Club founder Rildo Anjos at Calibre 12, his shooting range in Niterói.

Club founder Rildo Anjos at Calibre 12, his shooting range in Niterói.

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

Bolsonaro's Gun-Club Friends Brazil Bracing for Possible Election Unrest

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have obtained guns in recent years. Will they plunge the country into chaos if he loses his re-election campaign?
By Marian Blasberg in Rio de Janeiro

On one of those days when the term "civil war" comes out of his mouth with rising frequency, Rildo Anjos is standing under the cold, neon light of his shooting range cradling an Israeli Masada in his arms, a model that has only recently become available on the Brazilian market. One of his customers has brought the weapon along with him and Anjos – a wiry, 56-year-old Navy reservist with a carefully trimmed beard who is frequently found wearing a 9 mm Glock in his belt – couldn't help himself. He was simply too curious.

DER SPIEGEL 39/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 39/2022 (September 24th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

"Let's see how convincing she is,” he says as he chambers a couple of rounds before the eager eyes of his fellow gun enthusiasts. He then pulls on his hearing protection and takes aim at a cardboard silhouette of a body set up toward the back against a pile of car tires.

Bam! Anjos sinks into a crouch.

Bam! A step to the side.

Bam! He fires a total of 10 rounds. And 10 times, hardly visible to the eye, a small piece of the silhouette is torn out – from the mouth, the forehead, the breast, the stomach. Anjos smiles contentedly. "We used to play with trucks when we were kids," he says as he hands the weapon to the next shooter.

That is the image they would like to convey as they fire bullets through the cardboard target and praise the Masada's crisp trigger break, its precision and its smooth feel against the hip when worn: They want to be seen as a bunch of harmless boys testing out a new toy. But it's not quite that simple.

"It's not about weapons," Anjos once said in a quiet moment. "It's about our freedom."

Bolsonaro supporters in Niterói on Independence Day.

Bolsonaro supporters in Niterói on Independence Day.

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

It's about how Jair Bolsonaro will react if he loses his re-election bid in the presidential vote in October. If he follows Donald Trump's playbook and declares that the election was stolen from him, it could prompt some of his followers with their toys to plunge the country into chaos to defend their freedom. That is the concern currently felt by many in Brazil, and Anjos believes that things are not going to end well.

Calibre 12 is the name of the shooting club that he opened in a non-descript, two-story building in the old center of Niterói. There are a couple of furniture restorers on the same street, and the Salvation Army is right next door. Across the water on the other side of the bay lies Rio de Janeiro. Around 400 customers come regularly to the range to practice their shooting. They book classes, buy weapons and supplies or they talk over coffee about what might happen if Brazil does explode after the election.


The boom that shooting clubs like this one are currently experiencing is no accident. The promise to loosen up the country's strict gun laws was one of the pillars of Bolsonaro's law-and-order campaign in 2018. The good citizens, he said, should no longer be defenseless in the face of the bad ones. And he kept his word. Since he took office, Bolsonaro has issued dozens of decrees amending the fine print. But the effect has been substantial.

Brazilians no longer have to provide extensive justification for why they need a weapon, and the number of firearms each individual is allowed to own has been increased, as has the amount of allowable ammunition. Sport shooters, who used to only be allowed to transport their weapons to their training sites, now have the right to carry them around during their daily lives. On top of all that, prices for firearms have fallen ever since Bolsonaro broke the monopolies of local producers and opened up the market to small-caliber imports by eliminating the import tax.

Members of the shooting club examine a weapon from the Israeli brand Masada.

Members of the shooting club examine a weapon from the Israeli brand Masada.

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

A handgun and a target at Calibre 12.

A handgun and a target at Calibre 12.

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

Because of the legal changes, the number of registered firearms has increased almost 500 percent since January 2018. Around half a million Brazilians have signed up as sport shooters, and it is also likely no accident that they tend to be the most radical of the president's supporters: People whose lives orbit around fatherland, family and the church and who, like Bolsonaro, believe that every socialist dictatorship begins with the disarming of the population.

