By Gabriel Stargardter
OLIMPIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Jose Antonio Arantes, a Brazilian newspaper editor and radio host, awoke around 4 a.m. on a morning in March to find his house had been set on fire. With buckets of water, he and his wife doused the blaze before it grew out of control.
Police in Olimpia, a small town in Sao Paulo state, soon tracked down the arsonist: a fireman called Claudio Assis.
Described by the detective leading the case as a "hardcore" supporter of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, the 55-year-old Assis admitted starting the fire. According to a written copy of his police testimony, he said he was angered by Arantes' public campaign for strict restrictions to control the coronavirus outbreak.
Assis told police in the testimony that he had considered killing an unnamed politician and said the arson attack was "an act of revolt," as the press "was not helping to combat the COVID-19 epidemic."
The torching of Arantes' building is one of many small-town dramas erupting across Brazil, where the world's second-deadliest coronavirus outbreak has aggravated deep political polarization ahead of next year's presidential election.
Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, has played down the severity of an outbreak that has killed over half a million people, pushed useless miracle cures and railed against job-killing lockdowns.
He argues that in a poor country like Brazil, lockdowns are more dangerous than the virus. Many of his supporters have taken to the streets to protest against stay-at-home policies, masks and other restrictions advocated by public health experts.
Critics say Bolsonaro's stance has helped turn friendly neighbors into bitter foes, and led to threats and violence against those who support or enact containment measures.
Arantes said Assis had been radicalized by Bolsonaro.
"He was brainwashed," Arantes said in an interview at his simple broadcasting studio just meters from where the fire began. "And this is happening across Brazil."
In March, a judge in the southern city of Curitiba ordered a ban on public protests after WhatsApp messages surfaced of anti-lockdown protestors threatening to burn down the mayor's office. Margarida Salomao, the leftist mayor of Juiz de Fora, also received physical threats after imposing a city-wide lockdown.
Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, a Bolsonaro rival, moved into the governor's mansion after the president's supporters protested outside his private residence, threatening his family.
Even before the pandemic, Brazil was suffering from rising political violence. A November 2020 study by the federal election court found a sharp uptick in assaults since 2018, the year Bolsonaro was elected, when 46 candidates suffered attacks. Last year, 263 were assaulted.
A study by the National Federation of Journalists (FENAJ) also identified a record 428 attacks against reporters in 2020, more than double the year before.
"During the pandemic ... Brazil registered an explosion in cases of violence against journalists," it said in its report. "For FENAJ, the increase is associated with Jair Bolsonaro's ascension to the presidency and the growth of Bolsonarismo."
In recent weeks, as rising coronavirus cases spark fears of a third wave and more lockdowns, Bolsonaro has threatened to use military forces, which he calls "my army," to block stay-at-home orders.
That augurs badly for next year's presidential vote, experts say. Bolsonaro has long made baseless allegations of voter fraud, prompting fears he may not accept the results of the election, in which he is almost certain to face his nemesis, leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The president's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Olimpia Mayor Fernando Cunha said he had learned that he was the unnamed politician Assis had considered killing. Cunha said Bolsonaro bore responsibly for radicalizing people like Assis.
"I think we're facing a high-risk electoral process," said Cunha, from the center-right Social Democratic Party. "I think we have a high chance of bad episodes thanks to this radicalization."
BOYCOTTS FOR BOLSONARO
The March 17 arson attack capped days of mounting tension for Arantes, an outspoken local newsman, who had riled some in Olimpia with his campaign.
Cunha estimated a third of Olimpia's 1,500 business-owners were, like Bolsonaro, strongly against shuttering trade.
He said anti-lockdown agitators tended to be wealthier residents, owners of businesses such as gyms, and uniformed public servants, especially police and firemen - professions that have long formed Bolsonaro's base.
In early March, Doria announced a partial state-wide lockdown. A few days later, an anonymous open letter, penned by the "businessmen of Olimpia," began to circulate.
"We will not follow any decree that prevents us from working," they wrote. Should such a measure appear, they said, "we will practice self-defense." The authors urged the mayor "to avoid unnecessary confrontations that could cause damage," and to adopt Bolsonaro's "early treatment" COVID-19 protocol, which involves hydroxychloroquine and other discredited drugs.
When Arantes reported on the uproar caused by the letter, his critics discussed pressuring local firms to pull their advertising.
"Talking with various businessmen, all of them are outraged by that radio (host). We propose boycotting his advertisers," one Facebook user wrote.
On March 15, around 100 anti-lockdown protestors gathered outside the mayor's office. Among them was Assis.
Less than 48 hours later, the fireman grabbed a bottle of gasoline, covered up his motorbike's license plate and drove to the home of Arantes, where he doused the front door with fuel. He then set it alight and drove home.
Asked why he did it, Assis told police he "didn't like the newspaper editor's pronouncements."
Interviewed at the gates of his home, Assis told Reuters a COVID-19 infection, for which he was hospitalized, had left him with psychological problems that prompted him to start the fire.
He said he did not know anyone was in the building, and disavowed his statement to police, saying he could not remember what he said, including whether he wanted to kill a politician.
"I'm a victim of COVID," he said.
Marcelo Pupo, the lead detective, said he did not believe Assis' claim of coronavirus-induced madness, suggesting it was a defense proposed by his lawyer.
"Claudio was always a normal guy," Pupo said.
Alexandre Zanetti, Assis' boss, agreed. According to a written copy of his testimony, Zanetti told police that Assis "never showed any abnormal behavior," and there was no inkling he might have had a psychiatric problem.
(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter Editing by Brad Haynes and Alistair Bell)