Problems with policing in Brazil

Since my book The New War on the Poor went to press in November 2014, a pattern of escalating confrontation in Rio de Janeiro between police and drug traffickers has continued to produce casualties on both sides, along with a great deal of tragic “collateral damage” that has produced a rising tide of protest by favela residents. Communities afflicted by this violence include favelas in which Pacificatory Police Units (UPP) have been installed, provoking further debate about the impact of this program. Although I argue in the book that there is much more behind the “pacification” of favelas than a “war” over control of territory between the state and drug traffickers, developments continue to strengthen the case for police demilitarization,  structural reforms of Brazil’s dysfunctional division between enforcement and investigative branches (both of which are capable of acts of violence against poor people), and improvements in career structures. I show in the book that reforms would actually be welcome to a significant number of serving police officers (and also try to demonstrate that there are more positive stories to tell about the work of the military police in Bahia). Unfortunately,  the evidence that I gathered through my fieldwork also revealed how existing power relations in society and the electoral politics of public security make it difficult to advance reform in practice.

The political problem today is not simply that the 2014 elections produced an even more socially conservative and pro big business federal congress, although that is a serious problem since it strengthens congressional support for changes likely to make things worse, in particular lowering the age of criminal responsibility. Even politicians of the centre-left who belong to the Workers’ Party (PT) may support a tough approach to policing the urban periphery, as demonstrated by Bahia’s new PT governor, Rui Costa, born and raised in a relatively poor working class neighbourhood of the city of Salvador and long-time advocate of strong “ostensive” policing by BOPE-style “elite squads”.  In February 2015, residents denounced the killing of twelve young people by police of the already notorious Special Patrols Unit (Rondesp) as an extra-judicial execution, a claim that received the backing of Amnesty International. Yet the governor’s immediate reaction was to offer his strong backing to the police, expressed in terms of equally strong, and some felt inappropriate, football metaphors. Although many people in Salvador, including some residents of deprived neighbourhoods, support a tough approach to crime and the need for “a police that kills”, the official version of what happened in Cabula contained enough anomalies to force the authorities to concede a more thorough investigation, now underway.

In my book I mention the killing in August 2014 of 22 years old Geovane Mascarenhas, last seen alive when he was captured on by the security cameras of a nearby building being put into the back of a Rondesp patrol vehicle. The case of Geovane provoked the Bahian equivalent of the public scandal caused by the torture and murder of Amarildo de Souza by police of the UPP of Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013. The similarities between the cases were very striking. The Bahian officers involved turned off the GPS and camera of their vehicle, for example. As happened in the Amarildo case too, it was the refusal of the victim’s relatives, the father in the case of Geovane, to accept the police version, along with a public campaign, supported by Correio da Bahia newspaper, that led to a thorough investigation of the processes that turned a young man riding a motorbike stopped by police into a carbonised corpse with his head and hands cut off and tattoos removed to impede identification. Although the matter has yet to go to trial, and those processes tend to take a long time, the investigation conducted by the Public Attorney’s Office suggests that Geovane was executed by police within a Rondesp facility, after being robbed of his motorbike and cell phone, and that eleven officers were involved in the commission and cover-up of the crime. Some people may be tempted to dismiss what happened to Geovane Mascarenhas as the work of “bad apples” in the police force, an argument also made in the Amarillo de Souza case. Although it is difficult to know what would have happened without the public campaigns for justice to be done that were organised by the families of the victims, both cases were eventually investigated. This is at least evidence that impunity may not now prove as extensive in Brazil as it still seems to be in countries such as Mexico.

Yet as the Cabula case and earlier incidents involving the Bahian military police mentioned in my book indicate, there is a much deeper problem here than simply a few “bad apples” abusing their power. Police killings of young black men from the lower classes, often described as a “genocide” by local activists, reflect continuing problems in the entanglement of race and class in Brazil. But why the problems are continuing despite advances towards reducing social inequality and racism in the country can only be understood fully by looking at the relationships between the deployment of repressive force and the economic power relations that configure both politics and the world of crime under contemporary capitalist conditions. At times distinguishing between the world of crime and the world of policing is not that easy, even at high levels in the chain of command. As I mention in the book, in September 2014, Colonel Alexandre Fontenelle, third-ranked in the hierarchy of Rio’s military police and head of its Special Operations unit, was arrested, along with twenty-two other officers, for running a major extortion racket. So we need to understand the logic of the power relations that lead to the replication of situations that have long been recognised by critical academic studies, debated in the press, and presented to us on the cinema screen. That there are limits to impunity in Brazil is certainly encouraging. But as far as problems with policing are concerned, the real challenge facing the country is that of embracing a radical transformation of the architecture of public security, as proposed, for example, by anthropologist and writer Luiz Eduardo Soares.


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