Witzel’s Unholy War

Bolsonaro’s Brazil is ruled by a politics of death: who deserves it, who is spared, and who gets to dispense it. Meet the most skilled practitioner of this politics: Rio governor Wilson Witzel.

Wilson Witzel, governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, gestures an armored combat vehicle of the Brazilian Army during the Military Parade in celebration of Brazilian Independence Day, on September 7, 2019 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Bruna Prado / Getty

Crass. Bellicose. Cruel. Vindictive. Self-absorbed. These adjectives could describe many politicians currently running Brazil, especially far-right president Jair Bolsonaro. The fact that Brazilian politics at the national level are increasingly dominated by a cadre of spiteful incompetents has been made all the more visible by the international, Twitter tirade-fueled debate over the administration’s negligent handling of the man-made fires raging in the Amazon and threatening indigenous territorial rights.

Among others there is Ernesto Araújo, the foreign minister and culture warrior. Hell-bent on dismantling Brazil’s globally respected diplomatic service, Araújo took to Twitter to decry the “‘environmental crisis’” (scare quotes in the original) as “the last weapon in the left’s arsenal of lies.” Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub, whose budget cuts are systematically dismantling higher education and scientific inquiry, joined the fray to call French president Emmanuel Macron an “ opportunist reprobate” and a “cretin” for tweeting about the fires. Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles, whose agency ignored warnings that land-grabbers were planning a “fire day” to seize lands in the Amazon, referred to Macron diminutively as “Mícron” and deployed the hashtag #somostodosricardosalles (#weareallricardosalles) to garner support for his plans to open the Amazon to cattle farming and international agribusiness.

For his part, Bolsonaro downplayed the scope of the fires, recommended that people defecate every other day to save the environment, and then claimed without evidence that the fires were the work of international NGOs out to defame his administration. He also took to Facebook to applaud an insult directed at Macron’s wife.

While the high-polluting G7 nations have promised a paltry $20 million to support Brazilian efforts to protect the rainforest, Bolsonaro may refuse the funds. He and the military officers in his cabinet view such international gestures as colonial intervention: a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty and economic security. This from a man who routinely denigrates indigenous people for not speaking “our language” and possessing “14% of our land.”

However, Bolsonaro’s strategy of elevating petulant insults and the mediocre men who make them is not confined to the national level. A number of fringe right-wing candidates rode the wave of Bolsonaro’s trigger-happy rhetoric to win positions in state governments as well. This was especially true in Bolsonaro’s base of Rio de Janeiro. There, the barely known candidate Wilson Witzel of the equally obscure Social Christian Party was propelled to the governor’s office thanks to eleventh-hour Whatsapp messages and the help of Bolsonaro’s son, Flavio (who is caught up in a series of scandals involving his connections to the paramilitary mafias that dominate Rio de Janeiro).

As a former naval officer and federal judge with the formidable posture to match, the well-spoken Witzel is less risible than the rest of this incorrigible protofascist cohort. But he is just as deadly.

The Necropolitics of a Campaign Photo Op

As the chief executive of Rio State, Witzel has near direct control of the state’s repressive security apparatus. Not known for Twitter spats, Witzel saves his contempt for his own constituents: the poor, mostly black and brown working class that live in favelas and urban peripheries throughout the State of Rio de Janeiro. Between January and July under his tenure, police killed 881 people, the highest number in nearly two decades.

Witzel presents combating drug trafficking gangs, which he calls “narcoterrorists,” as his number one priority. However, according to security specialist and Research Director of the Igarapé Institute Robert Muggah, “the truth is that the Witzel administration ́s public security strategy is still not entirely clear. Beyond rhetorical posturing and photo ops, at no point has the governor provided a detailed outline of his public security priorities, approach or results to the wider public.”

Devoid of concrete policy proposals, Witzel’s approach to public security, as human rights activists have pointed out, is best understood through the lens of necropolitics. Coined by Cameroonian philosopher and theorist Achille Mbembe, necropolitics is the state’s sovereign “right to kill, to allow to live, or to expose to death.” Witzel, like Bolsonaro, made necropolitics a campaign promise: “The right thing [to do] is to kill thugs carrying rifles. The police will do the right thing: take aim at [a thug’s] little head and … fire! Just to be on the safe side.”

Witzel cloaks his rhetoric in a duty to save hard-working favela residents from rifle-wielding thugs. But collateral deaths in poor, predominantly black and brown neighborhoods are part and parcel to the war he has declared on narcoterrorism. In February, the blood-stained walls of a house in the Rio favela of Fallet where police massacred thirteen young men became an omen of the violence to come. By June, Witzel was lamenting the fact that he did not have authorization to simply launch missiles at the City of God favela to “blow up those people.”

