Maria Tereza Capra’s life took a terrifying turn last year when she received death threats that forced her to flee her home for months. Then the city council on which she had sat voted to impeach her.
Her crime: recording and posting a video online criticising demonstrators who, in the fraught days after Brazil’s election, rallied outside an army base in the town of São Miguel do Oeste. National anthem blaring, the supporters of defeated far-right president Jair Bolsonaro extended their right arms, palms flat, in salute.
“The whole world saw that it was a Nazi gesture. It’s a gesture that you never do, you can’t do,” said Capra.
The incident in São Miguel do Oeste was among several that reignited fears about the growth of far-right extremism in Brazil, particularly in the country’s south. Historically home to German and Italian immigrants, southern states such as Paraná and Santa Catarina, where São Miguel is located, have long been conservative strongholds. They remain a bastion of political support for Bolsonaro, the populist former army captain.
Capra’s alarm over the salute was echoed by the ambassadors of Germany and Israel and the Brazilian Holocaust Museum. Yet the council ousted her after an investigation declared the gesture was “culturally common in the region”, where it is used in religious oaths and graduations.
Bolsonaro supporters outside an army base in São Miguel do Oeste, Brazil
Bolsonaro supporters outside an army base in São Miguel do Oeste, Brazil © YouTube
Bolsonaro supporters outside an army base in São Miguel do Oeste, Brazil
In recent months, southern Brazil has been the focus of numerous police investigations into neo-Nazi cells. More than a dozen raids were carried out in one week in July alone, with police seizing “vast [amounts of] Nazi and extremist material”, plus four firearms and dozens of knives and other weapons, including two maces. Thirteen of the 15 search warrant locations were in southern states, while the other two were in São Paulo state.
The raids resulted from another probe last year into the “manufacture of a firearm, using a 3D printer, by a neo-Nazi cell in Santa Catarina”, local police said. That group practised “cult rituals to Hitlerist doctrine and called themselves ‘the new SS of Santa Catarina’”, the police added.
In amateur footage, two members of the group stand between a burning torch and a Nazi flag. “One people, one Reich, one Fuhrer,” a man says in German as he discharges a pistol in the air.
In the first six months of this year, there were more than 20 police investigations into neo-Nazi groups in Brazil, up from nine in the whole of last year and just one in 2018, according to police data reported by Reuters.
Police figures also showed a 380 per cent surge in the number of “antidemocratic acts”, jumping from 68 in the whole of last year to 326 in just the first two months of this year. The bulk of these cases — which include attempts to impede elections or incite violence against the state — were in the south, notably Santa Catarina.
“From 2018-19 onwards we have seen the rapid growth of these neo-Nazi groups,” said Leonel Radde, a former police officer who is now a state lawmaker for Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state.
“The far right is advancing everywhere — not just here in Brazil — so this empowers these groups, they start to feel free,” he said. Uncontrolled online chat communities had also boosted the groups, he said.
A Brazilian arrested last year for the attempted assassination of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s vice-president, was tattooed with a Nazi symbol.
Radde said the country’s south had “the largest Nazi party outside of Germany in the prewar period”.
“There is a culture of separatism, of considering the south more advanced — a region that supports the rest of Brazil, which is nonsense of course. There is this idea that it is a white region of Italian-German immigration and not so much influenced by black Brazilians,” he added.
Pomerode, a tidy town of bilingual signposts and timber-framed houses in the hills of Santa Catarina, is one of Brazil’s oldest German settlements and is named after Pomerania. More than 80 per cent of the municipality voted for Bolsonaro in last October’s election.
“If you go to the countryside, you’ll see that there are still a lot of Germans, the colonisers, speaking in German. If they see that you’re Brazilian, a common person, they’ll hardly talk to you,” said Izilda Alves, a resident.
But she added that while the region was conservative and traditional, like many people in Pomerode she believed the reports of extremism in the south were exaggerated.
“This extremism story was created by people who want to benefit from it,” said Cristina da Silva, another Pomerode resident, who believes the leftwing administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is using claims of neo-Nazism to persecute political opponents.
Both women echoed fringe talking points that claim — without evidence — that Bolsonaro only lost last year’s election because of fraud in Brazil’s electronic voting machines.
In nearby Blumenau, Flávio Linhares runs the Conservative Movement for Santa Catarina, which he said seeks to raise awareness of conservative beliefs and the values of “Greek philosophy, Roman law and the family”.
Citizens in the region abhorred extremism, he said, and claims of Nazism were exaggerations driven by the “notorious prejudice” of the media.
“I see a certain type of xenophobia against people from the south,” he said, referencing the example of the raised-arm salute, which he noted was often used in official ceremonies. “We can’t say hello on the street without it being considered a Nazi salute.”
Linhares added that conservatives were often excluded from public life, even though rightwing parties dominate the federal Congress and Bolsonaro won almost 70 per cent of the vote in Santa Catarina last year.
However, João Klug, professor of history at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, said justifying the salute as “something ‘common in the region’ does not hold water”.
“Where did they learn to sing the national anthem with their hands outstretched? And why at this critical moment did these people [in São Miguel do Oeste] see fit to express their patriotism in this way? It is ridiculous to say the least.”
Klug said the neo-Nazi movement was boosted by the presidency of Bolsonaro, a nationalist who employed derogatory language towards minorities. The former president officially stated that Nazism should be repudiated, but his broader sympathy towards far-right groups was taken as tacit encouragement.
Bolsonaro was banned from political office for eight years in June after the country’s electoral court ruled he had abused his presidential powers. Many of his supporters saw that as an act of political persecution.
Ana Lúcia Martins, a leftwing city councillor in Joinville, a conservative stronghold in Santa Catarina state, said hard-right supporters were portraying “themselves as the victim for thinking differently”.
During the July police raids, four of the 15 search and seize mandates were executed in Joinville. “I think extremism has always existed,” said Martins, “but there has been a much stronger expression of it in recent years.”
Radde, the former police officer, said there was often a lack of will among typically conservative police forces to tackle such extremism. “Sometimes they say: ‘Oh, it’s bad, but it’s not a crime’.”