Fourteen-year-old João Pedro was shot while playing indoors with his cousins. But his body, mysteriously removed from the house, could not be located by the family until the next day. Carlos, Cleiton, Wilton, and Wesley were riding back home after a night out with Roberto, who was celebrating his first paycheck at a new job; their car was shot at 111 times and the five young men died. Ten-year-old Eduardo was shot when playing with a cellphone on his doorstep; his mother confronted the shooter, who allegedly replied: “Just as I killed your son, I could easily kill you.” Claudia, a thirty-eight-year-old mother, was shot and had her body dragged on the road for nearly a quarter of a mile after it fell out of the car trunk. Seventeen-year-old Douglas was on his way to a kite flying championship when he was shot in the chest; witnesses say that his last words were “Sir, why did you shoot me?”
What do the above stories have in common? In each case, the killers were the Brazilian police. While homicide by guns and other weapons is hardly uncommon in the country, law enforcement is responsible for a staggering number of these fatalities—and has been for decades. Brazil’s police force has the distinction of being the deadliest in the world in absolute numbers. In 2018, Brazilian officers killed over five thousand seven hundred people. While 2019 was the year in which civilian homicides reached their lowest point in over a decade, deaths at the hands of police officers rose to five thousand eight hundred. Not even coronavirus has stalled the trend. According to the Public Security Institute, police killings in the state of Rio de Janeiro this April—when the pandemic really exploded in Brazil—were 43 percent higher than for the same month last year. These statistics make clear what everyone already knows: police violence is endemic in Brazil, especially in the country’s state capitals. (Gallingly, no one has precise police homicide numbers; statistics processing varies by state, and of course many killings are never reported).
Why do Brazil’s police kill so much? This is partly a legacy of militarization. Brazil’s independence struggle from Portugal was led by the army; it has suffered under several dictators since. In 1969, in one of the harshest episodes of a twenty-one-year dictatorship, the military seized all law enforcement bodies to coordinate the repression of political dissent. With that, the militaries could more efficiently respond to disruptions, torture and violate human rights to their hearts’ content, and run a secret surveillance apparatus to identify “agitators.” The police system that emerged from the dictatorship inherited this punitive vision of public safety.
Effectively, Brazil today has two main police corps—the military police and the civil police. The former are responsible for street patrolling and crime prevention, while the latter investigate criminal offenses. This bifurcated system, with its “division of labor,” allows the military police to act violently and with impunity, as they are not responsible for investigating their own actions.
Brazil promulgated a notably progressive Constitution on its return to democracy in the mid-to-late 1980s. Yet it failed to dismantle the policing structure built by the militaries. This is because the transition to “democracy” was shaped by negotiations between the country’s elites and military authorities—however relevant popular resistance and demonstrations against the regime were. There was no clean break from the authoritarian past.
In a country where few crimes are investigated, police misconduct especially has near total impunity.
Today, the military police force is formally considered a backup Army. Officers are trained to be soldiers, rather than individuals who enforce and abide by the law. As they stand to protect the country against dangerous enemies—rather than protect civilians—their brutal tactics, however ugly, are justified as necessary. Like Army soldiers, military police officers are schooled in a rigid hierarchy, and they are ultimately beholden to their superiors (and the military code), not the public they are meant to serve. This approach is obviously not conducive to de-escalation. Assessment, dialogue, and autonomous decision-making—the basis of community-oriented police work—are rendered all but impossible when you treat the streets as a war zone. Instead, harassment, physical force, and humiliation by cops are the order of the day. It is not a coincidence that protests in Brazil are often met with brutality, that demonstrators have to deal with rubber bullets, tear gas, and injuries. Shoot to kill, as the above stories suggest, is something like a motto.
The two-pronged model inherited by the dictatorship is also a management disaster. The two forces scarcely share information with one another, rendering the process of investigation and prosecution extremely ineffective. In São Paulo State, for example, only 4 percent of crimes committed in 2018 have been solved. Discretionary decisions, bribes, and general corruption are rampant, given that public oversight is restricted. More seriously, this model also promotes stop-and-frisk practices and felony arrests. Since the military police is not required to follow up on offenses—that is the civil police’s job—they can detain whichever individuals they want when patrolling, knowing that the burden of furnishing proof, or even dealing with the investigation, falls on someone else. It is as if they have a free pass to oppress.
In a country where few crimes are investigated, police misconduct has near total impunity. For one thing, crimes committed by military police officers in the line of duty are judged internally—by a military tribunal—rather than in a criminal court, except in the case of homicide. But even when it comes to killings, there is specific legislation mechanism in place to protect Brazil’s police. Auto de resistência, or “resistance followed by death,” is the formal classification of homicides by police officers that are legitimized on the grounds of self-defense. In such cases, the murders are registered in administrative reports in the civil police records. These reports are sent to the public prosecution office, which may propose criminal proceedings or decide to shelve the case. The offending officer almost always walks away scot free because police killings are rarely judged. Analyses of cases classified as auto de resistência reveal that the police have resorted to lethal force in such life-threatening situations as when confronting individuals who had surrendered, or had been wounded, or were running away.
