How Brazil’s problems with violent crime led to a political swing to the right.
In Cidade Alta, in Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling Zona Norte, armed guards patrol the favela’s main entrance. Nearby, residents set up for a Sunday evening samba street-party. Nobody seems to give the gunmen a second thought. The men work for the Terceiro Comando Puro, the Pure Third Command or TCP, the faction (as drug gangs are known in Brazil) that recently took over the territory from rivals Comando Vermelho (Red Command or CV).
When the two factions were fighting last year, gun battles could break out without notice. “Here in the community, we’re used to it,” says Anderson de Andrade, who operates a van that’s used as public transport. “We try to find cover. A few minutes later it is over and back to normal.” Andrade sits stone-faced while describing the shootouts. His expression changes to one of disgust, however, when he mentions the cash (the equivalent of almost €100) that he hands over to the TCP each week as protection money for his van business.
The setting for the 2002 film City of God, Cidade Alta went “about 70 per cent” for Jair Bolsonaro, the victorious law-and-order candidate, in last year’s presidential elections, according to Diogo Dias. The 29-year-old bar owner has his finger on the community’s political pulse in a place where pollsters don’t enter.
Down the road, Flavio Plim Plim (a nickname) is unconcerned when a police officer drives by. “That’s just a bandido wearing a police uniform,” says the 33-year-old escaped convict, smiling easily despite his missing teeth. He claims many officers receive payoffs from the traffickers. Plim Plim left prison on a day-long furlough and never went back. He works as a mechanic now but seven years ago he was picked up by the police while in the service of drug dealers. He chuckles while listing all the gear he had on him at the time of his arrest, including a hand grenade. The three main factions in Rio boast an estimated 3,000 combat rifles according to José Vicente, a retired police colonel in São Paulo and former secretary of National Public Security.
Drug gangs in Brazil have become increasingly powerful in recent decades. An arms race, set off by inter-factional attacks and fuelled by strong cash flows, gave them enough firepower to take on the police. “When I entered the police force in 1976, there weren’t any confrontations,” says Ubiratan Ângelo, a retired police commander who works with civil-society organisation Viva Rio, which aims to combat violence. “The bandidos didn’t have the arms they have now.”
“Brazil is a world record holder in rates of violence,” says Vicente, who has become a leading scholar on the subject. He rattles off a few numbers: 63,000 murders in 2017 (putting Brazil in a similar bracket – on a per capita basis – to Iraq and Afghanistan), fuelled by a three-fold increase in murder rates in the poor northeast between 2004 and 2014. Brazil ranks highly in terms of the number of people killed by police (about 3,000 a year), as well as the number of police officers killed (300 to 400 a year). There’s also a culture of impunity, says Maria Laura Canineu, director of Human Rights Watch in Brazil, noting that fewer than 8 per cent of murder cases are resolved. “It is normal for people to be afraid,” she says. Bolsonaro capitalised on people’s frustration with escalating crime levels during his campaign last year, promising to restore order to Brazil. Taking a pro-gun stance, he associated the defence of human rights with the defence of criminals. “With us [in office] there will be no such human-rights politicking,” went one famous line. “A good criminal is a dead criminal,” went another. Bruno Paes Manso, researcher at the Center for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo (NEV-USP), says, “The election of Bolsonaro shows that the belief that violence can combat disorder is strong. People feel cornered. People are scared.”
Crime isn’t limited to Rio: it pervades the country. In nearly a dozen states in the northeastern and Amazon regions, the factions that control Rio (CV among them) and São Paulo (Primeiro Comando da Capital or First Command of the Capital, PCC), as well as local gangs, are essentially at war over territory. In January in Fortaleza, capital of the state of Ceará, factions called a truce to form a temporary alliance, and for days they burned buses, businesses and bridges. This was after the state government announced that it would no longer segregate prisons according to different factions. Bolsonaro’s justice ministry responded by sending 400 military troops to quell the unrest.
In Rio the three most powerful factions fight it out among themselves via dozens of so-called militias – vigilante groups that control poor neighbourhoods and are often formed by current and former police officers and fire fighters. Officially tolerated at first as a counterbalance to the drug factions, militias now charge for public services, making clandestine connections to the electricity grid and cable TV, for example. They take protection money from shopkeepers and “sell” public land. “They are supposedly there to protect but have become alternative governments,” says Vicente. One militia is suspected in last year’s murder of Rio city council member and champion of police oversight, Marielle Franco, according to Brazilian press reports. (The local press has also reported on ties between militias and leading politicians, including Bolsonaro’s son Flávio, recently elected to the Senate.)
Human-rights groups question the wisdom of increasing police powers when many officers are suspected of collusion with criminals. In the lead up to the elections, critics of Bolsonaro also expressed fear that he would look the other way on police abuse. Indeed, his administration’s public security reform bill could make it easier for officers to claim legitimate self-defence when accused of unwarranted violence.
Like Bolsonaro, the newly inaugurated governor of Rio de Janeiro state Wilson Witzel was voted in after a law-and-order campaign. After a February police raid in the poor Rio neighbourhood of Morro do Fallet led to 15 deaths under murky circumstances, Witzel posted a video on social media, alongside his hand-picked police chief, exonerating the officers involved.
The police “took action to defend good citizens”, says the former judge and marine. His accompanying text online called the deadly raid “a legitimate act by the police to combat narcoterrorists who put the lives of our population at risk”. A few days later his Twitter feed showed him on a morning jog with troops from the Police Special Operations Battalion (BOPE). (The families of the dead dispute Witzel’s depiction. According to press reports, witnesses told public prosecutor investigators that they screamed “help” and “don’t kill me”, before being shot.)
