A Violent Inheritance: The Roots of Bolsonaro’s Authoritarianism

by Luiza Monetti

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

As a Brazilian living abroad for over a decade, I got used to a certain set of questions about my homeland. They confirmed to me that, in the eyes of the world, “Brazil” stood for Carnival, soccer, and sun-kissed beaches. In the past four years, this rosy perspective has been changing, slowly but surely. Now, what comes to mind includes: corruption scandals and impeachment trials, rampant deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest, the unfulfilled promise of BRICS, and more recently, accounts of an openly racist and misogynistic president. Underneath the samba and the glitter, a somber Brazil emerged.

Most of the questions I receive or articles I read about Brazil point to far-right president Jair Bolsonaro as the leader and culprit of this new era of Brazilian politics. And to a certain extent, that’s true. As a House Deputy in April 2016, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote in favor of President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment to former army captain Colonel Ustra, believed to be personally responsible for the disappearance and death of more than 60 people and the torture of countless others during Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. More recently, Bolsonaro made headlines by declaring COVID-19 to be a “measly cold” and actively fighting against lockdown measures. It’s no surprise that his penchant for authoritarianism has called the state of Brazilian democracy into question.

But to claim that Bolsonaro ends an otherwise positive democratic experiment in Brazil undermines earlier and indeed grave indications of danger. What the president and his supporters have done is expose (and yes, exacerbate) deep-seated failings in Brazilian democracy that are—in some cases quite literally—an inheritance from the country’s military dictatorship. Years before Bolsonaro rose to power, there were signs that democratization didn’t permeate all state institutions equally, as first impressions would have us believe.

Brazil’s case is often heralded as a success story of a country transitioning from authoritarianism without any bloodbaths. Gradual and reasonably peaceful, the democratic transition started in 1985 and took almost 12 years to complete—at least according to history textbooks. The civil-military regime closely managed every aspect of the transition, which included promises from the president-to-be to the armed forces that there would be no retaliation or legal charges pressed against them.

Not only did the military avoid the economic disasters that plagued its authoritarian neighbors in the Southern Cone, but it also employed repression to a relatively moderate extent. The evidence confirms the deaths of 434 people in Brazil, whereas Argentina’s military regime killed close to 30,000 people around the same period. “Not as bad,” I have heard, as a response to my sharing this fact.

It’s this perception—that Brazil wasn’t so authoritarian and its military regime not so violent—which has led the country to where it is today. It has ensured that certain practices and institutions from the dictatorship be carried forward into democratic times, unchecked.

Take police violence, for one. Both the Brazilian Public Security Forum and Amnesty International have conducted investigations that claim Brazilian police are the most violent in the world based on the number of civilian deaths. Even more telling than how many people the police are killing is who they are targeting: 76.2% of those killed by police in action and off-duty are black, and 81.8% are between 12 and 29 years old.

It’s hard to buy into the conventional explanation for these figures, which chalks the violence up to high crime rates, often concentrated in peripheral neighborhoods. The patterns speak too loudly, and they cannot be ignored: on average, police kill black Brazilians three times as much as they kill white Brazilians.

If crime rates were indeed to blame for the different patterns of police violence, one would expect the most violent neighborhoods to be heavily patrolled and amply staffed. But, in fact, the opposite is true. The neighborhoods with the highest violent crime rates in Brazil’s largest city have proportionally fewer police officers per crime than less violent areas. The police units that report the greatest number of crimes are short-staffed, whereas precincts that retain the highest number of police officers don’t figure among the most crime-ridden areas.

The war on crime has proved so grossly inefficient that it would be, at the very least, nonsensical to legitimize it as an explanation for police violence. In his book, Demilitarize, former National Secretary of Public Security Luiz Eduardo Soares points to the fact that only 8% of 62,500 homicides were actually investigated this year. The hard-on-crime reasoning falls short.

Both the number of victims and the profile of those disproportionately affected by police violence indicate there might be two different experiences of democracy under the same political system—and this didn’t start when Bolsonaro assumed the powers of presidency. While deploying the army to take over public security in one of the largest cities in the country hardly sounds democratic (or sensible), that all took place before his rise to power.

In fact, Brazil’s history with a violent, repressive apparatus in place of a police force goes quite far back. The country’s institutional architecture of public security has been largely inherited from the military regime and has remained virtually untouched during the three decades of the so-called Citizen Constitution of 1988. Indeed, a series of legal and institutional measures adopted under the regime continue to shape police conduct and organization today: federalized commands, centralized control over security issues, ostensive policing, and reduced civil control over the military.