Under the dictatorship, leftists and other political “subversives” were the targets of state violence. But the arrival of neoliberal democracy to Brazil in the 1990s necessitated the creation of new enemies. Around this time, the ruling class turned its attention to those on the margins of society: mainly, the residents of favelas and underserved neighborhoods, who are overwhelmingly black and brown (that is, of mixed race). These neighborhoods were ravaged by state withdrawal and disinvestment since the 1980s—known as “the lost decade” in Brazil and other Latin America countries—and a network of illicit activities, mainly drug-trafficking, bloomed in the social vacuum created. Neoliberal policies meant community investment was out of the question. Instead, conservative officials and the mainstream media colluded to drum up fears about a “crime crisis” among the poor, which in turn gave the green light to truculent and even punitive police actions. It is a vicious circle that will be familiar to American readers.
State spending on law enforcement has been rising since the 1990s; unsurprisingly, this investment has done little to reduce the country’s homicide and other crime rates. The pattern did not waver even during the long tenure of the Workers’ Party. Lula and Rousseff’s administrations expanded social programs for vulnerable populations and also pushed through modest police reforms unequally adopted by the states (for example, proposing professional development and education opportunities of police officers). Yet they did not succeed in changing the paradigm of public safety still in place in Brazil, for this would require a shift from continuous spending on law enforcement, and a total rethinking of the current policing model.
In the end, the poor are dehumanized to preserve the false sense of security sought by the ascendant rich and the middle class. While cheering belligerent police actions in poor communities, the well-off conveniently turn a blind eye to police corruption and human rights violations. Despite the alarming rates of police killings, they demand more policing and tougher policing. “A good crook is a dead crook,” as a local saying goes. This thirst for punitive action among those least likely to suffer it partly explains the popularity of jingoistic right-wing politicians, including Jair Bolsonaro, who has openly declared the military dictatorship should have shot thirty thousand opponents.
Brazil’s police forces serve to enforce lasting racial and economic inequalities, and they thrive in a culture that tolerates institutional violence and terror against people of color.
The criminalization of poverty must also be understood against the backdrop of Brazil’s fraught racial history. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in the Americas; since then, the state has continually failed to provide a path to prosperity for its black and brown populations. Today, black and brown people make up the majority of the poorest, unemployed, and underemployed in Brazil. They also receive lower wages in comparison to whites—although affirmative action policies have modestly expanded their access to education in recent years. But the need for these affirmative actions also unveils the issue of representation in the country. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, intellectuals contended that Brazil would become a modern nation only by getting rid of its black past. Interracial births and the immigration of Europeans—a “superior” race—were promoted in an attempt to whiten the population. At the same time, black and brown people were symbolically encoded as “lazy,” “delinquent,” “criminals,” and unworthy of respect; these ideas spread through popular discourse. Such connotations of inferiority, especially associated to blackness, remain finely ingrained in Brazil’s ordinary cultural representations—from books and soap operas to proverbs and images—even as the state peddled a dubious ideology of “racial democracy” and “racial harmony” from the 1930s on.
Young black and brown men are particularly affected by racial profiling and police intervention. Black and brown men between fifteen and twenty-nine are killed at a disturbing rate: a death every twenty-three minutes, many at the hands of police officers, according to a Senate’s Special Committee from 2016. In turn, it is women who bear the burden of proving the innocence of loved ones lost to police violence. They must showcase their suffering in an attempt to rescue the men’s worth and demand justice: presenting the deceased as hardworking fathers, beloved sons, dedicated husbands, bright students. Indeed, one of the most prominent movements against police brutality in Brazil is made up of mothers: the May Mothers—in Portuguese, Mães de Maio.
In recent years, progressive intellectuals, activists, and local communities have called further attention to the structural racism plaguing policing in Brazil. Cries of “black lives matter” (vidas negras importam) and “stop killing us” (parem de nos matar) are growing stronger in street protests and on social media as part of a wider reckoning of the country’s racial past. Such discussions are necessary if we are to fine-tune the left’s long-standing demand that the police be demilitarized. Anti-racist activism may even lead to more radical political frameworks, like police abolition. For the truth is that the survival of the dictatorship’s policing arrangement is not a historical accident. Brazil’s police forces serve to enforce lasting racial and economic inequalities, and they thrive in a culture that tolerates institutional violence and terror against people of color. The end of police violence in Brazil cannot disregard the institution’s racist practices and motivations. Without that, the list of names and tragic fates of black and brown Brazilians will keep growing.