Policing Bolsonaro's Brazil
This article is part of the Global Perspectives on Policing series on the Verso Blog. You can find other articles from the series here.
On São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista, one of the main commercial thoroughfares in Brazil’s largest city, a police officer gently escorts a pro-Bolsonaro protester away from anti-government demonstrators, at whom she had been hurling invective. She is agitated, carries a baseball bat, and sports an American flag sanitary mask and a t-shirt printed “fascist”. A few minutes later, riot cops fire tear gas on the peaceful antifascist protest. The state governor justifies the repression the following day on grounds of public safety.
The differential treatment meted out to each “side” is indicative of police sympathies and public priorities. Since the start of quarantine in March, pro-Bolsonaro protesters have regularly taken to the streets in support of the president and against democratic institutions, in contravention of state-level social distancing guidelines. Police have not intervened against them. Had the left-wing demonstrators (on that day in late May they consisted of antifascist football supporters’ groups) carried bats, the consequences might have been severe.
Politicised policing is nothing new in Brazil, even if significant police support for Bolsonaro has thrown it into greater relief. Arguably, though, it is everyday policing – that which is not considered “political” – that is of the greatest priority to combat. The violence with which Brazil polices its citizens, especially those who are poor and black, is heinous. Bolsonarismo may have made things worse, but things were already the worst.
Brazil’s Military Police, a heavily armed gendarmerie that acts as beat cops, is the deadliest police force in the world. Officially, over 6,000 people are killed by the force each year, in a country with over 60,000 murders annually. In Brazil’s largest state, São Paulo, police killings have increased 31% from January to April this year – in comparison to the same period last year; a total of 381. The deadliest force in the country, however, is that of Rio de Janeiro, whose police force accounts for one in four police killings countrywide (the state represents only 7% of the population).
Gut-wrenching cases are so plentiful, it is hard to select examples. In May in São Gonçalo, a city in Greater Rio whose Military Police battalion is the deadliest in the state, a black 14 year-old boy called João Pedro was shot in the belly by Federal Police as they chased down drug dealers, and died on the way to hospital. Witnesses contradict the police’s claims that fugitive dealers had entered the property and, further, maintain that the boy and his friends were laying on the ground pleading for help as police fired. A few days later, police shot rubber bullets and tear gas at around 300 mourners who had gathered in central Rio on 31 May – the same day as the antifascist demonstration in São Paulo – to protest police violence.
In July, a farmer’s son was killed in his bed in the middle of the night while visiting his aunt in a small city of 18,000 in the state of Ceará in Brazil’s northeast. On the pretence that they were looking for a blonde male, Military Police entered the house and fired shots at 13 year-old Mizael, who happened to share the same hair colour as the suspect for which police were searching. The guilty officer was heard to utter “I fucked up, I fucked up” repeatedly. Meanwhile, officers moved the body out of the house and into the police car (an illegal but frequent practice), to make it look as if they were trying to save him; they even produced a gun to the investigating Civil Police, so as to claim they were acting in self-defence. The officers have been suspended but the boy’s aunt remains fearful. The police officers are still at large.
Mizael’s case is hardly exceptional. In fact, the only aspect that diverges from the average is that Mizael was white, while 75% of those killed by police are black (those identifying as non-white are around 55% of the population). One study, commissioned by a CUFA, an NGO that represents favela residents, suggests this understates the racism inherent in policing, claiming that there is a 94% greater chance of a black person suffering police violence than white.
Brazil’s 1988 Constitution is a notoriously contradictory document. For all that it enshrined social rights, it also kept in place inherited structures such as the old oligarchy and the military’s status that sustain inequality, including its racial dimension. Brazil thus persisted in the myth of being a “racial democracy”, only 100 years after the end of slavery. Critically, re-democratised Brazil also maintained its militarised police force, passed on from the military dictatorship (1964-85).
