As one of his campaign promises, Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro said he would push for a stricter crackdown on criminal activity by retaliating with higher levels of police brutality. Brazil has steadily declined in its safety rates, with gangs gaining control over certain neighborhoods that police don’t often visit. In instances where confrontations with the security forces and criminals did take place, it usually involved bloodshed, contributing to the murders of a record breaking 63,880 people last year. Another active factor that added to the high tally included fighting between rival gangs for territorial control. Bolsonaro expressed his hard stance on taking action against this rampant issue, firmly stating that “a good criminal is a dead criminal.”
Bolsonaro’s win in Brazil, despite his extremely controversial character and past, was predictable. His leftist opposition, the Workers’ Party (PT), lost a large portion of their legitimacy after a majority of their politicians, lobbyists and even one of their former presidents were swept up in arguably one of the biggest money laundering scandals in the history of Latin America, Operation Car Wash.
Essentially, the scheme uncovered criminals that were laundering money for top executives at Petrobras, Brazil’s widely-used state-owned oil company, and government officials were being bribed in exchange for their influence over Petrobras. The money the government officials took were discovered to be a large source of income for reelection campaigns. After this scandal was uncovered, Petrobras lost half its stock value and 13,000 workers were laid off a project that was funded under Petrobras. In addition to implicating former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff, the current president at the time, was impeached. To this day, this investigation is still ongoing.
In such a chaotic environment, Bolsonaro rose up and managed to capitalize on the situation, serving almost as a shining beacon of light in the grave situation has Brazil found itself in. In addition to the massive blows the scandal caused to the economy, Brazil is still recovering from one of the biggest recessions in the country’s history, leaving 13 million people still unemployed. When factoring in the large distrust in government that is now established, and the fact that Brazil has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, Bolsonaro sets himself apart successfully because he’s already refused to identify with the political party that was found to be soaked in corruption, and has promised to protect Brazil’s citizens from the steadily increasing rates of violence and corruption.
Bolsonaro, alongside expressing his extreme aversion for the increasing criminal activity in Brazil, has expressed his favor of granting the police more power to exercise higher levels of violence, saying in an interview back in August that police officers who gun down armed criminals “need to be decorated, not prosecuted.” Though everyone is eager for what finally seems like a figure who will listen to the people and prioritize the safety of its citizens, there are many worries surrounding Bolsonaro’s promise of giving the police greater authority to be more brutal. It’s evident that in a country overrun by crime, something more than the average security protocol seems logical. There are many ways this adoption of power can be abused, however. Violence in Brazil hasn’t singlehandedly stemmed from criminals alone; stories have broken in the past of police, both active and retired, murdering figures who openly renounced their ability to use extra force. Marielle Franco was a Rio de Janeiro councilwoman who was well-known for her stance declaring that heightened police authority was to blame for being in the roots of violence in Brazil. Earlier, this year, she was killed in a drive-by shooting a month after the military were officially given vast powers via a decree signed by the president to “restore order” in Rio de Janeiro. Additionally, prior to her death, she had been added onto a commission dedicated to keep an eye on the ways military would exercise their power.
A similar story also broke of a judge, Patricia Acioli, who was shot to death outside her home, where three policemen were indicted in connection to her murder. It was later revealed that the same three policemen had arrest warrants issued for them by Acioli for the murder of an unarmed 18-year-old man in the slums of Niteroi.
It’s one thing to worry about whether or not Bolsonaro will uphold his claim of minimizing corruption in his government administration, although that’s already relatively doubtful. But the corruption already present in the Workers’ Party may find its way down to the security forces by granting them further immunity from any violence they cause while declaring it as “combating criminals.” The entire justice system may witness a loss in legitimacy if nobody is going to hold the police accountable for committing acts of violence that fall outside the category of protecting civic rights.
Also worth mentioning is that Brazil won’t be the first country to employ the tactic of dialing up the amount of violence the police are allowed to inflict on criminals: Honduras and Mexico have also introduced methods of military intervention, but they’ve shown low success rates in disrupting criminal activity and taking down criminal networks, both of which are rampant in Brazil. Additionally, with the current power police operate on, the UN has already called out issues of human rights violations stemming from reliance on the military for keeping civil order.
Giving security forces the ability to kill suspects is extremely counterproductive because this would essentially be expanding upon an outlet of violence that already adds onto Brazil’s climbing crime rates. However, because Brazil’s government is already failing in terms of reducing criminal activity, people are willing to listen to anything that proposes strategies of brutality, or even torture on criminals. Expansion of permissible police force to combat drug gangs is an understandable instinct, but there needs to be a better code of conduct that allows these authority figures to regulate each other’s behavior.
Aside from the worrisome promises that involve fighting fire with fire, Bolsonaro also shows troubling authoritarian tendencies and overall presents himself in a way that calls his character into question. He’s threatened to increase the number of judges on the Supreme Court to stack rulings in his favor, and has mentioned that his ideal way of dealing with his critics is to give them the choice of exile or extermination. He has also been previously charged by Brazil’s attorney general for inciting hatred and discrimination against blacks, indigenous communities, women and homosexuals. Most of Brazil isn’t caucasian, yet he managed to get away with such remarks, indicating that the people of Brazil are so desperate for a change that flocking to the other side of the political spectrum seems to be the only answer, even if that “other side” is represented by a former military general with a history of extremely racist and sexist comments.
Brazil is relatively new to democracy, but the consolidation of its democracy can be threatened if Bolsonaro holds onto these ideas of how he plans on handling his opposition both in common society and in Brazilian politics. Coupled with his obvious nostalgia for military authoritarianism that Brazil has only recently rid itself of, Brazil may soon witness their oppressive and violent history repeat itself.