Witzel recently made headlines following a bus hijacking on the thirteen kilometer concrete bridge connecting the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Niterói. For nearly four hours on August 20, Willian Augusto da Silva, a twenty-year-old resident of the Niterói periphery of São Gonçalo, held thirty-nine hostages on a commuter bus with what later turned out to be a toy gun, a taser, a knife, and plastic bottles filled with gasoline. He repeatedly told the passengers that he did not want their money, but simply wanted to become famous. Hostages later confirmed to police that he did not harm anyone. During the hours-long hostage negotiations, in which da Silva handed over six of the thirty-nine, police psychologists determined that da Silva was having a psychotic episode. When he finally stepped off the bus and threw his backpack to officers, the masked da Silva was shot six times by a sniper from Rio’s elite BOPE unit (Rio’s more murderous version of SWAT).

Moments after da Silva keeled over, Witzel descended from a helicopter, fists triumphantly pumping in the air. Strategically, his secretary was already on the bridge waiting to livestream Witzel’s victory dance to his social media followers.

Then, instead of offering the hostages immediate trauma support, or simply letting them leave the bus they had been held on for hours, Witzel boarded. With his secretary still recording, the conservative Catholic governor evangelized: “Unfortunately society has unstable people who don’t have love inside of them, who don’t have faith in God …. So I want you men and women to leave here with this mission of putting Jesus and God in people’s hearts so we don’t have any more episodes like this and any more loss of human life.”

It was one of several craven gestures by a man who has already declared his intentions of running for president in 2022. He plans to beat Bolsonaro by doubling down on his tough-on-crime rhetoric, and he’s already shooting the bullets and campaign ad B-roll to back up his ambitions.

On social media, even those who praised the police’s operation admonished Witzel’s antics as boorish, proselytizing, and self-aggrandizing. In response to the backlash, Witzel contended that he was celebrating the spared lives of the innocent rather than da Silva’s death. However, in the same breath and without evidence, he attempted to tie da Silva’s action to drug traffickers:

You all listen to a bunch of specialists and forget that I am also a specialist. I’ve studied criminal law for over twenty years. My conviction is that these [drug trafficking factions] stimulate terrorists acts, if not directly than indirectly. They stimulate terrorist acts. I believe that, like in other countries, terrorism stimulates people to act against the state.

Witzel’s convictions, both religious and scholarly (he is currently pursuing a PhD in political science), have united the US-led strains of global necropolitics: the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. The former justifies police violence against and mass incarceration of the domestic racialized other, mostly black men in both the United States and Brazil (which boast the first and third highest prison populations, respectively). And the latter justifies the indiscriminate killing of the foreign idolator, mostly brown Muslims globally. Witzel manages to define all criminal acts as “terrorism” by virtue of being “against the state.” Moreover, they’re “unholy.” There are citizen-believers and narcoterrorist-heretics. And the state’s right to kill either so long as they live in favelas and peripheries is sacrosanct.

“Today, thank God, there were no mistakes,” Witzel proclaimed on the bridge as da Silva was rushed to the hospital where he died. “The police acted correctly.”

The state’s right to life and death is also infallible. As Muggah noted, “the governor appears determined to concentrate authority over public security in his office, and among a small group of advisers, rather than delegating it to a secretary of public security. To wit, the government’s first act on assuming power was to disband the department responsible for coordinating public security — SESEG [State Secretary of Security].”

SESG enabled Rio’s two state police forces, the Military Police (responsible for responding to crimes and carrying out operations) and the Civil Police (responsible for carrying out criminal investigations) to share intelligence and coordinate objectives. It also provided some level of transparency and oversight to one of the deadliest security forces in the world.

Authorized to engage in an unfettered war, police were responsible for 40 percent of deaths in Metropolitan Rio in the month of July according to the Institute of Public Security.

This too was a campaign promise of Witzel’s. Unconcerned with due process and the overcrowding of Brazil’s prisons, he contended that “there will be no shortage of places to send criminals. We’ll dig graves, and as to prisons, if necessary, we’ll put them on ships.”

The bus hijacking was not the first time Witzel used a helicopter to highlight his signature policy and cast himself as a crusading, would-be extra in The Expendables. In May, he participated in a police helicopter operation in the seaside city of Angra dos Reis. As he personally recorded what he called a mission “to end thuggery,” one of the police officers sprayed ten bullets on the hills below. They had not fired at a specific target and were not themselves in danger from below. Instead, they hit a prayer tent frequented by evangelicals, but thankfully empty that day. The illegality of the event was of little importance to the former judge: Witzel was on operation presidential-campaign photo op.

Though the number of police operations involving helicopters are similar to 2018, their use has become symbolic of Witzel’s heavy-handed approach to public security. Nowhere is this truer than in Maré, a group of favelas near Rio’s international airport and home to approximately 150,000 people. In August, the NGO Redes da Maré sent 1,500 letters, many of them written by children, to the state Court of Justice asking for the restoration of a civil oversight commission.

Witzel believes Rio State’s high rates of crime and interpersonal violence will be resolved by raining bullets down on the city. Prior to taking office, Witzel visited Israel to discuss experimental drones with firing capabilities. There he also made sure he was recorded doing push-ups with Israeli soldiers — a favorite move among politicians tied to Bolsonaro (whose cheat push-ups are rather lackluster for a former army captain) to show their manliness and appreciation for rank-and-file security personnel. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Witzel’s Rio, police officers are not just an important constituency, they are holy warriors.