Brazil has three main police forces. The Federal Police is subordinated to the Justice Ministry and is responsible for everything from immigration and passports to political corruption and cross-border drug trafficking. At the state level, the Civil Police does detective work, including investigating police killings. The Military Police is by far the largest force, divided into 27 different state corps, answering to state governors. They number around half a million country-wide, more than the total number of Army troops. As the force’s name suggests, it is a reserve of the federal army. Consequently, it sees its role not as providing a service to the public but as combatting an internal enemy.
The military dictatorship instituted the force as a branch of the military in the late 1960s, changing it from “a provider of public safety to a political police,” in the words of Giva Manoel, an educator and a coordinator of the National Committee for Demilitarisation, with whom I spoke. Re-democratisation in the late 1980s was meant to guarantee popular participation in the creation of the public security apparatus. Indeed, the Constitution guarantees it. But in practice this never happened. Instead, we are left with a hierarchically structured Military Police corporation that brutalises recruits in the process of their formation. “The soldier is trained to fear his officer and only that. Training is for messing with your emotions, for guys to emerge from the barracks like a pitbull, raging to bite people,” one ex-Military Policeman explained to El Pais. Indeed, as Giva Manoel put it in our interview, “it’s more dangerous for a police officer to disobey orders than to commit the crime of killing a civilian.”
Police do not earn much and often have little prospects for career progression. Taking up side jobs is therefore common, such as in private security, where there are 1.7 million registered guards.
On the other side of the law are the milicias, growing in number. Made up largely of former or off-duty cops, these paramilitary gangs engage in everything from providing illicit cable service to extortion to assassinations – in effect acting as brokers in criminal markets. In parts of Rio, in particular, it became more lucrative for the milicias to displace the drug gangs and extract rents from all local economic activity, rather than focus on selling drugs. Indeed, it was from this milieu that the assassins of Marielle Franco, herself a spokesperson against police violence, emerged.
Corruption is therefore ingrained in the life of the police, even when working the day job. It is a product of the average soldado’s power and authority, as well as their vulnerability and poverty. Brazilian police may be one of the world’s deadliest, but the force also holds the distinction of being the most killed. As Graham Denyer Willis notes in his book about policing in São Paulo, “What does it mean to be ‘corrupt’ in a system where police must (ab)use their power to make their own lives, and the lives of their immediate families, safer?” It is an untenable situation.
If the grimness of normalised violence was already evident in the country, Brazil’s rightward turn has accentuated matters. Over three decades, Bolsonaro’s main role in his seven terms as congressman was speaking for the military’s corporate interests. Now, as president, he has overseen an astounding entry of the military into federal administration. There are more military men in government office than even during the military dictatorship: some 3,000 in all. Meanwhile, deputies in the lower house of Congress professing links to the military or one of the police corps increased from 12 in the 2014 elections to 28 in 2018. Eighteen of these are linked to the PSL, Bolsonaro’s erstwhile party.
The case of Hélio Fernando Barbosa Lopes, a military sub-lieutenant, is illustrative of both the authoritarian turn, as well as the regime’s tokenistic nod to race relations. Known as Hélio Negão (Negão, literally, “big black man”, though as a common nickname, it doesn’t have the racist connotations that might be suggested to the Anglophone ear), he ran for city council in Greater Rio in 2016 and won a miserable 480 votes. In 2018, he aimed higher, opting for the name “Hélio Bolsonaro” on the congressional ballot and amassed 345,000 votes. His role in politics seems to be as Bolsonaro’s only black friend; indeed, a centre-right newsweekly even described him as the president’s “anti-racist alibi”.
While Bolsonaro has widespread support within the military, sections of it are unwilling to become partisans in a political struggle, so their positioning remains ambiguous. The case of the Military Police, on the other hand, is more straightforward: it is the hard-core of the Bolsonarista base. The president, after all, was elected on the promise of greater immunity for police who kill in the line of duty. An “anti-crime” package that came into force at the start of this year expanded the (already extremely pliable) definition of “legitimate self-defence” for security officers. Bolsonaro finished 2019 by granting a Christmas clemency to soldiers and officers imprisoned for crimes in the line of duty.
