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How Police Violence Paves The Way To Authoritarianism

Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, believes the only good criminal is a dead one. Many Brazilians agree.

RIO DE JANEIRO ― One quote could have told you that Jair Bolsonaro was going to win.

“A good criminal is a dead criminal,” the authoritarian former army captain proclaimed again and again during his campaign for president of Brazil last year.

Bolsonaro’s words were harsh. But in a country plagued by rising levels of violent crime, the sentiment is widely popular with voters — and reflected in government policy. Brazil’s experience offers a warning to others: As police tactics get more extreme and cops kill more people, support for the killing doesn’t necessarily fall. Instead, as violence increases, so does the desire for even more aggressive solutions. 

For decades, Brazil has given its police nearly free rein to shoot and kill people suspected of crimes. As Bolsonaro made his pitch for the presidency, the numbers were only getting worse. Cops in the country killed more than 5,000 people in 2017, a 20 percent increase from the year prior.

Five thousand police killings is a staggering number. There were roughly 17,000 homicides reported in the United States two years ago. Police in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second-most populous, killed more people last year than their counterparts across the entire United States, even though the U.S. population is 20 times larger than that of Rio.

As in the United States, the victims of police killings in Brazil are disproportionately black. And as in the U.S., aggressive policing is popular. As many as 60 percent of Brazilians have said they support Bolsonaro’s favorite phrase; half have said they support police torture, according to polls.

The start of Bolsonaro’s presidency has been accompanied by a chorus of warnings that he is the most dangerous of the new wave of right-wing authoritarians to rise to power, that he poses a threat to the world’s fourth-largest democracy. But the most visible and immediate risk of his presidency is the increased power he wants to give Brazil’s already deadly police forces: He has promised to give officers “carte blanche” to kill and has said he would award medals to police who gunned down alleged criminals.

Policing is “the blind spot of democracy, because even as other areas of democracy can develop in quite extensive ways, policing will be an enclave of authoritarianism,” said Yanilda María González, a University of Chicago professor who has studied policing policies across Latin America.

It’s an area ripe for exploitation by strongmen who pitch themselves as law-and-order candidates but whose policy prescriptions, as researcher Ronald Ahren wrote in 2007, “are often very heavy on order and very light on law.”

Brazil’s road to authoritarianism ― an authoritarianism under which its most marginalized communities will suffer most ― was paved in part by the country’s explicitly authoritarian approach to policing.

No ‘Democratic Rules’ For Police

During his campaign, new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro symbolized his hard-line approach to violence with a two-finger g
During his campaign, new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro symbolized his hard-line approach to violence with a two-finger gun salute.

Brazil has democratized rapidly since the end of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, but its police have remained largely immune from many of the reforms across the rest of its governing institutions.

The former dictatorship’s primary targets were its leftist political opponents ― the regime was accused of killing or disappearing more than 4,000 people, according to a 2014 report from a government-backed National Truth Commission. Over the last three decades, Brazil has become more open to human rights activists, political opposition groups and other elements pivotal to the flourishing of a democratic society.

Brazil’s police, by contrast, became even more deadly in the first decade of democratic rule, according to researchers. That, in part, was because the main police forces ― the states’ Military Police units, which are responsible for patrolling the streets and preventing crime ― were never brought under full civilian control.

“There was never an effort to submit the police to democratic rules,” said Jose Miguel Cruz, a researcher at Florida International University in Miami. “The police that patrol the streets and the public spaces remained under the control of the military. They never really confronted a process of reform. The police were allowed to continue doing things the way they were doing things during the dictatorship, or even before. And that didn’t change.”

The police were allowed to continue doing things the way they were doing things during the dictatorship, or even before. Jose Miguel Cruz, a researcher at Florida International University

Brazil has long been a hotbed of violent crime, and its upper classes have sought protection from such violence through aggressive and oppressive policing since the days of African enslavement. The result is a dichotomous public security regime that will sound familiar to Americans: One segment of the population is generally protected while the other is vigorously policed.

“The elites for many years have promoted this picture in which the police should be allowed to use extralegal responses to deal with the problem of crime,” Cruz said. “That’s rooted in the tradition in Brazil, going all the way back to slavery. You have to control an important sector of the population, especially the Afro-descendants, in order to protect the middle classes.”