In clubs like Calibre 12, nobody trusts the public opinion surveys anymore, which are predicting a victory for former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, who recently threatened to turn the shooting ranges into libraries, is a corrupt communist in their eyes – a man who, like the pollsters, the judiciary and the media, belongs to an establishment that is seeking to push Bolsonaro out of power no matter what it takes.

The forecasts that are circulating in Anjo's networks have Bolsonaro far ahead in the polls. If he doesn't win, the only explanation for them will likely be that hackers managed to penetrate the voting machines to steal their victory. That mistrust in the voting machines is yet another way in which they parrot Bolsonaro who, following the storming of the Capitol in Washington, said that it could be even worse in Brasília.

That's why now, with the election quickly approaching, many Brazilians are viewing the shooting clubs with increasing concern. They are wondering what people are doing there behind closed doors. What are they training for? Are they, as Anjos insists, just family men seeking a bit of an adrenaline kick? Nice neighbors who happen to have a thing for Masadas just as they do for tattoos and beige cargo pants? Or are they more akin to raving private militias eager to go to war against evil on Bolsonaro's behalf?

Anjos, this much can be said, is a suspicious sort. All it takes for his hand to reflexively reach for his belt is someone asking directions. At one point during one of my early visits as we were standing in the small store out in front of the shooting range, he introduced me to the shop assistant as a Lula voter. He then squeezed past the display cases with packages of ammunition, handcuffs and switchblades and opened the door to an anteroom with a view of the shooting range through a thick pane of glass. A framed sign hangs on the wall reading: "Keep calm and shoot first."

"Keep calm and shoot first": A sign hanging in a small space between the shop and the shooting range.

"Keep calm and shoot first": A sign hanging in a small space between the shop and the shooting range.

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

Club founder Anjos says: "Shooting is a form of therapy."

Club founder Anjos says: "Shooting is a form of therapy."

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

Anjos slumps into a sofa and talks about traveling around the world by ship with the Navy. He details the medals that he would win at shooting contests and speaks of the self-defense courses he gave to his comrades. When his son turned nine, he allowed him to shoot with live ammunition for the first time.

When he went into the reserves in 2013, it seemed a logical next step to invest the money he had saved up into his own shooting club. It was still the era when Bolsonaro was just an oddball backbencher, and Anjos rented a somewhat obscure space on the outskirts of the city. He had to move, though, when a fire destroyed everything. The same year that Bolsonaro moved into the presidential palace, Anjos himself found his way into the center of society. When his wife's tennis club had an event this year, the courts displayed banners from the sponsor: Calibre 12.

This affiliation with civic life is important to Anjos. "We have businesspeople who come here," he says. "Actors, politicians. Shooting is a form of therapy," says Anjos, who isn't at all surprised that the murder rate has gone down. Weapons, he believes, establish a kind of balance. They are only dangerous when wielded by someone wanting to kill. He himself, says Anjos, has only ever had to pull his weapon on one occasion. When a car steered into him and started pushing him off the road, he rolled down his window and fired at the vehicle, which sped off. Keep calm and shoot first.

When you ask him about the man who was recently arrested after uploading a YouTube video of himself brandishing his weapon and calling on viewers to hunt down Lula, Anjos replies by asking where the problem is.

And what about the incident a few days later in Foz do Iguaçu when a man shouted "here is Bolsonaro" before then shooting to death a local politician from Lula's Workers' Party at his birthday party? Just a private feud, says Anjos.

At the end of the day, believe many, it was just a matter of time before someone would interpret Bolsonaro's tirades of hate literally and act on the disdain with which he declares his political rivals to be enemies, ne'er-do-wells, criminals and communist rats who must be "exterminated." Ponto final, full stop. These are words Bolsonaro resorts to when he runs out of arguments - similar to the full stop a Bolsonaro with which a fan in Mato Grosso ended a political discussion with a colleague by stabbing him 15 times and killing him.

