By Gabriel Stargardter
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (Reuters) - For decades, this southern metropolis stood apart from the rest of Brazil.
Compared with Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, nevermind troubled cities in Brazil's poor northeast, Porto Alegre enjoyed lower crime and homicide rates, and a reputation for wealth and tranquillity. Its residents, most of European descent, prided themselves on a clean, prosperous and progressive hometown.
In recent years, though, Porto Alegre has become more like the rest of Brazil – wracked by recession, political instability and social ills including rising poverty and soaring crime. Porto Alegre's murder rate, fuelled in part by the rapid spread of drug gangs, has reached nearly double the national average.
So, just days before a presidential election in Latin America's biggest democracy, people in the city of almost 1.5 million people want drastic change. And in the candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right Congressman long considered an outlier from the political fringe, many see what they're looking for.
Over a five-day period in Porto Alegre, Reuters interviewed dozens of voters, local politicians, state officials and public security experts to understand support for a candidate most Brazilians once considered unthinkable as their president.
"Bolsonaro has some good proposals," said Tiago Da Silva, a 26-year-old bakery employee who was robbed at knife point near his work late last year. His biggest concern: "The security situation."
While polls vary, support for Bolsonaro in Porto Alegre and across Brazil's south remains higher than anywhere else in the country – reaching 30 percent of likely voters in projections for a first-round vote Oct. 7, according to a survey this week by pollster Ibope.
The poll showed Fernando Haddad, a leftist, gaining ground and indicated that Bolsonaro would likely lose against him and other opponents in an Oct. 28 runoff.
Capitalizing on a political career largely untainted by graft accusations – no small feat in a country roiled by corruption scandals – Bolsonaro has garnered growing support with proposals and incendiary statements that in better times would have been electoral non-starters.
Among other measures, Bolsonaro wants to loosen gun laws, overhaul popular social welfare programs and privatise state-run enterprises. On the campaign trail, the 63-year-old former army captain has spoken fondly of Brazil's two-decade military dictatorship, which ended in the mid-1980s.
In three decades as Congressman for the state of Rio, he has espoused views widely considered sexist, racist and homophobic. He has defended torture, suggested the assassination of a former president, told a fellow Congresswoman that she "didn't deserve" to be raped by him and said that Afro-Brazilian descendants of slaves "aren't good enough even to procreate."
"CAN'T TAKE THIS ANY LONGER"
Despite uproar from critics, Bolsonaro refuses to apologise for any of it, delighting passionate supporters who refer to him as "a legend" and regularly mimic his trademark trigger salute.
Earlier this month, an assailant stabbed Bolsonaro at a campaign rally, inflicting a near-fatal wound for which he is still hospitalized and which may keep him from further campaigning before the first-round vote. Bolsonaro's campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In Rio Grande do Sul, an agrarian state of which Porto Alegre is the capital, voters have historically split between leftist leanings in the city and conservative influences in sprawling farmland that stretches to Argentina and Uruguay.
Rural voters elect conservative representatives who form part of Brazil's so-called "bible, bullets and beef" caucus. The city, meanwhile, gave birth to the "World Social Forum," a progressive gathering established as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
As fortunes shift across southern Brazil, most major candidates, including Bolsonaro, are looking to tap the growing frustrations there. In addition to frequent visits to Porto Alegre and other southern cities, four presidential candidates, including Bolsonaro, have picked "gauchos," as natives of Rio Grande do Sul are known, as running mates.
Hamilton Mourao, a retired Army general who shares the ticket with Bolsonaro, has enraged critics by suggesting military intervention to end corruption and with talk of curbing civil liberties and rewriting the constitution.
During a visit to Rio Grande do Sul in the days before his stabbing, Bolsonaro told supporters at Porto Alegre's airport that he represented an end to politics as usual. Nodding to the surging crime rates and violence, he vowed to reverse laws that prohibit most Brazilians from owning guns.
"We can't take this any longer," he said, as cheers erupted. "We'll attack this problem of violence by letting law-abiding citizens carry firearms."
As Brazil slowly emerges from its worst recession in decades, it is struggling with mounting violence. While the downturn and higher unemployment are believed to have fostered upticks in crime, much of the bloodshed is caused by turf wars between fast-growing gangs that control drug routes and other illicit activities.
State governments, responsible for public security, have made little progress slowing a toll that last year reached a record 63,880 reported murders nationwide.
"I AM GOING TO VOTE FOR HIM"
Rio Grande do Sul, where the gangs once were less active, had a 2010 homicide rate of 15.5 per 100,000 people, according to the Brazilian Public Security Yearbook. By 2017, the rate had risen over 70 percent, to 26.7 per 100,000.
In Porto Alegre, nearly 85 percent of people polled last year considered the city to be "very violent," according to a study by the Secure City Institute, a security research group based in the city. More than half said they supported extrajudicial killings by police.
Set amid gently rolling hills along the Guaiba River, Porto Alegre's pleasant middle-class neighbourhoods give way to ramshackle settlements on the outskirts, where gangs prey on locals and exchange gunfire with police and each other. Violence once on the margins now rattles Porto Alegre as a whole.
In late 2016, two gunmen killed an 18-year-old man near the departures lounge of the airport. The execution, blamed by police on a gang dispute, was filmed by security cameras and quickly became a symbol of Porto Alegre's woes.
Local officials say it's no surprise voters want answers fast, especially now that violence in the state, still one of Brazil's wealthiest, resembles that in the rest of the country.
"It's impossible to ignore the reality," said Cezar Schirmer, the state's secretary of public security. "Rio Grande do Sul cannot be considered a different country."
The frustrations, and consequent support for Bolsonaro's law-and-order candidacy, are voiced at both ends of the economic spectrum.
During a recent visit by the candidate to Expointer, a major agricultural fair, Bolsonaro addressed a gathering of wealthy landowners, jumped on a combine harvester and gladhanded with selfie-snapping fans.
"I can't sleep in my farm because I run the risk of being kidnapped, raped or killed," said Wolmar Baptista, a 55-year-old rancher who rose from a meal to applaud as Bolsonaro passed by.
Da Silva, the mugging victim in Porto Alegre, isn't alone in his support for Bolsonaro at the small bakery where he works. Nicholas De Conto, Da Silva's 24-year-old manager, has endured four holdups at the family-run business in recent years.
"I know he says things that are pretty radical," De Conto said. "But if he can put a stop to what is happening I am going to vote for him."
(Editing by Paulo Prada)