Celso Augusto Daniel, a popular mayor, was returning home from dinner with a friend late on Friday, Jan. 18, when armed men pulled him from his bullet-proof vehicle and whisked him away. Two days later, his bullet-ridden body was found on a dirt road, 50 miles from the center of São Paulo.
In a country where organized crime groups make millions of dollars through abductions, cargo theft, and drug dealing - and petty crime is rampant - such scenes are sadly commonplace. But there is mounting evidence suggesting that the crime could have been politically motivated - a throwback to an era when government opponents were routinely targeted by right-wing death squads.
Mr. Daniel, a popular Workers Party (PT) mayor for the São Paulo suburb of Santo Andre, was a top political adviser to PT presidential candidate Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, who ranks favorably in the polls for next October's elections. Daniel is the second PT leader killed since September, and the 11th party member to be shot dead in three years. Last week, three other PT members received death threats.
"The truth is that no one feels safe these days," said Mr. da Silva, who goes by the name Lula. "We don't know if we are going to be assaulted at 7 in the morning, at 7 at night, at midday or at midnight. It is something that leaves every man and woman scared and afraid."
If the murders and threats are connected, and intended to intimidate Workers Party candidates, analysts say the threats may have the opposite effect next October. Although the PT has done well in recent elections, taking control of several important states and cities, the party has been unable to convince voters it can be trusted with the presidency. Lula has finished second in the last three presidential elections.
If the killings and kidnappings continue, "then the PT would benefit from it," says David Fleischer, a political scientist and author of Brazil Focus, a weekly political journal. "It could cause a positive backlash in favor of the PT candidate."
In a poll released yesterday by the polling company Ibope, published in Veja news magazine, Lula led with 28 percent of public support.
So far, no one has claimed credit for Daniel's killing. But Saturday, police arrested a fellow officer whose home computer allegedly had been used to e-mail death threats to 19 PT politicians in September. The e-mails were signed in the name of FARB, the Brazilian Revolutionary Action Front, a previously unknown group that claimed responsi- bility for the Sept. 10 murder of another PT mayor, Antonio da Costa Santos, from the Campinas municipality, 40 miles from São Paulo.
The group reportedly said it will kill leftist mayors because the PT - like socialist parties around the world - was deserting its base and moving to the political center.
Few people believe that manifesto, and fewer still believe that any leftist group would go all-out to undermine the country's only credible left-of-center party. But the possibility of a new wave of terror has horrified many Brazilians and left many people fearful of a return to the days when Brazil's military rulers turned a blind eye to death squads and political killings.
"The circumstances of the crime, although not yet clear, take us back to some of the darkest pages in our history, when clandestine groups acted with impunity," said Rubens Approbato Machado, president of the Brazilian Order of Lawyers. "We are on the threshold of a state of social anarchy."
Politicians sought to reassure voters by proposing a package of anticrime measures. One proposal seeks to streamline the country's two police forces under one command, while another has set aside money for the building of new prisons.
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said officials would equip the country's jails with a system to stop inmates from using smuggled cellular phones to coordinate crimes from behind bars.
Mr. Cardoso passed responsibility for public security on to state authorities, but he told Brazilians they could rest assured that their government was ready "to do everything within its power and more to reestablish normalcy and regain the confidence of the population."
"The fight against organized crime and against crime in general is truly a war," Cardoso said. "And, in a war, everyone must be mobilized."
The problem for Cardoso is that he is losing the war. Criminals have infiltrated the police, and they run the country's jails. And the legal system is widely perceived to favor the rich.
The number of kidnappings in São Paulo soared from 19 in 1999 to 307 last year; the murder rate in some Brazilian cities rivals that of Colombia. Like those in Colombia, Brazilian organized crime groups make millions from kidnapping, drug dealing and cargo theft. Petty crime and random violence, so-called disorganized crime, has left millions of Brazilians terrified.
Celso's assassination has caused an outrage in São Paulo, where tens of thousands of mourners attended his funeral and lined the streets.
For its part, the PT insists it does not want martyrs and that the presidency is not worth more spilled blood. Victory in October, however, would give them a chance to do something about it.