Then there was the full stop sought by a sport shooter who had intended to attack the country's highest court but slammed his car into the façade of the Justice Ministry instead.


They are alarming cases, made more so by fact that many of the perpetrators had criminal records and thus shouldn't have been allowed to have a gun license. The problem, say security experts, is that the budgets of public monitoring agencies have been slashed systematically in recent years. There aren't enough staff members to examine documents or the growing arsenals. The fact that militias or drug gangs have taken advantage of this homemade chaos to register members as sport shooters and become legal gun owners is more than just an accidental byproduct. It is an argument to arm the population to an even greater extent.

The truth is: The country's murder rate trended downward for a while, mainly because the drug gangs reached an agreement on a number of cease-fires. Now, though, with Bolsonaro's decrees slowly having an effect, violence is again rising – one of the reasons that prompted the Electoral Court to issue a partial ban on carrying firearms on election day. A short time later, the Supreme Federal Court ruled that weapons purchases must again be well-founded in the future. It has become something of a ritual during Bolsonaro's tenure: The president issues decrees, someone challenges them in court and a judge is left with the task of controlling the damage.

As a result, the highest court has become a political protagonist in Brazil. For someone like Anjos, who can rattle off the names of the 11 justices like it was a soccer team, the court has become his most hated enemy. It is the court, in his view, that blocks Bolsonaro from governing the country. That has the gall to take bloggers offline, to lock up lawmakers for expressing their opinions and to order that company owners be raided because they discussed a putsch on WhatsApp. "What kind of a country is it if people can no longer say what they think?" demands Anjos.

What he doesn't see is that there are consequences when a politician suggests that police could shoot at leftist demonstrators. He ignores the fact that words can be dehumanizing and are able to shift understandings about what is acceptable and what is not.

"These hard-of-hearing in their black robes should hear the voice of our people one last time," Bolsonaro recently shouted to a riled-up crowd, which is why Anjos has news to share as he is standing in his shop one day in early August. "We are renting a bus," he says. "We're driving to Brasília to protest on Independence Day. That's what the crazy guy wants." He is referring to Bolsonaro.

His fellow shooting enthusiast Carlos Maranhão, though, isn't entirely sure if he should go along. On the one hand, he says, it could help his political career if he demonstrated such commitment. On the other, though, he sees himself more as the reflective sort, one who prefers rumination over action on such days. Plus, Maranhão is rather broke at the moment.

Carlos Maranhão practicing at the shooting range.

Carlos Maranhão practicing at the shooting range.

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

A huge pile of automobile tires forms the back wall of the shooting range, stopping the bullets as they come in.

A huge pile of automobile tires forms the back wall of the shooting range, stopping the bullets as they come in.

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

Evangelical Bolsonaro-supporter Maranhao: The two most important pillars in his life are his guitar and his Bible.

Evangelical Bolsonaro-supporter Maranhao: The two most important pillars in his life are his guitar and his Bible.

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

Maranhão, 48, is a rather colorful character. With his long, black curls, black beard and tight black pants, he looks a lot like a rockstar from the 1970s, but that's only partially accurate. Maranhão isn't just a guitarist, he's also a monarchist. And he delivers sermons in an evangelical church. Two years ago, he was a candidate for the city council, but only received 128 votes. Given the number of people who later told him they had voted for him, though, he says, it must have been closer to 300.

"It set off the alarm bells," he says.

More than anything, though, Maranhão sees himself as being involved in a "war of narratives," which is why he leads the way one afternoon from the shooting club to his church, where it is quieter to talk. Every Sunday, he plays in the church band here and sometimes speaks from the pulpit. Now, he slouches into a sofa and explains how Jesus saved him from the wrong path.

"I would party through the nights," Maranhão says. After one detox, which he underwent in an evangelical facility, the pastor asked him if he wanted a prayer. "Of course, sure," Maranhão responded, and since then he hasn't just been dry – he has had one foot in two different worlds.