The vast majority of Brazil’s violence ― from police and otherwise ― is aimed at black people. In a country where just over half of the population identifies as black or mixed race, 70 percent of the victims of homicides committed in 2017 were black. Across Brazil, black people have historically made up roughly three-quarters of the victims of police killings, according to public data and reports from human rights groups. The sheer scale of violence amounts to what Brazilian activists call “o genocído do povo negro” ― a black genocide.

In Rio, violence is heavily concentrated in favelas, the informal, working class neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor and black and that are often controlled by drug gangs. Ninety percent of Rio’s annual homicides occur around less than 5 percent of its street addresses, said Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarape Institute, a Rio-based public security think tank.

Violence is a daily fear across Rio, where commuters now check apps that monitor shootings before leaving home or work, and in other parts of Brazil, too. But the fact that elite and middle class Brazilians are shielded from the worst of the country’s deadly crime (and its oppressive policing) has removed many incentives for change. The wealthy and middle classes do not face the brutality of the country’s police forces or of the extrajudicial militias ― often-deadly outfits made up of ex-cops and soldiers that control poor neighborhoods in cities like Rio and kill with almost total impunity. To them, a more aggressive police force is a more protective police force. And because the elites ― business leaders, the wealthy and the upper middle class ― have louder and more influential voices even in ostensibly democratic societies, their preferences shape the political response to violence and policing.

“Inequality is really shaping how people view their own protection and whether they see the police as giving them protection or subjecting them to oppression,” González said. “[Political leaders] are listening to the business people, community leaders, people who tend to have more power in society. That becomes channeled for the police to say, ‘This is what the people want.’ They’re not listening to the most vulnerable people, including the people who are most susceptible to police violence.”

‘Order First, Then Progress’

Even Brazil’s modest reform efforts have reinforced the two-faced system instead of breaking it down. In São Paulo state, efforts to professionalize the police have led to drastic reductions in violent crime over the past 20 years. But São Paulo’s police have remained dangerous. Last year, they were responsible for roughly 1 of every 5 homicides committed there, according to data from Brazil’s Forum on Public Security.

Rio provides an even better example. The state experienced a sharp drop in homicides as the Brazilian economy boomed in the 2000s. As Rio prepared for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, the state government launched an ambitious public security reform effort ― with the support of the leftist-led federal government. Pacification, as the program was known, aimed to seize control of Rio’s favelas from the drug gangs. 

Soldiers patrol a favela neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro in August<strong>&nbsp;</strong>2018, a day after at least 11 people
Soldiers patrol a favela neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro in August 2018, a day after at least 11 people were killed during shootouts.

Since the Olympics, pacification has collapsed along with Rio’s economy. The program, once heralded as a model for Latin American reform, never delivered the social services it had promised. Instead, its primary legacy was even more violence. Shootouts between the police and drug gangs rose to record highs, and police killings spiked. In 2016, Rio’s police killed nearly 1,000 people. During the Olympics that year, when I visited Maré, a massive favela that had been placed under military occupation for 15 months, the cover of a neighborhood magazine asked a simple question. “Segurança Pública Para Quem?”

Public security for whom? To Rio’s favela residents, pacification was not an effort to protect them, but merely another attempt to protect the rest of the city ― particularly tourists ― from them.

Pacification left behind splintered drug gangs whose battles with police and each other left Rio feeling as if it were at war. As the state’s homicide rates continued to rise over the next two years, so did the demand for aggressive political responses. In 2018, President Michel Temer put the military in charge of security in Rio in a desperate attempt to prove that he was serious about addressing violent crime. The intervention was popular among local residents, even in the favelas.

But it was little more than a “public policy Hail Mary,” experts said then, and it predictably did little to stop the bleeding. Homicide rates in general dropped slightly, as did rates of cargo theft and other crimes. Shootings increased 60 percent, however, over the first 10 months of military control, according to Fogo Cruzado, an application that monitors gunfire across Rio. And the military and police in the state killed 1,444 people over the first 11 months of 2018, according to Rio’s Institute of Public Security. That was the highest number since the institute began keeping records two decades ago.

Across Brazil, black people have historically made up roughly three-quarters of the victims of police killings. ... The sheer scale of violence amounts to what Brazilian activists call ‘o genocído do povo negro’ ― a black genocide.

