Last November, just hours before a social gathering for Haitian immigrants in the town of Itajai in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, event organizer Andrea Muller received a chilling message.
“Cancel the Haiti exhibition or we will commit a massacre,” read the subject line of the email, seen by Reuters.
“Santa Catarina is a land of WHITE PEOPLE, FOR WHITE PEOPLE,” the anonymous sender wrote, signing off with the Nazi salute “SIEG HEIL.”
Ultimately, the event went ahead without any problems and with police present. Yet the email, which police in Santa Catarina are still investigating, is indicative of a small but rising number of cases of neo-Nazism in Brazil that have increased as far-right politics flourished during former President Jair Bolsonaro’s 2019-2023 term.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain, was widely criticized for his long-standing defense of Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, his anti-democratic attacks on the country’s voting system in last year’s election and policies that critics say endangered the country’s indigenous peoples.
Brazil’s Federal Police said the number of investigations opened into alleged incitement of neo-Nazism had jumped since 2019, with a “significant increase” this year.
Brazil’s 1989 racism law punishes the use of symbols linked to Nazism and speech considered “apologies for the regime of Adolf Hitler” is not protected under freedom of expression statutes in Brazil.
The police force said 21 probes into the alleged manufacture, sale, distribution or brandishing of swastikas “for the purpose of propagating Nazism” have been opened so far this year, up from just one in 2018, the year Bolsonaro was elected.
Some experts say those numbers fail to capture the nationwide scale of the problem. In April, a day after a 25-year-old man with an axe killed four children at a Santa Catarina kindergarten, Justice Minister Flavio Dino ordered police to probe neo-Nazi organizations possibly operating across state lines. Perpetrators wore arm-bands with Nazi swastikas in two previous school attacks this year in Brazil.
Brazil’s National Jewish association CONIB said it had noted “an unprecedented increase in the number of extremist groups, the majority of which are openly neo-Nazis.”
Researchers at Sao Paulo state’s Unicamp university have tracked a more than 10-fold rise in the number of neo-Nazi cells in Brazil since 2015. In a YouTube video presenting their findings, the Unicamp researchers said Bolsonaro had “fueled” the rise of such groups with his “inflammatory” speeches.
Although others question the scale of those findings, no one doubts the numbers are on the rise.
Guilherme Franco de Andrade, an expert on the far right at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul in central-west Brazil, said neo-Nazism was clearly a growing problem.
But he was wary of pinning it all on the former president. Instead, he said its growth was more likely tied to growing conservatism after years of graft-stained leftist administrations, than to Bolsonaro.
“To credit Bolsonaro directly with any leadership … is a mistake,” he said.
Bolsonaro’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
The problem of neo-Nazism is particularly acute in Santa Catarina, a state where many have German and Italian ancestry. The state has the largest proportion of white residents in Brazil, with 84% declaring as white in the last census.
Arthur Lopes, a police detective who leads probes into neo-Nazi groups, said that ethnic makeup has led some in the state to believe in white superiority.
Lopes, whose office in the Santa Catarina state capital of Florianopolis is cluttered with boxes of seized Nazi paraphernalia, said he now spends much of his day on the dark web, where fascists congregate to avoid the prying eyes of law enforcement.
In November, Lopes’ team carried out its biggest ever bust, arresting eight alleged neo-Nazis holed up in a rural property who called themselves Crew 38. Several of the men were tattooed with Nazi symbols and English phrases like “White Power.”
During the raid, Lopes’ team found red, white and black flags, T-shirts with the logo of the Hammerskins, an offshoot of a U.S. neo-Nazi organization, and CDs of what Lopes referred to as “white supremacist bands.” Lopes said he suspects they were selling the items to Hammerskins cells in the United States and Europe.
Luis Eduardo de Quadros, a lawyer representing the eight men, said his clients were old friends who enjoy listening to that style of rock music, but “have nothing against Blacks or Jews.” He said he had received death threats for defending them.
Lopes said prosecuting those linked to Nazism can be tricky under Brazilian law, which he said was “weak” and “outdated” since the use of symbols other than the swastika that allude to the Nazi regime and speech that denies or defends the Holocaust generally goes unpunished.
Itajai local Talita de Almeida, a 32-year-old programmer who attended the Haitian event in November, said the threatening email had opened her eyes to a new reality in Brazil.
“I was scared, because I’m Black and I’m LGBT,” she said. “It’s a step backwards.”