One of them was the church, with its services, Bible studies and the Bible TV show at 10 a.m. every Saturday morning where the pastors fulminate against abortion and drugs. And then there were his old friends, the bands he played in and the university where he signed up to learn Greek – all of them leftist biotopes where people read Marx or Marcuse – "all that shit that still pollutes the minds of our youth."

As they talked, Maranhão found himself staring out the window. "I was stuck in a spiral of silence," he says. In these years at the beginning of the millennium, memories of the dictatorship were so fresh that hardly anyone dared to openly voice right-wing ideas. And then, Brazil went through the roof. Driven by the global hunt for raw materials, the economy boomed, and millions of people climbed out of poverty during the tenure of the former metallurgy worker Lula. Maids were suddenly able to afford airplane tickets for their vacations. Public universities introduced quotas for Black students. Abortion laws were loosened, and same-sex marriages were legalized.

Tens of thousands of Brazilians gathered on Copacabana beach on Independence Day to listen to a speech from Bolsonaro.

Tens of thousands of Brazilians gathered on Copacabana beach on Independence Day to listen to a speech from Bolsonaro.

Foto:

DER SPIEGEL

For Maranhão, though, Brazil became a country where a vast, optimistic consensus stifled everything. He only expressed the unease that the changes triggered within him in the anonymity of the internet, if at all. He realized that he wasn't alone in 2013 when millions of Brazilians took to the streets. The demonstrations initially looked like an equatorial version of Occupy Wall Street, but it gradually became apparent that it was actually a rebellion of the conservative masses, who were breaking their silence.


Both Maranhão and Anjos took to the streets back then to vent their anger with a government that, despite its prosperous beginnings, ultimately led the country into crisis. Whereas Maranhão barely managed to make ends meet with his performances, on television, he learned how a detached elite had filled their pockets. And for Maranhão, Lula – who was the main character in this epically staged corruption novella – became the epitome of evil.

It was during this time, in 2013 or 2014, that Bolsonaro first crossed his radar, says Maranhão. When he heard him speak, it was almost as if he were listening to a savior, someone who shared his priorities. He was impressed that Bolsonaro, as a captain in the reserves, would sleep in simple barracks during his travels and shunned the "regalia" of a system whose destruction was his top priority.

Suddenly, certain things could be said again.

When Bolsonaro voted for the impeachment of Lula's successor Dilma Rousseff, he dedicated his vote to an officer who had ordered Rousseff's torture during the dictatorship.

"I'm not sure if dictatorship is quite accurate," says Maranhão. "In truth, the military saved us from a dictatorship of the proletariat. From a second Cuba." The dark years in which the state committed murder and tortured its detractors is, in his recollection, a period when the streets were safe, and the children lined up every morning to sing the national anthem.

Just how alive the past is for him became clear one day in the neighborhood of the club when he looked through the broken windows of a crumbling palace. A couple of homeless people were sheltering in the darkness, but Maranhão's eyes gleamed when his gaze fell on the remains of some old, 19th century wood floors. "It's unacceptable that something like this should just crumble to dust," he said.

It is partly for that reason that he ultimately found his way through friends to a political party operating in Bolsonaro's universe. When he went to his first meeting, they laughed at him because his mussed hair made him look like a leftist loser. But suddenly, he himself was a political candidate echoing Bolsonaro. There is a video from his campaign where he steps up to a microphone and holds forth about the palace, sounding like a future culture commissioner. In another, he is standing on the roof of a bus and playing the national anthem on his electric guitar à la Jimi Hendrix.

It's hard to say when this self-liberation movement became a cult. Maranhão and Anjos are actually the kind of people who view the world with a certain amount of skepticism, but they don't apply that same perspective to Bolsonaro. They don't measure him by his actions, but by his tweets.

