Why you should care
Because solving Brazil’s violence problem might take a radical solution.
For a socialist, pro-drug-legalization, Hare Krishna police chief in the polarized and hardly ever reasonable Brazil of Jair Bolsonaro, Orlando Zaccone seems strangely at ease. As our lunch turns into an errand-running mission through downtown Rio de Janeiro to help stage the Second National Congress of Anti-Fascism Police Officers, he is open and patient in spilling his life story. Being prominent in the media, he reveals, makes him feel safer to speak up.
“I believe the fear turned bigger after Marielle Franco’s murder [in 2018]. Left-wing activists are afraid to be the next target,” says the 55-year-old, who was born and raised in Rio.
It’s not just activists. Even as Rio’s police gunned down a record five people per day in 2019, they face growing threats. Across Brazil in 2018, 343 police officers were killed (nearly one per day), 87 in the line of duty. Another 104 officers died by suicide. Their situation helped inspire Zaccone to co-found Policiais Antifascismo (Anti-Fascism Police Officers). The progressive movement of around 400 officers fights for the demilitarization of public security, more advancement opportunities for military police and the end of the war on drugs.
“Most of Brazil’s cops are the military police, but they have no right to strike, to union representation, to run for political offices,” Zaccone says. His movement has drawn supporters from across 10 states, and counts prominent backers like artist Caetano Veloso and the Order of Attorneys of Brazil, the country’s bar association.
While cops are trained to sing ‘I will enter the favela and leave dead bodies on the floor,’ no psychiatric care project will be enough to solve this problem.
Zaccone began his career as a journalist, but after a year at Brazil’s biggest newspaper, O Globo, “it felt like working in a production line.” So he quit to become a monk in his Hare Krishna faith, a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism.
Two years later, Zaccone left the monastery to study law, then ended up managing his father’s real estate properties and, years later, earning a Ph.D. in political science. He had never dreamed of becoming a cop, but he ended up passing the civil police chief exam and joining the force.
Zaccone has been a chief of several different police stations across Rio. His activism began in 2007, when he started to openly support drug legalization. When O Globo published an opinion piece by him on the topic, he earned the nickname Pothead Police Chief, but also “got close to congressmen who shared the same principles,” he says. In 2018, Zaccone lost a race for a seat in Rio’s Legislative Assembly with the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). He doesn’t plan to run for office this year but is noncommittal about his political future.
Zaccone now lives in Barra, a middle-class neighborhood in Rio’s West Zone, with 3-year-old Maya, the youngest of his four children, and his wife, Bruna D’Elia, 37, who is also a civil police chief and one of the founders of Policiais Antifascismo. They met when he taught her in a prep course for the civil police chief exam.
Zaccone, D’Elia recalls, was “a fun, accessible one,” but also an impulsive man who “wants to do everything, and all at once.” Now she admires his bravery: “He acts just like he says it; he is very coherent.”
The stance has brought him a wave of attacks on social media, but Zaccone mostly brushes them off. “It is normal that people go wild on social media — they feel safe there. And I’m also quite rude to a lot of people on social media. If I say what I want, they can say what they want too,” admits Zaccone. (He did once successfully sue a cop who claimed on a WhatsApp group that Zaccone is “involved with drug dealers” — an attack on his ethics Zaccone says crossed the line.)
Following the election of the pro-Bolsonaro Wilson Witzel as governor of Rio last year, Zaccone was removed from running a police station to serve on Brazil’s specialized sports fans’ civil court. He says it would have been untenable for such a left-winger as himself to be in charge of a station in this political climate anyway.
Being misunderstood, especially by his colleagues, is a big concern to Zaccone. “When I talk about the lethality of prohibitionist policies, they think I’m attacking the police itself. But I’m criticizing the system, not their job.” To Zaccone, those who want to protect life should stand up for drug legalization. But his group’s membership remains a tiny fraction of Brazil’s hundreds of thousands of officers.
Cops like Alan Luxardo, a civil police officer who has known Zaccone for more than 20 years, are skeptical about his thesis: “Would legalization really address the violence problem? What if this stimulates a black market for the legalized drugs, or for the ones remaining illicit?”
Despite being a supporter of the idea of demilitarization, Luxardo argues the current public security policies are necessary in a place like Rio, where cops are frequently attacked in the favelas.
Zaccone contends that structural change is urgent and vital. “The police structure is sick,” he says. “It’s archaic, violent and does not produce free-thinking human beings. While cops are trained to sing ‘I will enter the favela and leave dead bodies on the floor,’ no psychiatric care project will be enough to solve this problem.”
For now, his group is working with left-wing politicians, social movements and thinkers in several states to formulate a legislative agenda around rethinking public safety. “There are many cops joining us,” Zaccone says. “I think we can become a very strong resistance in Brazil.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Orlando Zaccone
- What’s the last book you read? Raízes do Conservadorismo Brasileiro, by Juremir Machado da Silva.
- What do you worry about? The existing conditions of the Brazilian people.
- What’s your one must-have tool? My cap.
- Who’s your hero? Professors Nilo Batista and Vera Malaguti Batista. I owe these two everything I’ve built, politically and philosophically.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Go back to India. I’d like to go back and deepen my knowledge of the Vedic culture.