'Trump of the tropics' candidate, on verge of being Brazil's next leader, causes division and discontent

Joao Bircle picks up his gun, takes aim, and lets lose a deafening volley of shots.

The neat pattern of holes at the centre of the target tells me I’m watching an expert marksman.

Since he left the army, he’s used the gun only once in anger, or rather self defence. He shot dead an armed robber. "It was his life or mine," he says simply.

Joao now works as an instructor at a range in downtown Rio de Janiero, a violent city in a country with more than 63,000 murders a year.

It’s an astounding statistic that goes some way to explain why Joao and millions of his fellow Brazilians will this weekend vote for a Presidential candidate who divides opinion between those who see him as some sort of saviour and others who fear his rise prefaces a return to an ugly past.

There’s no doubt which side Joao is on. "Jair Bolsonaro is the only hope for this nation," he says.

Jair Bolsonaro moments before an assassination attempt.

Bolsonaro, another former military man, has promised to ease restrictions on gun ownership. That, and tearing up environmental controls in the Amazon, are about the least controversial of his proclamations.

This past week he’s threatened to banish left wing opponents. "Either they go overseas or they go to jail," he told supporters.

A former parachute captain, his political career was once distinguished only by the crudity of his rhetoric.

He told a fellow parliamentarian she was "too ugly to rape." He’s spoken in favour of dictatorship, and defended the use of torture. He’s said if his son were gay, he’d rather his son were dead. That black Brazilians are "fat and lazy."

But now he stands, according to every poll, on the verge of becoming the next leader of the world’s fourth largest democracy.

More remarkably, in the last stages of the campaign he has barely been seen in the flesh.

Last month, in a mark of how poisonous the election has become, he was attacked at a rally. He only just survived the knife wound, and has since appeared only by video link and on-line.

None of it has hindered his progress. He was courted controversy and caught the popular mood.

Brazil is emerging from a long, deep recession.

Brazil is only slowing emerging from a long and deep recession.

Unemployment stands at 13 million. Worse, a multi-billion pounds corruption scandal has engulfed the Workers' Party, which has run the country for a decade and a half.

Its first choice candidate, former President Lula da Silva, is in jail. His replacement is uninspiring.

Against that Bolsonaro offers an apparently clean break and simple solutions to complex problems. No wonder he’s been called the Trump of the tropics.

There are many Brazilians who view his rise with alarm.

There is support for Bolsonaro in even the most deprived areas.

Brazil has gone from chaotic left wing government to authoritarian rule in the past – the twenty years of army dictatorship that ended in 1985.

"His victory would be a tragedy for my country," journalist Hildegard Angel tells me.

Hildegard’s mother and brother were murdered by the military regime.

"Stuart was beaten. Then they tied him to the back of a jeep and dragged him round. He lay all night pleading for water, then he died," she says, tearful at the memory.

They’ve never found his body. The same is true for many of the victims.

"They had special flights. Death flights. They dropped them into the ocean. Some were still alive."

But if that’s a warning from history, many are deaf to it.

We visit Mineira, one of the favelas that cling to the hills above the better off parts of Rio. We are a long way from the well-healed clients of the gun club, but there are Bolsonaro supporters here too.

"He’s a man of God and so am I," says Luiz Santos, as we overlook the slums he calls home. "To put this train wreck of a country back on track, we need a strong leader. That’s Bolsonaro."