BRASILIA (Reuters) - The man who will likely be Brazil’s next Defense Minister greeted two reporters waiting outside the door, then politely sent them packing.
“I do apologize,” he said, before slipping back into a cramped hotel conference room in the capital of Brasilia. “On orders from Bolsonaro, it is radio silence until the election is over.”
The patrician, gray-haired fellow was 70-year-old Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, a retired four-star Army general. The world may soon be hearing a lot more from him and a cadre of high-ranking ex-military brass now poised to help lead the world’s fourth-largest democracy. Their ascension has many here worried about a return to the days when the armed forces called the shots in Brazil.
Heleno is the dean of a small group of former generals behind the rise of presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro, who is predicted to win easily in this Sunday’s election over his leftist opponent Fernando Haddad. A combative far-right former Army captain, Bolsonaro has vowed to crack down on crime, end corruption and steam roll anything in his path.
Most of Bolsonaro’s inner circle have retained close ties to Brazil’s current military leadership. For example, Antonio Hamilton Mourão, a four-star general who is serving as Bolsonaro’s vice presidential running mate, just retired from active duty in February.
High-ranking service members have largely steered clear of politics since Brazil’s 21-year dictatorship ended in 1985. But appalling levels of street crime and entrenched government graft have emboldened former military leaders to get involved in the electoral process. While some Brazilians are wary about what they see as encroachment by the military on sacred civilian space, others welcome the change.
“There is an awareness among the public that the military can put this house in order,” Heleno said earlier this year. “We are fully aware a coup is not the way forward. The path will be the next election.”
For over a year, Heleno and about a dozen other retired generals and conservative academics, known as the Brasilia Group, have gathered weekly in an unmarked conference room at the Brasilia Imperial Hotel, just two miles west of the presidential palace.
Around a black table littered with stained white porcelain coffee mugs and flanked by 14 burgundy chairs, they have hashed out strategy and tried to hone the rough edges off Bolsonaro, a candidate best known for his homophobic, misogynist and racist outbursts.
In recent interviews with Reuters, Brasilia Group members steered away from granular details about how a potential Bolsonaro administration would govern.
Instead, they returned consistently to the theme of law and order. Nearly 64,000 people were murdered in Brazil last year, the most in the world. The country is still struggling to shake off the vestiges of an epic corruption scandal that has engulfed the highest levels of government and business.
Many Brazilians are thrilled at the prospect of Bolsonaro taking a firm hand. He won over 49 million votes in the Oct. 7 first-round election, close to the majority that would have avoided the head-to-head runoff with Haddad.
“Organized crime rules Brazil right now,” said Kenyson Santos, a 24-year-old retail worker in the capital. “You think I am worried about the military taking over? Given our reality, they would be a great alternative.”
But plenty of others are alarmed at possible backsliding toward authoritarian rule, even if it comes through the ballot box instead of tanks in the streets.
University of Chicago political scientist Michael Albertus, whose research has focused on Brazil’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, said the country “is in a dangerous moment.”
“(Bolsonaro’s) government would give the military carte blanche to do all manner of things,” Albertus said. “They will be far more powerful than they have ever been since Brazil transitioned back to a democracy.”
(For a graphic on the ex-military brass in Bolsonaro's inner circle, see: tmsnrt.rs/2NY0TpK)
Bolsonaro has served for nearly three decades in Congress with little distinction. Long dismissed as a gadfly, he has often praised the nation’s military regime, which took power in 1964 as part of a coup d’état that toppled a leftist government.
But explosive events in Brazil over the past five years paved the way for his rise.
In 2013, millions took to the streets in a series of largely spontaneous protests over high taxes, lousy services and the corrupt political class looming over it all.
A tumultuous presidential election the following year split the country. Leftist President Dilma Rousseff narrowly defeated a conservative challenger. Within two years she would be impeached and tossed from office for fudging public accounts. She and her supporters called it a coup. A massive graft investigation known as Operation Car Wash, meanwhile, ensnared scores of business leaders and politicians. A painful recession ravaged the economy.
Amidst the resulting chaos, Bolsonaro, not tarnished by corruption charges, saw an opening to position himself as a clean candidate who could govern Brazil with rigid discipline, according to members of the Brasilia Group.
Bolsonaro first reached out to retired four-star Army general Oswaldo Ferreira, the former commander of Brazil’s Army engineering corps. The two men trained together decades earlier at the Black Needles Military Academy, Brazil’s version of West Point.
Ferreira in turn recruited his military mentor Heleno, who in 2004 helped crush criminal gangs in Haiti as the first commander of a United Nations peacekeeping operation. Their network expanded from there.
Bolsonaro is not the only former military man entering politics. One of his confidants, former Army General Paulo Chagas, said he, too, was inspired to run for office out of concern that Brazil is coming apart. This month Chagas failed in his bid to become governor of Brasilia, Brazil’s federal district.
But he predicts victory for Bolsonaro, and much misery ahead for “troublemakers.”
Bolsonaro has advocated more freedom for police to gun down suspected criminals and wants the military to help wipe out drug gangs that control slums in Brazil’s largest cities.
Crooked politicians are in the crosshairs, too. Chagas said Bolsonaro, if elected, would deepen corruption investigations that uncovered a sprawling pay-to-play bribery scheme in the nation’s public works.
Wrong-doers “will pay for the damage they did to the nation,” he said.
The tough talk is already having a chilling effect.
More than a dozen government officials and members of civil society groups who spoke with Reuters said they are hearing echoes of the dictatorship.
“I lived through the regime. In my gut, the atmosphere, the energy in the air, is starting to feel the same,” said one high-ranking executive branch official, who refused to be named, citing fear of retribution from the likely Bolsonaro government. “It is the worst possible situation I could imagine.”
Back at the Imperial Hotel, two other members of the Brasilia Group - Ferreira and Alessio Ribeiro Souto, who is likely to be the next minister of education - agreed to speak with Reuters outside their War Room.
Dressed in ironed jeans and crisp shirts, the men were courteous and formal, a marked contrast to Bolsonaro’s folksy and often offensive slang. They and other group members have worked to temper the firebrand candidate, advising him to speak calmly during press interviews.
Ferreira and Souto emphasized that they were mere technicians working under the orders of Bolsonaro. They said they were not involved in the day-to-day operations of the campaign, rather in figuring out how to execute the strategic vision they were shaping if he is elected.
Ferreira, who retired in 2017, spent his career building roads and bridges for the Army, mainly through the Amazon rainforest to open it to development. He says a priority of a Bolsonaro government would be to finish hundreds of projects that civilian governments have failed to complete.
Souto is a retired three-star general who oversaw the Army’s technology center. He said he would urge that creationism be taught in Brazil’s schools alongside evolution, part of Bolsonaro’s plan to remake schools to please his large base of religious conservatives.
Souto also shares Bolsonaro’s view that the nation’s school history books should call the 1964-85 period a movement to battle communism, rather than a dictatorship.
This time, change will come through votes, not a military takeover, Souto vowed.
“The only instrument that we know we can now use to obtain peace and harmony is democracy,” he said. “And its pillars are liberty, truth, courage and morality.”
(Restores dropped word “coup” in 19th paragraph.)
Reporting by Brad Brooks and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by Marla Dickerson