Brazil in 'civil war,' says head of Congress' pro-gun faction

Brasília (AFP) –


Brazil is caught in a "civil war" of crime and violence, the head of Congress' pro-gun faction says, warning that ordinary Brazilians need to be armed and ready to fight back.

Wearing an electric blue suit with matching glasses, and a heavy gold ring with the seal of Congress on his finger, Jose Augusto Rosa is both a high-profile lawmaker and a reserve captain in Sao Paulo's gendarme-style military police.

Capitao Augusto, as he is universally known, heads the so-called "Bullet Caucus," the assembly's pro-gun faction whose ranks swelled from 36 deputies to around 100 with the populist wave that brought far-right President Jair Bolsonaro to power in 2018.

"Isn't this war?" asks the 53-year-old during an interview with AFP, referring to the 57,000 homicides every year in a country whose population is roughly 209 million.

"We are in a civil war. We have to fight back against this violence, and that unfortunately doesn't mean sending flowers" to criminals, said Augusto, a member of Brazil's center-right Liberal Party who says he owns a revolver and a pistol.

For the captain, there is no doubt -- more weapons in the hands of "good people," tougher sentences for criminals and more muscular police operations will bring down the death toll in one of the most violent countries in the world.

And he believes simply talking tough has already slashed crime numbers.

"With nothing but our rhetoric we managed to cut the crime rate by 22 percent," he says. "Why that drop? The only significant factor was the election of a government that is ready to toughen up the penal code," he says.

- 'More snipers' -

Augusto is the head of a congressional committee that is backing a controversial "anti-crime package," submitted in February by Justice Minister Sergio Moro and which has been languishing there ever since.

He hopes the bill will be approved this month despite lively criticism from the left and from NGOs. The bill toughens prison sentences and broadens the definition of self-defense both for law enforcement officers and for the population at large.

"With this bill, we will reduce crime and the population of overcrowded prisons," he says with his trademark machine-gun delivery, scrolling through WhatsApp messages on his phone to keep up with the debate within his Committee on Public Security and Combating Organized Crime.

"People on the margins of society will think twice about committing crimes" if they know that "if they kill someone they'll go to prison for 15 years with no furloughs or conjugal visits and without any chance of getting a semi-open regime."

The state of Rio de Janeiro has become the testing ground for this new security policy, under the zealous stewardship of its governor Wilson Witzel.

In July, the number of people killed in police raids in a single month hit an all-time high of 194.

Witzel is pushing the use of snipers to take out armed people in Rio's shanty towns, called favelas. When the snipers open fire from helicopters, it's like scenes from a war zone.

But Augusto fully approves: he has submitted a bill authorizing the deployment of snipers across Brazil.

"The sniper could be in the favela, in a car or a helicopter, on foot, or (using) a drone. The important thing is to use more snipers," he says.

- Glock, 'our Ferrari' -

The head of the gun lobby is just as fervent about a new law being pushed by the Bolsonaro administration to relax restrictions on gun ownership and allow citizens to carry firearms.

He is also battling to end the monopoly of Brazil's gun manufacturer Taurus and open the market up to international weapons makers with better products, such as Austria's Glock, which he refers to as "our Ferrari."

"There is no link between allowing honest citizens to arm themselves more and an increase in crime," he says, contradicting numerous studies which have identified just such a link.

"On the contrary, there will be a drop because criminals will be afraid" to tackle a person who might be armed, he says.

"It's possible some people might go too far, that someone uses a gun in a road rage incident," he accepts. But that, he says, would be an "exception."