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Rio de Janeiro to Get Pro-Legalization Mayor?

Bill Weinberg

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Last week, left-wing populist candidate Marcelo Freixo made it past the first round in the race for mayor of Rio de Janeiro and now goes on to face an ultra-conservative rival in a run-off at the end of the month.

In recent days, drug legalization has emerged as a key issue in the race. Freixo, of the Socialism and Freedom Party (POSL), is currently chair of the Human Rights Defense Commission of Rio de Janiero state’s Legislative Assembly. He is now running against evangelical senator Marcelo Crivella of the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB). But another right-wing contender bounced out in the first round, Flávio Bolsonaro of the Social Christian Party (PSC), has thrown his support to Crivella and is attempting to use the drug stigma against Freixo, exploiting his call for legalization as a means to de-escalate Rio’s violent gang wars.

In a televised debate Oct. 9, Bolsonaro accused Freixo of wanting to legalize crack, as well as maconha (cannabis). Freixo shot back without hesitation: “That’s a question that separates us ideologically.” He said that he advocates “deepening the discussion” on legalization and views drug abuse as a problem of public health not criminal justice. Bolsonaro’s outraged response made for good TV that has Rio’s local media abuzz.

As if to drive home the urgency of the issue, just one day after the broadcast, police killed at least two drug suspects in a day-long shoot-out in the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela—in the hills overlooking the ritzy beachside districts of Ipanema and Copacabana—the latest in a series of violent clashes that have caused thousands children to miss school in the city. Police vehicles sealed off the area during the shoot-out, as helicopters circled overhead.

Some of the violence is politically targeted. On Monday, a samba-school president running for city council became the latest Rio politician to be assassinated.  Marcos “Falcon” Vieira Souza, who headed the popular Portela samba group that parades in the annual Carnival, was attacked by hooded hitmen who raided his campaign headquarters and fled after the shooting. 

Rio’s current mayor, Eduardo Paes of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), has been under fire for such outrages as redirecting teachers’ salaries and education funds into preparations for the Summer Olympics. The nightmarish police violence that took place in the lead-up to the Olympics also helped propel populist Freixo to the forefront. Now we’ll see if playing the drug-stigma card will backfire on Freixo’s conservative opponents.

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