The Mechanism: Character Assassination, Election Propaganda & Entertainment

Netflix series, the Mechanism, premiered on Friday, March 23. The new feature by Narcos and Elite Squad director José Padilha was immediately received with criticism for, in the guise of being “based on a true story”, slandering ex-presidents Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, during an election year in which Lula is the leading presidential candidate.

The first episode opens in 2003, as Selton Mello portrays Federal Police special agent Marco Ruffo, a character clearly based on Gerson Machado, as he uncovers a money laundering scandal involving Banestado bank. 2003 was the first year that Lula assumed the presidency, but the Benestado scandal was uncovered in 1996, during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso government. Associating the scandal with Lula is the first act of character assassination in a episode that is full of lies and manipulation.  Mello is one of Brazil’s finest actors and has a history of participating in some of the best underground films of the last 2 decades, frequently skirting Globo Films near hegemony in the industry to appear in important Indy films such as Cheiro do Ralo and Garotas do ABC. It is disappointing, therefore, to see him here, merely imitating Wagner Mauro’s Captain Nascimento character from the Elite Squad films, never smiling as he gruffly deadpans his way through a series of plot holes that Padilha seems unable to link together without constant voiceovers.

Ruffo’s character is a Hollywood archetype-  the Dirty Harry style honest cop, getting by on a working class salary as his frustration grows at the bureaucracy and corruption that surrounds him. Like Dirty Harry, he frequently takes the law into his own hands through illegal acts of vigilante justice. As the fragmented plot develops he continually complains, “I’ve been on the force for 20 years. During this time I’ve managed to buy a used car for my wife, and a small house in the country.” This raises the question, “does he have a gambling problem”? Whereas buying a used car for his wife and a small house in the country would be an achievement for an honest member of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police, who make around three times the Brazilian minimum wage of $300 USD/month, Ruffo is a Federal Police agent and, therefore, a member of Brazil’s wealthy, primarily white elite. The average Delegado in the Federal Police earns around R$23,000/a month, placing him firmly in the Brazilian upper class, a category which starts at 20 times the minimum salary of R$954 and represents less than 1% of the population. Why does a guy making 25 times the minimum wage act like shelling out two weeks pay to buy a used car for his wife is such a big achievement? The fact that Brazilian Federal Police Delgados make more than their American FBI counterparts in a country where average salaries are roughly 1/3 of what they are in the United States is, in itself, an example of corruption.  The average Federal Police officer has at least two house servants but Ruffo lives in a working class neighborhood and, apparently in one of Brazil’s only upper class families that does it’s own chores and looks after its own children. Ruffo is a working class everyman.  He’s an honest cop, who starts breaking the law in the first 10 minutes of the program, frustrated that working class white guys like himself are powerless to do nothing as the nation is plagued by the “cancer” of corruption.

As the action moves 10 years forwards, to 2013, we are transported to Brasília. As a mousy, simpering version of Lula appears on the screen, being scripted through a campaign commercial for a cartoon caricature of  Dilma Rousseff, the holes in the plot are smoothed over through a second narrator. She is a female member of Brazil’s elite, another Federal Police agent, who tells us that she never saw any changes in Brazil during the PT governments, “it was all just more of the same”. This is actually a common complaint from members of the Brazilian elite, who grew increasingly frustrated by measures implemented by the Federal Government that forced them to pay minimum salary to their kitchen maids and nannies, and forced their children to have to study harder to make it into free public universities after the government began reserving 50% of the berths for the mainly Afro-Brazilian graduates of the public school system.  The average member of the elite could care less that 36 million people rose above the poverty line. They were more angry that they had to sit next to “poor people” on airplanes, with the term “poor” commonly used as a racist code word to describe Afro-Brazilians and Northeasterners.

Dilma Rousseff published a public statement calling the program “underhanded and full of lies”, listing several instances in the first episode where words or deeds done by members of the Coup government are attributed to herself and Lula. The most glaring example is the word for word reproduction of a conversation by Senator Romero Jucá, one of the key architects of the illegal impeachment, placed into the mouth of Lula. In the conversation, which was widely publicized in Brazil at the time, Jucá said that it was time to “stop the bleeding” caused by Lava Jato and “make a big national deal” to protect the coup actors in the Michel Temer’s Partido do Movimento Democratico Brasileiro (Democratic Movement Party/PMDB). In a year in which Lula is the leading candidate for the presidency, regardless of whether a program claims to be merely “based” on a true story, it is incredibly dishonest to put these words into his mouth.

Why would Netflix be so interested in committing character assassination against the PT party? A good starting point is to follow the money. One of Netflix largest shareholders is BlackRock, an investment management corporation that has assets totaling more than the value of the Brazilian GDP. It is the majority shareholder in two petroleum companies that benefited immensely from the 2016 Coup and the illegitimate Michel Temer government’s subsequent privatization of off shore petroleum reserves and $300 billion USD in tax abatement, Shell and Chevron.  It is important to note here that all center left candidates in the 2018 presidential elections, from Guilherme Boulos to Ciro Gomes and Lula, are promising to undo Temer’s privatizations if elected.

As Dilma Rousseff said in her open letter about The Mechanism, “Whoever wants to make fiction has all the right in the world to do so. But it is a stretch to say that this is a work of fiction. To the contrary, what is being done is not based on real facts, but on real distortion as a new fake news story.”

Stretching the truth in films and TV shows based on true stories is as old as Hollywood and is a practice that is generally considered to be legal. At what point, however, will billionaire corporations begin to be held accountable for deliberately meddling in foreign elections under this cover?


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.