Judicial decision on Cabula deaths provokes criticism

In a post during May I reported that the Bahia Public Attorney’s Office had concluded that the killing of twelve young people in the Cabula neighbourhood of Salvador was an extra-judicial execution. Judge Marivalda Almeida Moutinho has now absolved the nine officers accused of these killings, arguing, on the basis of police evidence, that they acted in “legitimate self-defence”.

This decision has unsurprisingly provoked immediate criticism from officials of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and also from Amnesty International, which from the start has regarded this case as symptomatic of wider problems in Brazil. Hamilton Borges, the leader of the Reaja ou Será Morto movement, which has highlighted the disproportionate number of young black men dying at the hands of the police in very questionable circumstances, described the judge’s decision as “political”.

This it may well be, since it is no secret there is substantial public support for “firm hand” policies and a “police that kills” amongst different sectors of society. Yet it also remains clear that violence simply tends to breed more violence, especially when it is inflicted in an arbitrary way on young men of colour.

This judge’s decision is not necessarily final. But it was not the only good news of the day for police officers who prioritise looking after their own. Marco Prisco, leader of the last two strikes of the military police in Bahia, has won a long legal battle to be reinstated as a soldier of the Corps of Firemen (who belong to the same militarised corporation as the police responsible for law enforcement). Since “Soldier Prisco”, as he likes to be known, was elected a deputy in the state congress for the opposition PSDB in 2014 (despite having been charged with illegal acts as a strike leader), he will not be returning to putting out fires, but he will be enjoying a salary as a reservist, and the Federal Justice system has revoked all the other restrictions imposed on him as a result of the earlier charges.

It remains to be seen whether this is good news for the rule of law or further evidence that Brazil is still losing its way in its efforts to deal with ever more serious problems of crime and violence. Those who see fundamental reform of the police system as essential are unlikely to be convinced. And those who applaud the apparent ending of elite impunity in the area of corruption through Operation Lava-Jato, should not forget about the social costs of preserving impunity in the case of a police force whose principal function still seems to be that of maintaining social control in a very unequal society. The history of policing in Brazil also suggests that impunity in the exercise of violent power and economic corruption tend to go hand in hand. That truth was exemplified yet again recently by serious scandals involving the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) of Rio de Janeiro’s military police.

There are alternative models of what policing is about and how it should be done, and many people advocate for them in Brazil, including some serving police officers. But the political challenge of changing things for the better remains very great, as what has been happening in Bahia demonstrates.