The situation is grave, and uncertainty remains around what might happen should Bolsonaro try to launch a coup. As Estadão newspaper reported recently, governors and their state security chiefs who oversee the Military Police are worried the force may become a parallel power in the states if things continue in their current direction of travel. Bolsonaro’s punitive agenda no doubt has popular appeal in a situation of widespread public insecurity, but those who might see it as an attempt to strengthen sovereignty – to affirm the state’s monopoly on violence against drug gangs and other bandidos – would be mistaken. The Bolsonaro clan is deeply imbricated with the private militias – forces he has defended for their role in “providing security”, while batting away the idea they are extortion rackets. In certain locales, the militias are in fact a parallel power. The closer you look at “law’n’order”, the more it appears as illegality and disorder.
The aggravated scenario makes progressive alternatives all the more pressing. One of the most important and embracing proposals is for the demilitarization of the Military Police. At any given left-wing protest, you’ll likely hear chants calling for the fim da Polícia Militar. While US protesters have called for the police to be defunded – or more grandiloquently, abolished –, demilitarization aims instead at transforming the way policing is structured and reproduced.
During the Workers Party’s period in office (2003-16), violent crime underwent a transformation: it shifted geographically, and while crime rates improved until 2010, they then shot up again. Police kept on killing in large numbers and over the past half-decade these numbers have seen a significant increase. When, in 2012, the UN Human Rights Council put forward 170 recommendations for improving human rights in the country, Brazil accepted most of them but rejected out of hand the idea of abolishing the Military Police, because its existence was inscribed in the Constitution.
The following year, police heavily repressed protests against bus fare rises and ensuing outrage swelled numbers on the streets to the millions. The “June Days” of 2013 briefly brought the question of police violence to the attention of white, middle-class Brazil, as now it was their children – or mainstream journalists – who were the objects of brutality. The Amarildo case, in which a resident of Rio’s Rocinha favela was taken into police custody and then disappeared, sustained the question of police abuse into the nation’s eye. That year, Workers Party senators tabled a constitutional amendment to demilitarise the police.
The drafter of the amendment, anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares, explained in his book Desmilitarizar that, “to demilitarize means to liberate the police from the obligation of imitating the organizational centralization of the Army so as to assume its specific function: to guarantee the rights of citizens.” Monica Cunha, who lost a son to police violence in Rio, is the founder and coordinator of Movimento Moleque, an organisation that advocates against police abuse, with a focus on adolescents. She emphasised to me that demilitarisation aims at changing behaviour by focusing on the system: “the demand for demilitarisation is a way of acting at a national level... before putting on the uniform, police are human beings and must be understood as such, so we have to look at the system.”
For Giva Manoel, though he is a noted advocate of demilitarisation, there was a problem with the draft constitutional amendment: “the content was worthwhile, but its form was limited.” The fact it was drafted by a small group meant it did not draw sufficiently from those who stood to benefit – that is, it did not involve poor communities in discussion about how policing should work. Moreover, it stood practically no chance of gaining the required supermajority in Congress.
Resistance against resistências
In the meantime, victims still search in vain for some accountability. Though the law prohibits the use of firearms against unarmed citizens and stipulates that officers must follow principles of legality, necessity, and reasonableness and proportionality, the penal code also allows police to “use whatever means necessary to defend themselves or to overcome resistance.” Killings by police are automatically classed as “resisting arrest followed by death” – earning them the (ironic) moniker resistências - resistances. The victim is held under presumption of guilt, while the police’s word is endowed with fé pública (public confidence). Though the Civil Police is responsible for investigating resistências, the hierarchy of police esteem tells its own story: “the Homicide Division is at the bottom of the police’s organizational esteem; the most elite and socially celebrated units kill – or are perceived to kill – the most,” writes Denyer Willis. Moreover, it is often military courts that have jurisdiction over the actions of the military police. Even when it falls to civilian authorities, research shows that it takes years for the public prosecutor to act, if it acts all. Some police do get charged, sentenced and imprisoned, but most don’t. And Federal and Civil Police are hardly innocent: young João Pedro was killed in a joint operation by these two forces.
