By Gabriel Stargardter
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – The far-right governor of Rio de Janeiro state, who has likened drug dealers to terrorists and Nazis while advocating snipers in helicopters to shoot them dead, said on Tuesday “it is only a matter of time” before he becomes president of Brazil.
Wilson Witzel, a former federal judge, was widely seen as a long-shot to become governor of Rio state in last year’s elections. But his law-and-order rhetoric helped align him with the eventual winner of the 2018 presidential race, former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, hoisting him to an unlikely victory.
“Without doubt,” Witzel said, when asked by foreign journalists in Rio if he believed he would be president in the future. He did not specify when he might run.
Witzel’s comments suggest Bolsonaro is likely to face tough challenges from both the left and the right if he seeks re-election in 2022. Bolsonaro had promised during last year’s campaign to do away with re-election for Brazilian presidents but recently said he could run for second term.
Sao Paulo Governor João Doria, whose once-close ties with Bolsonaro have frayed since he took charge of the wealthy and relatively peaceful state earlier this year, is also expected to run.
In line with national trends, the number of murders in Rio has fallen since Witzel took office on Jan. 1, down around 25 percent between January and May compared with the same period in 2018.
But the number of killings by Rio’s police officers has risen, up nearly 20 percent in the first five months of this year. Critics argue Witzel’s hard-line rhetoric has given cops an implicit permission to kill.
“Nobody wants to kill bandits. We want to arrest them,” Witzel said. “But they need to know we are going to act with rigor. When we arrive, they either surrender, or die.”
Witzel, who has ramped up the use of helicopters in police operations, has said the city is now manning them with snipers to take out favela kingpins.
Witzel justified his fight against Rio’s drug gangs by likening it to the bombardment of Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
“Although not in the same proportion, we’re also battling terrorists,” he said.
Additionally, Witzel said Rio’s death toll was likely to remain high during his time in office.
“That’s normal in a situation like this one,” he said. “We’re living in a situation of confrontation, in which (drug gangs) are testing the limits of the police and of the governor.”
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)