Brazil cracks down on a surprising new threat: neo-Nazis

In southern Brazil in July, Laureano Toscani and João Guilherme Correa smoked cigarettes along a busy street wearing prison-issue clothes, shorts and sandals, waiting for a ride after seven months in prison.

Mr. Toscani was once convicted of stabbing a group of Jewish men, and Mr. Correa was accused of killing a couple as they left a party. But this time they were behind bars for attending what they said was a harmless barbecue.

Brazilian authorities, however, say it was something much more sinister: a meeting of the Hammerskins, a neo-Nazi group founded in Dallas in 1988 which they say recently found its way thousands of kilometers south into Brazil’s most intensely conservative region, reflecting a surge in far-right extremists in Latin America’s largest nation.

In September 2022, the Santa Catarina State Police began tracking the Hammerskins as members strategized on how to attract new recruits.

Two months later, as eight men met on a farm outside the coastal town of Florianópolis, a police hate crimes unit raided, arresting everyone under anti-discrimination laws and charging them with being members of the Hammerskins. Two other accused members were arrested weeks later.

On the members’ phones, police said, they found anti-Semitic and racist content, including a message one had sent in a group chat saying “black people must die every day.” Police said they believed the group was aided by at least two American members of Hammerskin who had traveled to Brazil several times.

The raid was part of a broader crackdown on neo-Nazi groups amid rising extremist movements and sentiment in Brazil that has spurred more school shootings and stabbing attacks, including at least 11 this year.

In February, a 17-year-old boy wearing a swastika armband was accused of throwing two homemade explosive devices at a school, but no one was injured.

In March, authorities said a 13-year-old boy stabbed a teacher to death while wearing a skull mask commonly worn by an American neo-Nazi group.

And last month, a 16-year-old boy was accused of shooting at a school, killing a classmate and wounding two others. Another student was injured while trying to escape. The teenager had previously posted a photo of a swastika drawn on his face, authorities said. In the three cases, which all occurred in or around São Paulo, the authorities arrested the boys.

Authorities say they fought back hundreds of other attacks.

Many of the attacks did not specifically target Jews. Brazil has approximately 100,000 people who identify as Jews, according to estimatesor just one in 2,000 people.

But researchers believe that those who carry out or plan such attacks often become violent after consuming extremist or neo-Nazi content online that often incites violence against anyone who is not white.

In April, Brazil’s new justice minister, Flávio Dino, ordered federal police to investigate what he called the growth of “hate speech and intolerance by neo-Nazi, neo-fascist and extremist groups.”

“If you mention Nazism, neo-Nazism, threaten a school or say you will attack a school, we will call for your arrest,” Dino added.

Brazilian federal police have opened 21 investigations involving neo-Nazis so far this year, the same number as in the previous three years combined.

Data on the size of Brazil’s neo-Nazi movement is scarce, but most researchers agree that it is growing. A researcher who tracks neo-Nazi groups, Adriana Dias, an anthropologist at the State University of Campinas, estimated that the number of groups has increased from hundreds in 2019 to more than 1,000 last year.

SaferNet, an organization that helps the Brazilian government fight online crime, has been collecting reports of neo-Nazi activity online since 2017, when it recorded nearly 1,200 complaints. By 2021, complaints had grown to nearly 14,500, but have since declined as neo-Nazi groups have increasingly migrated to private messaging platforms, researchers said. However, in the first half of this year there were 945 complaints.

Anti-Semitic attacks have increased around the world, including in Brazil, since the war between Israel and Hamas erupted last month. Last month, the Brazilian Israelite Confederation received 467 reports of anti-Semitism, up from 44 in October last year.

Some researchers have linked the rise in neo-Nazi activity in Brazil to Jair Bolsonaro’s four-year presidency. Just as American extremist groups gained strength during Donald J. Trump’s presidency, Brazil’s far right has latched onto Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric as tacit approval of their views, researchers said.

After a state visit to Israel in 2019, his first year as president, Bolsonaro said that The Nazis were left-wing and that “we can forgive but not forget” the Holocaust, drawing criticism from his Israeli counterpart.

In 2020, Bolsonaro’s culture secretary was forced to resign after giving a response speech that was so similar to that of one of them Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s chief propagandist, that some parts appeared to have been copied.

And at a press conference in 2021, one of the former president’s aides he made the “OK” hand gesture in front of the cameras, a sign that has been appropriated to signify “white power” in white supremacist circles. He was charged with hate crimes, but the case was later dropped.

The “gesture has begun to appear on the Brazilian far right, even among groups that do not explicitly identify as neo-Nazis,” said Odilon Caldeira Neto, a professor of contemporary history who studies the far right at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora. This, he added, helps neo-Nazi groups “enter the political center.”

As the Bolsonaro administration investigated neo-Nazi groups, the issue became a priority under the left-wing president who defeated Bolsonaro last year, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Raids against neo-Nazi groups have occurred in at least 10 states this year.

In July, Brazilian police conducted a four-state operation against 15 people linked to a neo-Nazi group called the New SS of Santa Catarina, which used 3D printers to make guns.

In one raid, police were greeted with gunfire as they entered a rural home in Nova Petrópolis, a picturesque mountain town of about 20,000 people, many of them descendants of German immigrants.

The person who shot at the police was a woman alone with her child and an infant. No one was injured and police said they found two pistols, 96 rounds of ammunition and an array of Nazi materials, including a swastika armband, German World War II memorabilia, the flag of an international neo-Nazi group and supplies to produce goods for a local neo-Nazi group.

The woman was arrested after shooting at police, but was released on bail a few hours later.

Later that evening, belongings were still strewn about the house and the front door had been kicked in. The arrested woman said the items seized by police were personal effects purchased during the trip.

Many investigations have concentrated in southern Brazil, where 73% of the population identify as white, versus 43% nationally, and 62 percent voted for Bolsonaro last year, versus 49% nationwide. Some researchers believe that neo-Nazi groups are attracted to the region’s German history.

Before World War II, from 1928 to 1938, Brazil had the largest Nazi party outside Germany, with 2,900 members in 17 states, according to Brazilian scholars. After the war, Brazil, like other South American nations, became a haven for Nazis fleeing prosecution.

In 2020, the city of Porto Alegre, the capital of the southern state with a population of 1.5 million, renovated a park by placing an original design from the 1930s on the sidewalk. The design resembled a swastika and residents complained. A city investigation concluded there was no link between the drawing and the Nazi symbol. The project has since been vandalized.

Under Brazilian law, it is a crime to discriminate based on race, religion or nationality, as is displaying a swastika for the purpose of spreading Nazi ideology. Both crimes can lead to prison sentences of years. All 10 people accused of being members of Hammerskin have been released from prison with ankle monitors as they await court hearings.

Expecting to be released from prison in July, Mr Toscani said they had done nothing wrong. “They arrested us for organizing a barbecue,” he said. “Do you know what they found when they arrested us? A machete and a book.”

The book was “The Turner Diaries,” a classic of the extremist canon that Timothy McVeigh said inspired his 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

Arthur Lopes, the head of the Santa Catarina police hate crimes unit, which arrested the accused Hammerskin members, said some were covered in extremist tattoos. “Everything except the swastika,” he said.

Jack Nicas contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.