“If we consider cargo theft the priority of public safety, we will see some minimal but positive result [from the intervention],” said Wesley Teixeira, an activist who lives in the Mangueira favela in Rio. “If the priority is the preservation of the life of the population of Rio de Janeiro, the result is disastrous and the numbers alarming, with irreparable losses and the deep psychological damages.”

The intervention also subjected Rio’s favela residents to a litany of human rights abuses ― many of which had also taken place under pacification ― including rampant stop-and-frisks and random home invasions. Military officials have defended the practices and the police killings as targeted only at criminals operating in the favelas. They have shown little remorse for innocent victims: In one incident, soldiers strafed Maré from a helicopter and killed a teenager on his way to school. Another victim was a man holding an umbrella that officials claimed looked like a rifle. In March 2018, Rio city councilwoman Marielle Franco ― a black, queer woman from Maré ― was assassinated after a political event; police have still not found her killers, who they believe are linked to the extrajudicial militias.

“What we need is a public security policy that values life as its most fundamental principle,” said Raquel Willadino, director of the Observatório de Favelas, a nonprofit organization based in Maré. “We need a public security policy that focuses on protecting life and respecting human rights.”

Children in Rio protest violence against black people during a march marking the 25th anniversary of the July 1993 Candel&aac
Children in Rio protest violence against black people during a march marking the 25th anniversary of the July 1993 Candelária massacre, when police killed at least eight people, including six minors, outside a cathedral.

Rio, though, is just a microcosm of the nation, and Brazil’s ineffective approach to public security has pushed large segments of the population in the opposite direction from Willadino. Research has shown that, inequality aside, one of the main drivers of societal tolerance of excessive police force is a distrust in democratic institutions. In Brazil, trust in the ability of police to combat crime has always been low ― it has plunged even further among nationwide increases in violent crime over the last three years.

There were a record 63,800 homicides across Brazil in 2017; 1 of every 9 homicides committed globally occurred here, Muggah said. That the people of Rio and Brazil increasingly felt as if they were at war helped push violence to the forefront of the 2018 presidential elections and engendered support for even more aggressive solutions, even though the violence has made life more deadly for police, too. More than 360 cops were killed across Brazil in 2017, a slight decline from the year before, according to the Forum on Public Security. But the number of police killed has risen in Rio, and nearly 120 officers were killed there during the military intervention last year.

“Brazil is a mess, robbery after robbery, lots of crooks on the loose,” Almir Fonseca, a São Paulo resident, told HuffPost Brazil in October.

“Bolsonaro will rule with a firm hand,” he said. “Order first, then progress.”

‘It Will Be Worse’

Soldiers patrol a neighborhood in the Mangueira favela in Rio during an operation in 2018.
Soldiers patrol a neighborhood in the Mangueira favela in Rio during an operation in 2018.

Combating violence was central to Bolsonaro’s campaign. He made a two-finger gun salute his signature and pledged that his government would no longer “coddle” the criminal factions and drug gangs that were terrorizing cities like Rio. His constant focus on violence likely helped make it a central issue in the election, too: Last June, violence ranked well behind corruption and economic woes among the concerns of voters. By September, as Bolsonaro took the lead in presidential polling, it had risen to near the top of the list.

Bolsonaro, who was stabbed on the campaign trail in September, won election in October with support from across the political and social spectrum. More than 40 percent of black Brazilians chose him over his leftist opponent in the runoff election.

It is notable, though, that the same old split was present when it came to views on violent crime. Poor and lower middle class Brazilians ― those subjected to the highest rates of violence from police and criminals ― ranked violence below other major issues. Middle and upper class Brazilians considered it the country’s biggest concern, even as they remained less likely to face its wrath.

That’s a familiar phenomenon. In the United States, there are sharp divisions between black and white Americans when it comes to the police. In a Quinnipiac poll conducted last year, majorities of white Americans said they were not worried about becoming victims of police violence, that they believed police generally act with “appropriate force,” and that police are “equally likely” to shoot and kill black and white Americans. A majority of black Americans said the opposite in each category.

Data show that black people in the U.S. are nine times more likely to die in interactions with police than white people are. Yet white Americans are far more likely to see violent crime as a problem. President Donald Trump preyed on those fears in 2016, when he talked of urban “hellholes,” like Chicago and Washington, D.C., that he said had been taken over by violence. Americans have become more fearful of crime, even as homicide rates have reached historic lows, and the Trump administration has rolled back federal initiatives aimed at reforming local and state law enforcement practices.

