brazil elections
Francine Farias had just completed a census of her tumbledown favela on the outskirts of one of the world's most violent cities when she heard a volley of gunfire and her count was rendered suddenly out of date.

One unpaved street away, her next-door neighbour, 17-year-old Ruan Patrick Ramos Cruz, lay dead in the dirt after being repeatedly shot in the head and chest by unknown assassins.

"First I heard four [shots], then two more," recalled Farias, a community leader in Loteamento Alameda das Árvores, a rundown 288-home settlement on the southern fringes of Feira de Santana.

"It's devastating to see one more young person die because of crime - a young man with his whole future before him," added Farias, 31, who said her neighbour had become mixed up in drugs. "He's the third since I've lived here. All of them the same age."

Cruz was the 296th person to die in Feira de Santana this year and the latest victim of an escalating murder crisis that has arguably made public security the key issue as Brazil holds its most unpredictable presidential election in decades.

Ahead of Sunday's vote, the country's uncontrolled violence is fueling support for the far-right pacemaker Jair Bolsonaro, who has opened up a 10-point lead over his closest rival, the Workers' party (PT) candidate, Fernando Haddad, with many followers citing security as their main reason for championing the 63-year-old politician.

Many are horrified at the rise of a pro-torture populist notorious for his vicious and incendiary remarks about women, black people, indigenous communities, human rights and Brazil's LGBT community.

But Latin America's largest democracy suffered a record 63,880 homicides last year - more than 6,000 of them in the north-eastern state of Bahia, where Feira is located - and Bolsonaro has promised no-nonsense fixes, including loosening gun laws.

"Why has violence gone up? Why have weeds overtaken your backyard? It's because you didn't eradicate them, so of course they'll grow," he said at a campaign event in the Amazon earlier this year. "Have we eradicated crooks in Brazil? No!"

"If someone breaks into our house or our ranch we must have the right to shoot them - and if we kill them, it's their problem for dying, not ours," he added. "This is the only way we are going to put the brakes on these crooks."

Robert Muggah, the head of a Brazilian think tank called the Igarapé Institute, said crime had been catapulted up the political agenda by both "a sense and an objective reality" among voters that things were on the slide.

Minds had also been focused by a series of "spectacular events of egregious violence" including prison massacres, a surge in bloodshed in north-east Brazil, the collapse of efforts to "pacify" Rio's favelas, the still unsolved assassination of Rio councillor Marielle Franco and the recent stabbing of Bolsonaro himself.

Yet experts and those on the front-line of Brazil's murder epidemic say presidential hopefuls have not come close to adequately addressing one of the most urgent issues facing Latin America, which has 8% of the world's population but suffers 33% of all homicides. Each day, more than 400 people are murdered in the region; each year more than 145,000.

"So far I haven't heard a single decent proposal ... They [just] talk, talk and talk," said Gleidson Santos, a crime reporter who estimates he has visited more than a thousand murder scenes in Feira since he began covering the beat in 2004.
brazil police violence crime
© Alan Lima
Members of Feira de Santana’s elite Rondesp police unit search a house in the Favela do Arreia.
Muggah agreed. "Given the gravity of the situation, given the sheer magnitude and scale of homicidal violence ... what is striking is how weak the proposals have been."

On the campaign trail, candidates have tried to talk tough on crime or the causes of crime.

The centre-left candidate Ciro Gomes, who is third in polls, has vowed to "cut the head off" organized crime while the leftist Guilherme Boulos has pledged to end a futile war on drugs responsible for "a veritable genocide" of young, poor, black men.

Haddad, who recently replaced former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the PT candidate but is struggling to catch up with Bolsonaro, has blamed soaring violence in north-eastern Brazil on crime syndicates from Rio and São Paulo squabbling over lucrative new markets created by the "China-style growth" of the Lula era.

He promises a "unified public security system" and to federalize some crimes so state authorities can focus on fighting murders, femicide, rape and robbery.

No candidate, however, has talked tougher than Bolsonaro, whose mano dura ('firm hand' or 'iron fist') policy to throw "everything" at the "hoodlums" has struck a chord with millions of voters.

"You can't treat this kind of person as if they were a normal human being ... You've got to shoot. If you don't shoot you'll never sort all this out," the far-rightwing populist said in one interview.

Speaking to the Guardian earlier this year, Bolsonaro's son and campaign coordinator, Eduardo Bolsonaro, claimed supporters were fed up with do-gooder activists hampering an effective crackdown on crime. "How much money will human rights NGOs get [under a Bolsonaro presidency]? Zero!" he declared.

Such rhetoric has impressed violence-weary voters.

In Iati, a small rural town in Pernambuco state, Antônio Tenório said he saw potential saviours in Bolsonaro and his running mate, the retired army general Hamilton Mourão.

"Brazil is in such a state that Bolsonaro and this general of his are the only guys who can restore some order," said the 67-year-old farmer, brandishing a kitchen knife he recently started carrying for fear of being assaulted by drug addicts.

PauloHenriqueVillasBoas, a Bolsonaro supporter in Recife, Pernambuco's violence-stricken capital, agreed an iron fist was the answer: "Brazil is at war ... an informal war."

That last claim rings true when you spend time on the heavily militarized frontlines of a drug conflict ravaging communities up and down Brazil.

"The weapons they have nowadays are just as powerful as ours," said one member of Feira de Santana's elite Rondesp police unit as his unit swept into the Expansão do Feira IX favela in search of gang members, wielding submachine guns and assault rifles.

Locals fled indoors or looked on passively from their doorsteps as the six-member team filed past, across fetid open-air sewers and rubbish-strewn wastelands, frisking and interrogating a succession of young black men as they went.

"What are you? BDM? Katiara?" one officer asked a suspect, referring to the two factions vying for control of Feira's drug trade.

Col Luziel Andrade de Oliveira, the regional police commander, claimed his troops were gradually winning a constant "game of cat and mouse" with gangsters he blamed for 80% of murders. In one recent operation officers seized nearly 100 firearms.

Roberto da Silva Leal, Feira's civil police chief, also claimed progress was being made to make Brazil's 13th most violent city safer. Homicides rocketed in June and July, with 18 people killed in one weekend alone, but fell dramatically in September, he said.

Still, Leal admitted security forces alone would not fix what was in many ways a social crisis: "If we carry on with just the police working on this we are going to have a very serious problem."

Robinson Almeida, a PT politician who until 2014 ran a regional anti-homicide initiative called Pact for Life, said the only way to tackle Brazil's "intolerable" murder crisis was to simultaneously tighten its borders, crack down on organized crime and reduce drug consumption. "You'll never solve the problem just declaring war on drugs."

In Loteamento Alameda das Árvores many locals have given up on politicians solving the problem altogether and are seeking their own fixes.

Twenty-four hours after her teenage neighbour was interred, Farias was preparing to meet an entrepreneur she hoped might bankroll a social project to get young men off the streets and away from drugs. She said she felt so neglected by politicians she would boycott Sunday's election.

"Has anyone said anything about public security apart from Bolsonaro, who just says he wants to kill all the crooks?" Farias asked.

"I don't see any real proposals ... [so] what's the point in exercising my right as a citizen?" she wondered, before adding: "Even if my own father was a candidate, I wouldn't vote for him."