There’s evidence that police on the beat are hearing the new message loud and clear. “The administration is on our side,” says a BOPE master sergeant, who only gave his first name, Hector. “The governor supported the action that led to the death of 15 drug traffickers in the Morro do Fallet. If it was another administration, all the police officers would be in jail.”
Colonel Mauro Fliess is the spokesman for the Military Police in Rio de Janeiro. (The BOPE is a tactical unit of the Military Police; despite the name, its realm is civilian.) His office is in an imposing but decaying colonial-era building that occupies an entire block in downtown Rio.
“Our training programme is based on human rights,” he says. “Before the 1988 constitution it was more oriented toward defending territory – now we defend citizens.” He also defends his colleagues. “The police should not look for confrontation. But you can’t let armed thugs walk around the city. If there is going to be a confrontation, I want all of the casualties to be on the other side.”
From farmers to fashion models, these Brazilians explain what drove them to give the retired military officer Jair Bolsonaro the job of 38th president. In a country where murder and corruption shade your day, many believe that outside critics would change their minds if they lived in Brazil.
“Bolsonaro was the right person, at the right time, to do the right thing. Brazil in 2018 reached the limit of mess and disorder, and we needed order to achieve progress. Out of all the candidates for president, only Bolsonaro has shown the strength to help bring order back in the country. After seeing his will to change Brazil, I decided to go with him and join Brazilian politics.”
“I live in the rural area of Pernambuco, in northeastern Brazil. We have many issues concerning violence in this area. Crime and robbery happen all the time and we are completely helpless over it. We can’t even count on the police because officers take about two hours to get here, if they ever come. Through his campaign, Bolsonaro defended loosening gun-ownership rules for farmers and that makes me feel safer, because I feel that I can protect myself and my family.”
“Even though I’m gay, I believe there was a huge, co-ordinated effort made to make the president seem to be planning the genocide of gays, women and black people. Actually, Bolsonaro has more pressing agendas, such as a liberal proposal for the opening up of markets, breaking the hegemony of leftist sectors over the state machine and a promise to wage war against drug traffickers and improve security.”
“In the beginning I saw his candidacy as a representation of the impotence and anger from Brazilians, who felt robbed and cheated in the past 20 years. I voted for him because I believe he is the right politician to fight corruption, to recover the trust of the world with our nation, and our potential as a nation; to fight against the reigning impunity in our country and to promote the change Brazil needs.”
“Disappointment is the reason I voted for Bolsonaro. The Brazilian left – personified by the PT (Workers’ Party) – rose to power with a narrative that promised they would promote social equality. But that turned out to be false. The reality is that they used the country’s economy as their personal cash cow in what turned out to be the biggest corruption case in world history.”
“I was tired of so much corruption going on in the country. Brazil needed a right turn and a management shock so it could grow back again and keep us away from ‘Venezuelisation’. He promised improvements in safety, health and education and I believe that is necessary to combat corruption and impunity.”
“He was the only candidate who spoke about custody hearings, end of probation for criminals and arrests after second-instance convictions. He showed more willingness to confront some of those issues than the other candidates. I’m not conservative when it comes to customs and moral values – I am in favour of drug and abortion legalisation and gay marriage – but I understand that impunity in Brazil has reached the limit, that some social movements went too far.”
“Sometimes I prefer a person who is honest, even though his opinion doesn’t please me so much, than people who say one thing and practise another. But what really made me vote for him was mainly the matter of public security. I live on the outskirts of São Paulo and have seen a lot of cases of robbery and kidnapping close to home.”
“I didn’t vote for Bolsonaro because of the anti-PT [Workers’ party] wave but because of the conviction with which he stood in favour of the liberal agenda in the economy, and the conservative agenda in morality and customs. Bolsonaro was responsible for the change that modified Congress and also brought new faces to the national political scene.”
“I believe alternation of power makes a healthy democracy. PT was in charge for 13 years and that is detrimental to the isonomy of public departments. In Brazil, some public offices are filled by presidential appointment and, when a political party is in power for such a long time, these offices can end up with only one political view. That is very dangerous for many departments, especially the Justice Ministry.”
“I think alternation of power is essential for democracy and the sustainability of a government. I do believe that Bolsonaro’s election and his way of governing represent a setback for social rights but I also think that, if his economic approach and the changes he proposed work, these will also positively reflect on those rights and on minorities.”
“I voted for Bolsonaro because, even though I am transgender, I think we should cherish morals and good manners; my sexuality only concerns myself. The left stayed in power for so many years and it destroyed the country. Bolsonaro promises free trade, to fight for de-bureaucratisation, to cut taxes and to improve security issues.”
“Bolsonaro was a controversial candidate in his speeches; perhaps that was a strategy to make himself known. I do not share many of his ideologies but I placed my expectations in the candidate who I think can resume the country’s course and end the corruption that plagued Brazil.”
“I believe in less state supervision and less bureaucracy. I think that only a free market economy, like it is in the US, can minimise poverty in Brazil, as well as the country’s addiction to welfare. We never got the chance to know what this kind of political system is like – and it is about time we gave it a chance.”
“I voted for Bolsonaro because of his liberal position on the economy and his conservative views on customs, because of his commitment to the sovereignty of the country, and because of his firm stance on law enforcement and the fight against crime.”
“I align myself with the conservative patriotism of Bolsonaro and his extraordinary ministers, defenders of the ethical and cultural principles of the Judeo-Christian civilisation. My position has provoked a typical lynching by the artistic class – but I am convinced that to be a leftist today, one must be an ignoramus or a scoundrel.”
“He will create jobs and give dignity to workers without giving alms or dependency grants, and I want to be able to look at a police officer and know he is being paid to protect order – and us.