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Bolsonaro's Crime Crackdown Sparks Rise in Police Killings

A woman walks past Brazilian military on patrol in Jacarezinho, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, in January 2018. The military began simultaneous operations in four different favelas as part of a crackdown on drug traffickers.
SourceCarl De Souza/AFP/Getty

Bolsonaro's Crime Crackdown Sparks Rise in Police Killings

By Jonathan Wheatley


Brazil’s law enforcement is cracking down hard on crime — but often, say critics, by ignoring human rights.  

By Jonathan Wheatley

This year has already been bloody in Rio de Janeiro. The city’s police have killed people at a rate of more than three a day, according to state officials — including as many as 15 in a single operation against drug dealers on one February day alone. Witnesses claim at least nine were executed while trying to surrender.

Local politicians have hailed the police operations as a success. Others say they are a taste of what is to come under the new Brazilian government led by right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected last year partly on a promise of getting tough on crime.

“The number of people killed in police actions has taken off in the past few weeks,” says Pedro Strozenberg, ombudsman at the Rio de Janeiro state public defender’s office. “It is the concrete result of a logic in public security policy of nonrecognition of people’s rights.”

60 per 100,000: The murder rate in some Brazilian states is on par with El Salvador, which has the highest rate in the world. 

Bolsonaro’s promise to confront violence with violence was a vote winner in last year’s elections. The number of murders in Brazil rose from just over 48,000 in 2011 to more than 59,000 in 2017, according to the Monitor da Violência, a nongovernmental organization.

This brought the national homicide rate to 28.5 for every 100,000 people. In some states, it is more than 60 per 100,000 — on par with El Salvador, which has the highest murder rate in the world. Other estimates put the numbers higher, although there are no government data on homicides.

They’re not aiming at particular individuals. It’s just a profile.

Pedro Strozenberg, ombudsman,  Rio de Janeiro state public defender’s office 

Rising fear of serious crime in Brazil has been palpable following the country’s crushing recession of 2015–16, which left more than 12 million people unemployed and sparked a surge in violence. Between late 2016 and early 2017 a series of violent prison riots sparked by gang rivalry, mostly in the north of the country, spilled on to the streets. In January this year, there were more than 200 attacks on people, vehicles and property in the northeastern state of Ceará.

In these cases and many others, events were led by the “factions” that dominate Brazil’s dysfunctional prison system and direct much of the criminal activity outside. In many cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, fear of assault is a fact of daily life.


But despite increasing public concern, data from the Monitor da Violência published last week showed that the number of homicides fell 13 percent between 2017 and 2018, to 51,589 last year, a rate of 24.7 per 100,000.

Raul Jungmann, public security minister from February to December 2018, says the decline was partly a result of better coordination between the federal government and Brazil’s 27 states, which respectively run the military and civilian police that often operate more as rivals than complementary forces. 

Jungmann also cites reduced activity by the prison factions. This was partly because they had been targeted by a coordinated national crackdown last year but also because they were fighting less among themselves.

Indeed, a steady fall in the murder rate in São Paulo state, which has bucked the national trend of rising violence for much of the past two decades, is credited by some experts to a realization by the factions that murder is costly and bad for business, as much as to a more coordinated approach by the authorities.

As security minister, Jungmann introduced a single system of public security (SUSP), designed to replace “headless federalism with coordinated federalism.” It placed a legal obligation on police and other security forces to set targets and deliver results.

But others fear the SUSP will be sidelined before it has a chance to be proven. The new government’s security policy, delivered to Congress in a draft “anti-crime” bill last month, includes provisions for judges to reduce penalties or not apply them at all in cases where police use excessive force as a result of “excusable fear, surprise or violent emotion.”

Bolsonaro has already used decree powers to loosen controls on gun ownership, and his supporters hope he will deliver on a campaign promise to give greater freedom for people to carry firearms with them. The SUSP, says Strozenberg, “is buried, at least for the next four years.”

That may prove particularly true in Rio, where the state governor was elected last year after promising to use snipers to shoot anyone carrying a gun in the favelas, “in their little heads.”

Some police may have taken the hint. After speaking with us, Strozenberg leaves for Manguinhos, a Rio favela, to continue an investigation into suspected sniping from an adjacent police tower. Six people have been shot dead in recent months, he says.

“If you are on a motorbike, you’re wearing a backpack and you’re black .… They’re not aiming at particular individuals,” he adds. “It’s just a profile.”


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