As violence rises in Brazil, the state is repeating the same failed formula

A Brazilian soldier takes part in a training session on the Oiapoque River, on the border between Brazil and French Guiana, in Oiapoque, Brazil, on Oct. 31. (Joedson Alves/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
A Brazilian soldier takes part in a training session on the Oiapoque River, on the border between Brazil and French Guiana, in Oiapoque, Brazil, on Oct. 31. (Joedson Alves/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

This has been a difficult year for people all over the world, with life grinding to a halt and increased economic anxiety. For Brazilians, these challenges have been accompanied by a rise in armed violence and drug arrests, despite lockdown measures in several major cities.

Though Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ran his 2018 campaign promising strong action on public security, and later boasted that criminals were going to “die in the streets like cockroaches,” he has not found new ways to address urban violence or its social and economic drivers. In fact, the right-wing wave that swept Brazil in the 2018 elections has brought with it remarkably few proposals to tackle what is arguably the country’s most urgent crisis.

In the first six months of 2020, there have been 25,712 intentional homicides in the country, according to the newly released annual report by the Brazilian Forum on Public Security (FBSP), an independent local think tank. This is a 7.1 percent increase from the same period last year, amounting to one murder every 10 minutes. This follows declines in 2018 and 2019.

State policies in responses to this violence have often been based on repression via police raids in gang-controlled urban areas — a tactic that has been exhaustively applied in Brazilian cities for decades with no real success. Bolsonaro’s controversial proposal to make both military and law enforcement personnel exempt from prosecution if they kill suspects during certain law enforcement duties has rightly faced significant opposition from legal experts, and a previous, even more sweeping, version was scrapped from an anti-crime bill sent to the National Congress last year. Bolsonaro’s longstanding plan to make it easier for Brazilians to own guns has also been modified in congress, reducing its potential impact

In Rio de Janeiro, the main proposal from the elected governor (Wilson Witzel, now suspended amid an investigation on corruption) for fighting the city’s famously powerful criminal organizations was to deploy police snipers to shoot suspects from helicopters. This focus on gunfights has led to an increase in killings by police officers, reaching an astonishing 1,810 last year. Though the number of intentional homicides has fallen in recent years, authorities have been largely powerless in slum areas against criminal organizations and militias — vigilante groups formed by off-duty or former law enforcement officers engaging heavily in extortion and other illicit activities. A recent study has found that 4.4 million people are affected by the resulting clashes for territorial hegemony, which often involve high-caliberrifles, while 7 million people in Rio’s metropolitan area are estimated to live in areas with the presence of armed groups.

In response, police forces have resorted to deploying more violence. Police officers in Brazil killed 6 percent more people in the first half of the year than in the same period in 2019. Last year, the number of deaths resulting from police interventions reached a record high: 6,357 according to FBSP.

Of course, this crisis of public security did not start with Bolsonaro’s conservative wave. Security policies in Brazil have long been erratic and lacked federal government coordination. The bellicose rhetoric by right-wing politicians is partially an attempt to capitalize on the fear and hopelessness many Brazilians feel about crime in their cities. It is also a strategy to please more than 5.6 million police and military personnel in Brazil, who together with their families represent 9 percent of the Brazilian population.

The result is that polarization and ideology now shape discourse around police activity. As in many other countries, civil society has voiced urgent questions about the use of force and mechanisms of police accountability. But far-right voices often label these questions as anti-patriotic and against public order.

Previous attempts to combine policing with public services and social development, such as Rio’s pacification strategy in its favelas, have gradually lost steam and funding, and have been replaced by aggressive military police incursions in the slums. Instead of embarking on substantive reforms of operational standards and police institutions, Brazil treats the problem of police violence as a matter solely of individual misconduct. Yet police officers themselves are some of the greatest victims of this lack of sound policy: They are left to their own devices and deployed ina hostile environment of territorial struggles between well-armed criminals and militias.

Brazilians need more than trigger-happy tactics to counter criminal organizations that thrive in the absence of quality governance and socioeconomic development in vast urban areas. Instead of rethinking its approach to public security and organized crime, Brazil is yet again repeating the same formula, hoping for a different result that never comes.

Antonio Sampaio is a senior analyst with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. Renato Sérgio de Lima is director-president of the Brazilian Forum on Public Security.

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