Even though a catastrophe, in the form of the pandemic, fell into his lap like the Hiroshima bomb, the economy, notes Maranhão, is once again recovering – a view that ignores the fact that millions of his compatriots are without work. Bolsonaro has lowered gas prices, says Anjos, but he overlooks the more than 30 million Brazilians who are facing food insecurity because of continually rising prices.

Maranhão in the evangelical church where he plays guitar, sometimes speaks from the pulpit and gives guitar lessons.

Maranhão in the evangelical church where he plays guitar, sometimes speaks from the pulpit and gives guitar lessons.

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

A police officer on Independence Day in Niterói: A significant share of Brazilian security personnel are supporters of the president.

A police officer on Independence Day in Niterói: A significant share of Brazilian security personnel are supporters of the president.

Foto:

ian cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

And what about the fact that the president's family paid for more than 50 properties with cash, as the media recently reported? That hasn't been proven, they say. What about his sons' strikingly aggressive lobbying on behalf of companies like Taurus, Glock and Sig Sauer? No connection. What about the fact that Bolsonaro long ignored opportunities to buy the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine? That, they say, was a farsighted decision born out of a desire to avoid a disadvantageous contract.

It is impressive the degree to which they downplay all the scandals. Anything that could leave a scratch on Bolsonaro's image is polished clean, explained away and fit into their worldview.

"Lula's return would be the end of the world," says Maranhão.

And what will happen if he does?

"I don't know," says Anjos over lunch. "I just know that the situation is serious. Enough! I'm a member of the military and I have sworn an oath to sacrifice my life for my country."

Club founder Anjos says: "I'm a member of the military and I have sworn an oath to sacrifice my life for my country."

Club founder Anjos says: "I'm a member of the military and I have sworn an oath to sacrifice my life for my country."

Foto:

Ian Cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

On the morning of Sept. 7, Independence Day, Anjos is standing on the sidewalk in front of his shooting club waiting for the others. The plan to rent a bus was abandoned because he has too much to do, but he still wants to demonstrate.

Anjos had posted a meeting time of 8 a.m. on the club's WhatsApp channel, but the first person shows up just before 9 a.m., a lawyer named Luis, who has covered his motorcycle in Brazilian flags. His T-shirt is emblazoned with the message: "And you will see that your son will not flee from the fight." A camera is mounted on his helmet, and he has lodged a club in the sleeve of his leathers. Anjos has a knife in his bag because he isn't allowed to wear his Glock to large events. But, he says, he feels naked if he has no weapon with him at all.

"Did you see? Trucks are lined up for 30 kilometers outside of Brasília," says Luis. "Lots going on," replies Anjos.

Last year on Independence Day, some truckers grew ecstatic when fake news reached them at a gas station that Bolsonaro had declared a state of emergency. Millions of people took to the streets on behalf of Bolsonaro that day. When he insulted the justices of the country's highest court as "riffraff" and said he would be ignoring their rulings in the future, many saw it as a rehearsal for a coup d'état. This year, it is about an illusion. The sheer numbers of people taking to the streets, it is hoped, shall prove the inaccuracy of the public opinion polls.

In pursuit of that goal, Anjos ties a Brazil flag around his waist shortly before 10 a.m. and heads out. Nobody else has shown up to the meeting spot. Luis has already headed out and Maranhão is at the promenade where thousands of Bolsonaro followers, dressed in green and gold, have gathered. Across the country, the total runs into the millions.

Anjos on the way to the protests on Independence Day.

Anjos on the way to the protests on Independence Day.

Foto:

ian cheibub / DER SPIEGEL

When Anjos arrives, he greets a couple of sport shooters who train in his club. Their fists are clenched in the selfies they take. Then, he runs into a combat swimmer who tells him that he recently had to beat up a cyclist because he passed too close. If Bolsonaro loses, the man adds, then a lot of people will have to die.

As a few beachgoers hold up a soccer ball, parade trucks blast songs urging that Lula be thrown back into prison. When he sees such crowds, says Anjos, then he is certain that Bolsonaro will win re-election in the first round of voting.

Ponto final.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.