, Mr. Witzel flew directly to the crime scene in a helicopter, disembarking and celebrating as if he had scored a goal in the World Cup final—conveniently included in a live social media broadcast by his press team.</p> <p>Expanding on the death of Ágatha Félix, Mr. Witzel placed the blame on users of illicit drugs. &#8220;Anyone who smokes marijuana or snorts cocaine helped squeeze this trigger,&#8221; he declared. On social media, however, the hashtag &#8220;#It&#8217;sWitzel&#8217;sFault&#8221; hit the top of the trending topics on Twitter.</p> <h2>Who is Wilson Witzel?</h2> <p>In the 2018 election, a slew of fringe right-wing candidates was swept into office on the coattails of Jair Bolsonaro. However, Wilson Witzel is undoubtedly the best example of this phenomenon.</p> <p>A former Navy fusilier and federal judge, the 51-year-old Mr. Witzel—who cuts a figure somewhere between Lex Luthor and Phil Silvers&#8217; Sgt. Bilko—ran for the post of Rio de Janeiro governor representing the right-wing Social Christian Party. As an unknown figure in the state, he gathered a paltry 1 percent in early opinion polls, but shot up to third-place on the eve of the election after being endorsed by Flávio Bolsonaro, the eldest son of the president. Flávio himself is under investigation for links to urban militias in Rio de Janeiro, which are known for whipping up votes for their preferred candidates.</p> <p>In the first-round vote, Mr. Witzel embarrassed pollsters by winning an astonishing 41.28 percent of valid votes, over double the result of the second-placed Eduardo Paes. In the run-off election, he managed 59.87 percent.&nbsp;</p> <p>This dramatic turnaround spoke to the weight of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s influence in Brazil, but also the illogical disarray of Rio de Janeiro politics.</p> <h2>The politics of death</h2> <p>Rio de Janeiro is in the throes of a civil war, and Wilson Witzel is one of the commanders. While data from the Public Security Institute (ISP) shows that murders in the state have dropped 21.5 percent in the first eight months of 2019, the number of <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/05/28/violence-rio-de-janeiro-police-kills/">deaths caused by police operations has increased</a> 16.2 percent.</p> <p>1,249 people were killed by Rio de Janeiro police between January and August of this year, an average 5.2 deaths per day in a state of 16.7 million people. Five children have been killed this year due to stray bullets, either from the police or organized crime gangs.</p> <p>The paradox is while the state police are becoming more and more deadly, Wilson Witzel&#8217;s actual public security policy is incredibly vague, based more on rhetoric and photo opportunities than concrete actions. His discourse toward crime is centered around lethal punishment and the police&#8217;s license to mete it out at liberty.</p> <p>In his most famous declaration on <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/08/06/brazilian-violence-crisis-solvable/">crime in Rio de Janeiro</a>, as governor-elect, Mr. Witzel advocated for the &#8220;culling&#8221; of criminals. &#8220;The correct thing to do is to kill any criminals holding a rifle. The police will do what&#8217;s right, they will aim at the [criminals&#8217;] little heads and… fire!&#8221;</p> <p>In June, speaking of the notorious City of God favela (the setting of the eponymous 2002 Fernando Meirelles film), the Rio Governor declared he wanted to &#8220;send in a missile to blow up those people.&#8221;</p> <h2>Witzel&#8217;s heli-hell</h2> <p>A new phenomenon in Rio de Janeiro police operations in 2019 is the increased use of helicopters flying over favelas and <a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/04/12/80-bullets-structural-inequality/">shooting</a> at the communities below. In May of this year, Wilson Witzel accompanied law enforcement on one of these flyovers, which he filmed for his social media accounts.</p> <p>The police on board were shown opening fire on an isolated tent in the middle of a grass field. This turned out to be an Evangelical prayer tent which happened to be empty on the day of the operation.</p> <p>Helicopters spraying bullets are almost a daily occurrence in Rio de Janeiro slums—particularly over the areas of Maré and Complexo do Alemão, where Ágatha Félix was killed. The fear on the ground is such that schools have even taken to installing large signs on their roofs, warning police not to shoot in their direction.</p> <h2>From Rio to Brasilia</h2> <p>There is method behind Wilson Witzel&#8217;s necropolitics. For some time, it has become clear that the Rio de Janeiro governor has his eyes on the Brazilian presidency. By feeding the police&#8217;s deadly war on organized crime, he is gesturing to President Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s support base in Rio de Janeiro: the military police.</p> <p>His maneuvers led the president&#8217;s Social Liberal Party (PSL) to <a href="https://politica.estadao.com.br/blogs/coluna-do-estadao/cla-bolsonaro-teme-ver-psl-sob-wilson-witzel/">officially split with the Witzel administration</a> in Rio de Janeiro. By order of Jair Bolsonaro himself, PSL members were told to abandon the state government, or abandon the party, as remaining on Mr. Witzel&#8217;s side would mean &#8220;supporting a competitor in 2022.&#8221;</p> <p>The fear of competition has seen Jair Bolsonaro break with a number of past allies, who appear to offer different versions of the Bolsonaro platform. São Paulo Governor João Doria has attempted to show himself as a libertarian right-wing option who is less severe on social matters, whereas Wilson Witzel is going in the opposite direction.</p> <p>Mr. Witzel is a harder-right version of the current president, but one who is far more articulate and less &#8220;comical.&#8221; There are no Twitter feuds, no scatological humor, or queries about golden showers. Wilson Witzel is the face of Rio&#8217;s state policy of death, and he is not going away any time soon.

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BY Euan Marshall

Euan Marshall is a Scottish journalist living in São Paulo. He is co-author of A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.