Deadly Militias Outside the Fold of Narcoterrorism

The resolution of the hijacking without injury or loss of life to the hostages was a public relations boon for Witzel and Rio’s Military Police. Yet less than two weeks earlier, their targeted necropolitics were under heavy scrutiny following the deaths of six young people in police operations within the span of five days: Gabriel Pereira Alves (eighteen), Lucas Monteiro dos Santos Costa (twenty-one) Tiago Freitas (twenty-one), Dyogo Costa Xavier de Brito (sixteen), Henrico de Jesus Viegas de Menezes Júnior (nineteen), and Margareth Teixeira (seventeen). All six lived in favelas or urban peripheries. All six were not white. And all six were shot by police.

But in Witzel’s holy war, those sins fall on the heretics. “These corpses are not on my hands, they’re on yours, [on the hands of those] that do not let police do the job that needs to be done,” Witzel proclaimed when questioned about the deaths at an event inaugurating a private security detail in Nova Iguaçu. “The more you defend these narcoterrorists, other corpses will be on your hands, pseudo-defenders of human rights.”

Following a meeting with Vice-President Hamilton Mourão in Brasilia, Witzel dispensed his expert advice for residents of working-class neighborhoods: Don’t wait at bus stops during police operations. “We will direct the favela,” he added, “regarding how to act in a situation when there is a police operation.” The true sin is attempting to go to work or school during harrowed police operations, for it is not Witzel’s fault that he need expose the poor to death. (Police struck Gabriel Pereira Alves with a stray bullet on his way to school)

Witzel’s derision of “pseudo-defenders of human rights” is well documented. At one of his campaign rallies in the mountain town of Petrópolis, Witzle cheered as Bolsonaro-allied candidate Rodrigo Amorim broke a commemorative plaque dedicated to slain socialist city council woman, Marielle Franco.

There are a few aspects to Witzel’s necropolitics that seem strategic. Of the 881 people murdered by police in Rio State between January and July, not one death occurred in a militia-controlled territory, according to investigative reporting by UOL News. Militias, paramilitary groups composed primarily of retired and active police officers, have parlayed their proximity to the state into extortionary mafias that maintain their outsourced security schemes in low-income neighborhoods by securing votes for politicians who turn a blind eye as they monopolize would-be public services like transportation, housing, and access to utilities. They also sell arms to and run protection rackets for drug traffickers. “The relationship between militias, public security forces and politicians is both deep and complex,” Muggah explain. “There are clear signs that militia groups are expanding their presence across both the state and Metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro. Many groups appear to be emboldened by the rhetoric of the president and the governor, and more inclined to engage in political activity than in the recent past.”

Flavio Bolsonaro has potentially played a key role in emboldening militias and deepening the complex ties between them and politicians like Witzel. He honored several now-suspected militia members when he served in the Rio State Assembly. Among them was Adriano Magalhães da Nobrega, an ex-BOPE sniper suspected of heading the Office of Crime death squad tied to the murder of Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes. The prosecutor-general of Brazil, Raquel Dodge, suspects Domingos Brazão, head of the Brazão political family and former state assemblymen, of calling the hit on Franco. The Brazão family allegedly controls Rio das Pedras, a favela in Rio’s West Zone where one of Flavio Bolsonaro’s former aids, Fabrizio Queiroz, is believed to be hiding out following allegations of illegally transferring funds between Flavio and his staff. Supporters of Witzel’s campaign, as well of those of all the Bolsonaro clan, the Brazão family likely secured votes for them as candidates in Rio da Pedras.

Witzel has not turned a complete blind eye to militias. As Muggah noted, Witzel’s administration established a new department within the Civil Police to investigate corruption, money laundering, and organized crime. Together with the Public Prosecutor’s office, the Civil Police uncovered a vast militia operation in Itaboraí, a town on the outskirts of Rio that was devastated when construction on a petrochemical plant ended amidst the Operation Car Wash investigation. Dubbed Operation Salvator (Latin for savior), the investigation discovered a mass grave of fourteen people and resulted in the arrests of seventy militia members, including a number of current and retired Military Police officers.

Herein lies the racialized, class-based logic of Witzel’s anti-crime crusade and presidential aspirations. Those he deems narcoterrorists, and the people in their proximity, are exposed and condemned to death, hopefully in a moment that can be livestreamed. They are governed by the exhibitionist necropolitics of the campaign trail. Those whose sins he deems less egregious, and on whose votes, tithes, and brute force he may depend, are afforded the courts, where their punishments fade from the public eye. They are governed by, and integral to, clandestine parastate politics as usual.

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Stephanie Reist is a freelance writer and researcher based in Rio de Janeiro. She received her PhD in Latin American cultural studies from Duke University and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in education policy at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, Multidisciplinary Institute. Her research focuses on race and public policy in urban peripheries.

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