Reforming Brazil’s “Violent Democracy”

by Jim Shyne on October 2, 2013

Desmilitarizacao da policiaAs early as April of this year, it was already shaping up to be a very difficult one for Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes and State Governor Sérgio Cabral. In the run-up to next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, few Brazilians were surprised when news broke of high-level graft and incompetence relating to Rio’s preparations for both events. Still, few would have predicted the scale and intensity of the nation-wide protests that erupted in June—Brazil’s largest since the 1992 movement that drove then-President (now Senator) Fernando Collor de Mello from office.

Many commentators, from print and online journalists to academic political scientists, have drawn comparisons between the protests in Brazil and concurrent events in Egypt and Turkey. Most agree that Brazil’s democracy is relatively safe from either a military coup or a popular revolution. Yet how safe Brazilian citizens are from state security forces is a different question—and the answer is “not very” if you happen to be among the nearly 1.4 million people living in one of Rio’s 763 favela communities.

In the city of Rio, as elsewhere in the country, the State Military Police responded to peaceful protests with grossly disproportionate violence. The same Military Police forces killed more than one in five of the 14,280 homicide victims in Rio between 2006 and 2010, and previously served as the foot soldiers of the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1984. Indeed, there is broad consensus among human rights experts that the most glaring failure of Brazil’s democratic transition has been its inability to reform the public security sector, beginning with the Military Police.

Political scientists at Vanderbilt University working with USAID-funded public opinion survey data plausibly attribute Brazil’s ongoing social turmoil to “widespread dissatisfaction with public services and core democratic institutions, increasingly high levels of education and Internet usage, and decreasing levels of poverty.” Unfortunately, they also draw a false equivalency between a small number of violent protestors and the systematically brutal (if mostly non-lethal) police response, while completely ignoring the fundamental problem: day in and day out, the Military Police use excessive deadly force against low-income favela residents.

In the euphemistic jargon of Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police (PMERJ), police-on-civilian killings are known as autos de resistência, which loosely translates as “justifiable homicides.”  This phrase implies, and the category legally establishes, that all 3,094 of Rio’s auto de resistência victims between 2006 and 2010 were killed to preserve the lives of police or innocent bystanders. But over the same period, only 110 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty. This disparity makes the PMERJ either the world’s finest marksmen or something less than “Rio’s Finest.”

While performing dissertation research on violent crime in Rio, I visited many favelas prior to, and several after, their occupation by the once-promising Police Pacification Unit (UPP) initiative of the PMERJ. These include, among many others, Rio’s oldest surviving favela, the Morro da Providência; several distinct sections of the vast Complexo do Alemão and Rocinha shantytowns; Vidigal, with its stunning views of Ipanema Beach; and the Cidade de Deus (“City of God”) neighborhood made famous by the film of the same name. Since the early 1990s, these and other favelas have been home to several of the city’s largest drug trafficking factions, including the original and largest, the Comando Vermelho (“Red Command”). Undertaking field research in these areas required the support of local community leaders and NGOs as well as tacit approval from the traffickers, but was possible both before and after their occupation by the UPP program.

Since the UPP program’s launch in late 2008, thirty-four units have been established, but only two are located in the western half of the city, home to over forty percent of the population. There, neighborhood-level protection rackets run by paramilitary militias with close ties to the PMERJ have been on the rise since Gov. Cabral’s election in 2007, as have cases of disappeared persons and an overall climate of fear. As reporters from the Rio daily O Dia learned the hard way in May 2008, conducting academic field research or investigative journalism in militia-controlled areas is prohibitively dangerous.

Former Federal Secretary for Public Security Luiz Eduardo Soares and current Rio congressman Marcelo Freixo have promoted the kind of top-to-bottom police reform Brazil needs if it is to leave the ranks of Latin America’s “Violent Democracies.” Both men were rewarded for their efforts with death threats and forced to seek temporary refuge abroad. Governor Cabral’s UPP initiative, despite its early promise and undoubted success in reducing gun-related homicides in Rio’s Southern and Northern Zones, is but a small, faltering step in the right direction.

Ultimately, the success of the World Cup and Olympics as well as Brazil’s long-term prospects for true democratic consolidation will depend on thorough reform of the public security sector and an end to the outsourcing of legitimate police work to vigilante groups. Gov. Cabral and Mayor Paes must either reign in the militias and radically reform the uniformed Military Police, or make way for leaders who will.

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