We’ll dig graves. Rio Gov. Wilson Witzel, on his approach to public security

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte brought violent crime and drug use to the forefront of Filipino minds by ceaselessly campaigning on the hard-line policies he had earlier enacted as a mayor. Duterte’s war on drugs has led to an estimated 12,000 extrajudicial police killings. He has been condemned by human rights observers worldwide, but at home he enjoys approval ratings above 80 percent.

The Philippines does not have the same racial divisions as the U.S. or Brazil. Still, inequality likely boosts public support for a drug war that counts the urban poor as the majority of its victims. “Most people don’t know many people that have been killed,” said Peter Kreuzer, a German researcher who studies the Philippine police.

In Brazil, as in the U.S., elite voters drove an alleged populist to power. Alongside Bolsonaro, they also elected public security hard-liners in Brazil’s two biggest states. In São Paulo, new Gov. João Doria has pledged to hire lawyers to defend police accused of killing. In Rio, voters elected Wilson Witzel, a little-known judge, as their governor. Witzel has promised to give police access to heavier armaments. “We’ll dig graves” for anyone the cops shoot, he said dismissively in November.

Even before Bolsonaro took office, there were reports that police had become more emboldened. In São Paulo, a young black writer who lives in a favela on the city’s outskirts said he had been stopped by police five times in the first three weeks after the election.

“After Bolsonaro raised his opinions, a lot of people saw an [excuse] to act like him, and a lot of people who believe that are cops,” he said. “I really felt that on those stops, the policemen weren’t looking at me as the problem. They were trying to express an idea: We are doing this because we are allowed to. Someone is allowing us to do this.”

Videos that circulated online in January show Rio’s civil police officers loading two slain bodies into the back of a police pickup as blood drips down the bumper and police snipers opening fire on three men walking through an alley. Another video shows police firing rifles from a helicopter at alleged criminals along a busy Rio street. Police killed at least four people in Rio in the first week of the new year ― local news outlets ran headlines noting that they had “followed Witzel’s directions.” 

Blood stains the floor of a home near Rio's Santa Teresa neighborhood. Local residents say police killed at least 13 people i
Blood stains the floor of a home near Rio's Santa Teresa neighborhood. Local residents say police killed at least 13 people in a Feb. 9, 2019, operation, including some who were shot execution-style inside the home.

In February, the Observatório do Intervenção, a project that collected data on police killings and homicides during last year’s military intervention in Rio, reported that the intervention did not lead to a significant change in public safety in Rio. But that won’t convince the Brazilian government to rein in the police.

“This mentality of force will be the program Bolsonaro will try to [implement],” Pablo Nunes, a researcher with the data collection group, said in December, as the intervention entered its final full month. 

“Next year,” he said of 2019, “it will be worse.”

Indeed. Bolsonaro has already pushed to loosen Brazil’s restrictive gun laws in a way that will surely lead to more bloodshed. National Justice Minister Sergio Moro has proposed a so-called “anti-crime bill” that would essentially codify police impunity into federal law ― which human rights groups warn “could spur an increase in unjustifiable killings by police.”

There was a drop in police killings in January ― just 127 people died across Rio state compared to 157 in the same month last year, according to public data. But experts caution that one month of data isn’t enough to celebrate.

On Jan. 30, a man said he was shot by police snipers while buying coconut juice in Rio’s Manguinhos favela, where local residents told media outlets that the snipers killed at least two other people by shooting from a neighborhood police tower. “We’re like ants and they’re up there target shooting,” one resident said. (Police said they did not authorize the shooting.)

Police shot and killed 42 people over a 10-day span in early February. On Feb. 9, they killed at least 13 during an operation aimed at local drug gangs in a favela near the Santa Teresa neighborhood in central Rio. Unconfirmed reports suggest even more people died. It was one of the deadliest police actions in Rio in at least a dozen years.

The details are horrifying. According to residents, some of the victims were mutilated, others had their skulls bashed in. One witness said that police stabbed each victim, including some who were only teenagers, after shooting them in the legs “to prevent them from running away.”

The victims, according to residents, had already surrendered.

The police executed them anyway.

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