The Crime Bureau
The predicted nightmare has materialised: Latin America in general, and Brazil in particular, is the new epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since I wrote a month ago, the number of confirmed cases in Brazil has more than quintupled. The country has overtaken Russia in the league tables and is now second only to the United States, which yesterday closed its borders to travellers from Brazil. Yet the Bolsonaro regime continues to take its cues from the US, and to attack Brazil’s chief trading partner, China, in racist outbursts.
The death toll, too, is still growing exponentially. At nearly 25,000, it will soon surpass Spain’s. More than 6200 people have died in São Paulo and 4100 in Rio, in the more populous, developed south-east; more than 2200 in Pernambuco and 2400 in Ceará, in the impoverished north-east.
As well as the jet-ski outings, sick jokes and weekly rallies, on 15 May Bolsonaro responded to the crisis by firing the second health minister in a month. Nelson Teich, like his predecessor, refused to peddle hydroxychloroquine or recommend an end to social distancing. The interim health minister is Teich’s second-in-command, General Eduardo Pazuello, and there are twenty more military men in senior positions at the Ministry of Health. Not even during the long military dictatorship (1964-85) was this the case.
The military has ramped up production of hydroxychloroquine, even though the WHO does not recommend its use for treatment of Covid-19 and a study published in the Lancet last week found that the drug was ‘associated with decreased in-hospital survival’. Brazilian doctors who refuse to prescribe it have been threatened. At Bolsonaro’s weekly rallies, his followers chant hymns to chloroquine and Jesus, attack journalists, and demand that the military close congress, the courts and the media. Since March, Bolsonaro’s tweets and Facebook posts touting chloroquine as a miracle cure have been censored repeatedly.
The Bolsonaro crime family – how else to describe it? – may have met its match in Celso de Mello, the Supreme Court justice most full-throated in his defence of democratic subtleties and constitutional niceties. Based on video footage of a cabinet meeting on 22 April, which aired on 22 May, Mello has asked the attorney general to demand that Bolsonaro and his son Carlos turn over their phones. Were that to happen, General Augusto Heleno announced, ‘the consequences would be unpredictable.’ The words were widely interpreted as a threat. Bolsonaro and his son have pre-emptively refused to comply, instead ratcheting up their social media war on the Supreme Court.
The cabinet meeting, which lasted several profanity-laced hours, was more like a mafia conclave than an affair of state. No reference was made to the thousands of dead and dying. The one reference to the virus came from the environment minister, who noted that with everyone distracted by the pandemic, the time was ripe to privatise and liberalise the Amazon further. Brazil now has to explain those remarks to the UN.
The main issue in the meeting was that Bolsonaro had tried without success to change the head of the federal police in Rio so that no one would ‘fuck over’ his family or friends. He would therefore fire whomever he needed to, including the then justice minister, Sérgio Moro, and replace them with ‘people who belong to our structures’.
Those structures are labyrinthine. Marielle Franco, a Rio city councillor, was assassinated in March 2018. One of the hitmen suspected of murdering her, Adriano da Nóbrega, a member of the Escritório do Crime (‘Crime Bureau’) militia, was killed by police in Bahia in February this year. Nóbrega was being investigated on racketeering charges that also involved Bolsonaro’s son Flávio and Fabrício Queiroz, one of Flávio’s advisers when he was a state senator in Rio and a suspected leader of the Crime Bureau. On 21 May, Paulo Marinho, a rightwing businessman and former ally of Bolsonaro’s, told the federal police in Rio that Flávio had alerted Queiroz in 2018 to an upcoming investigation that might damage the Bolsonaros’ election campaigns. Marinho used to be Flávio’s stand-in as a federal senator. Having received death threats, he is now under police protection.
Echoing Mussolini in 1937, Bolsonaro told the defence and justice ministers at the 22 April cabinet meeting that it was time to arm the civilian population to overthrow the ‘dictatorship’ of state governors so that no ‘son of a bitch’ could oppress his followers. He described Rio’s right-wing governor, Wilson Witzel, as estrume (‘manure’ or ‘piece of shit’). ‘People who aren’t with my flags – family, God, Brazil, weapons, free expression, the free market? … Wait until 2022!’ After the meeting was aired, Bolsonaro tweeted ‘Brazil above all!’ and posted a picture of the flag. Today police raided Witzel’s official residence, supposedly because he’s suspected of interfering with investigations into his wife’s involvement in healthcare corruption. Bolsonaro congratulated them. Homicides in Rio and São Paulo, along with police murders of civilians, have remained at record levels, or even increased.
The economy minister, Paulo Guedes, rumoured to be the next cabinet member to fall, has helped Bolsonaro starve the states of resources, and five states have health systems on the verge of collapse. In the greater metropolitan region of São Paulo (population 21,571,281), 91 per cent of beds are occupied. In spite of governors’ best efforts (Minas Gerais excepted), lockdowns have been only 44 per cent effective nationwide, because of Bolsonaro and economic despair. Even in São Paulo, where the governor has been most insistent, only 50 per cent of people followed the rules; in Amazonas and Rio, the figure was 40 per cent. In the urban periphery of Manaus, few people outside the middle class can afford masks or alcohol gels; many don’t have running water.
Brazil’s neighbours to the south, Paraguay and Uruguay, both have fewer than 1000 cases, a handful of new cases per day, and only 33 deaths between them. Argentina (population 45 million) has had 12,628 cases and 471 deaths; Colombia (population 50 million) 21,981 cases and 750 deaths. Regrettably, Mexico, Chile and Peru all appear poised to follow the US or Brazilian trajectory, rather than the Colombia’s or Argentina’s, much less Uruguay or Paraguay’s.
In addition to the thousands of deaths still to come in Brazil, in the rest of Latin America we can expect thousands, if not tens of thousands more deaths in June. Since no significant government support is forthcoming, poverty, hunger, infant mortality and murder will soon follow on an even larger scale in what is already the world’s most unequal and homicidal region.