As everywhere else, social media has now provided citizens with tools to record and denounce abuses, acts protected by law. That has not stopped police from confiscating phones carrying incriminating evidence, though, so there is currently a law passing through Congress that would criminalise police action that stops the filming of an incident, carrying a penalty of three months to a year imprisonment. But for every advance, there is retrocession – or else flimsy gestures. Under pressure for escalating police abuses in the state this year, São Paulo governor João Doria has advanced a programme for retraining police leadership so that “the 1% of bad police officers, who insist on using unnecessary violence on the population, understand that this is not acceptable.”
Unsurprisingly, authorities are unwilling to countenance the systemic aspect, that which was “born to kill or imprison a majority of the population – us black people”, as Cunha explained to me. For her, “the system has a target, and that target has a postal code – it is the favela and the periphery.”
Cunha is a signatory of a manifesto launched this year, “While racism exists, there will be no democracy”, conceived by the Black Coalition for Rights. The manifesto builds on the Coalition’s existing social demands – items one through three concern the eradication of poverty, ending unemployment and guaranteeing workers’ rights, for instance – to draw together the pro-democracy struggle with anti-racism. Cunha argues that demilitarising the Military Police is a key part: “Brazil was the last country to pretend at abolition, it was a fake abolition, and it’s a fake democracy. Black people do not have right to come and go as they please, they are not really free; there isn’t a public security policy, there is a policy of slaughter.”
Faced with this historic legacy and a government characterised by its drive to exacerbate every negative aspect of the country, it is perhaps surprising that one promising development has emerged from within the police itself. In 2017, police in Rio and Bahía formed a group called “Antifascism Police Officers”, which has subsequently expanded to other states. In June this year, more than 500 police signed a manifesto calling for Bolsonaro’s ouster and in defence of popular democracy. The document argues that “we, antifascist police, believe that the police worker stands alongside other workers in confronting fascism.” A co-founder explained to Carta Capital that “Bolsonaro has until now not put forward any proposal or plan for public security... there is nothing, neither something structural nor even a mere palliative, other than the discourse of ‘a good criminal is a dead criminal’, which only applies as long as it’s not one linked to his friends and family.”
Giva Manoel remains sceptical of the movement’s capacity to break with the current state of things. “The movement was born with great potential, not least because it builds on proposals for demilitarization. But they really messed up recently in their response to the what happened in Ceará,” when Military Police mutinied and ended up shooting a Senator. Bolsonaro came out in support, deeming the act a strike. For Manoel, the antifascist cops’ positioning in support of the “strike” showed they were still beholden to corporatism, to defending the police’s collective interest, thus aligning them too closely with Bolsonarismo. But “the fact there is questioning going on” is still a positive development.
The question of public security, policing and racism can no longer be separated from the overall question of Brazilian democracy itself – if it ever could. The gradual progress that the Workers’ Party years seemed to suggest was, in retrospect, underlaid by a security situation that was not attended to. Now, though, with the political ascension of the forces of repression that Bolsonaro represents, even the flimsy notion of “uneven progress” holds no water. A stagnant economy, crumbling institutions and the corrosion of public trust has opened the way for a hardening of the state, as its punitive right arm takes increasing precedence in managing the population – and its developmental left arm withers.
This lack of popular democracy is also pillar of structural racism. Progress won’t be made while one part of society continues to justify extrajudicial executions of “others” – the poor, young and black. This perpetuates cycles of violence and insecurity, creating a situation in which, as demilitarisation advocate Soares notes, “social life itself is made impossible by radical mistrust; its extreme manifestation is violence and public insecurity.” The chain between crime and insecurity, authoritarianism in the streets, racism, and the beating down of democracy, is increasingly clear. And while the Left has historically been reluctant to talk about public security for fear of bolstering a rightist, conservative agenda, this seems to be changing: the terrain of public security cannot be abandoned to the Right.
Alex Hochuli is a writer and research consultant based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is the co-host of the global politics podcast, Aufhebunga Bunga (@BungaCast), and co-author of The End of the End of History (Zero Books, 2021). He tweets @Alex__1789.