The democratization process even preserved a police unit, such as the Tobias de Aguiar Ostensive Rounds (ROTA), an elite unit of the Sao Paulo State Military Police created in 1970, at the height of the military regime. To this day, the ROTA is responsible for “control[ling] civil unrest and counter[ring] urban guerrilla warfare” (Decree 44,447/99). They have been involved in some of the worst massacres in modern Brazilian history, including one you might have heard of: the killing of 111 prisoners at Carandiru Prison in 1991.

Units like ROTA and its Civil Police equivalent “RONE” were established under the 1967 Constitution’s authoritarian tenor, which shaped the police in the context of combating internal enemies as per the National Security Doctrine. As such, their concern was not to protect the population as a whole. It’s no surprise that their efforts to shield the wealthy from criminals and alleged communists earned them the nickname of “death squads.”

Both units exemplify the flagrant problem with public security in Brazil: though the police’s target has changed—from combating communism and so-called subversion, to now warring with drugs and crime—their methods have remained fundamentally the same. The current democratic regime and the previous military dictatorship seem to be different expressions of the same system of social control.

As late as 2013, departments of public security up and down the country classified police killings as resistências. That’s because the Brazilian Penal Code makes it illegal to resist the application of the law (Penal Code 1940, Art. 121). In other words, blame the victim—resistance or no resistance. And, until very recently, police would normally rush injured civilians to the hospital in an apparent effort to get them medical attention and save lives. The process allowed police to trample the crime scene and tamper with the evidence, such as removing dead bodies under the false premise that they were still alive at the time.

Nothing is more telling of the us-versus-them mentality that still pervades Brazilian military police than the additional compensations measures adopted after the democratic transition.

States like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro incorporated cash benefits for police officers who killed—not arrested—criminals. In Rio, the practice was nicknamed “Western Bonus,” in reference to the violence portrayed in the film genre. Within Sao Paulo’s military brigades, there is quite a difference between being labelled a “Kentacky” or a “Quentucho.” The first refers to brave policemen who are the first at the crime scene and are fearless in arresting or eliminating the suspect; the latter are ordinary, “lesser” policemen who hesitate to use force.

The message is that criminals must be kept off the streets at all costs. The deaths of poor and black Brazilians are widely accepted as collateral damage in the war against crime. We observe the police’s same disregard for life today in the killing of Evaldo Rosa dos Santos, a black musician driving his family to a baby shower, with nine shots to the head, and Santos Dias, a farmer and union worker killed by the military police in 1979 for picketing. Neither was armed.

Bandido bom é bandido morto—“a good criminal is a dead criminal.”

The rolezinhos, popularized in 2013 and 2014, illustrate this saying quite clearly. Rolezinhos were boycotts in the form of gatherings of lower-class youth (mostly of black or mixed race) in central shopping malls, typically frequented by the upper classes. Their mere presence sparked such panic among shopkeepers and consumers alike, that the military police intervened to disperse the crowd with rubber bullets and tear gas.

In 2019, a video showing two military police officers repeatedly beating an older homeless couple was widely shared on social media. It is common for the homeless in Brazil to carry a wagon with their possessions. The couple had parked theirs in a supermarket parking lot while they shopped for food. The police were called after another customer felt uneasy with the couple’s presence and asked them to be escorted out.

It’s hard to look at cases such as these and not understand that the current police structure is set up to protect the wealthier white population, at the expense of those living in the periphery.

Police violence, especially when lethal, can then serve as a type of cleansing that removes destabilizing forces—actual or perceived criminals—from elite-occupied spaces. Despite the end of the military regime, a war goes on against supposed enemies of the order, pushing for the annihilation or, at the very least, exclusion of the other, which, in this case, has a race, class, and address.

Yes, Bolsonaro permits and indeed advocates for this kind of public security (if we can call it that). Yet, he is hardly the first politician to do so in recent times in Brazil. ROTA Lieutenant Colonel Paulo Telhada used his 36 assumed killings as a source of pride when running for the Sao Paulo state legislature in 2012.

In the spring of 2019, I attended the Brazil Forum held at the London School of Economics. Among the panelists was Major Sérgio Olímpio, who currently serves as a senator for the state of Sao Paulo. There, in front of colleagues, students, and the press, he said: “Anyone who shoots at a police officer should die.” Suffice it to say, he did not get many cheers of approval that day.

None of this is meant to absolve Bolsonaro of guilt, or to echo those earlier responses of “not so bad then.” Under Bolsonaro, killings are surging, and vulnerable populations are more at risk than ever. He should absolutely be held accountable for the blatant disregard he shows for the lives of those he considers to be his inferiors (just take a look at his COVID-19 response to see yet another example of this).

But the truth is that Brazil’s problems didn’t start with Bolsonaro, and they won’t end alongside his term. The country needs to take a long and hard look at its public security structure and understand that true democratization does not amount to attending voting booths every 4 years.

The persistent notion that an “enemy” must be defeated and that the military police, together with the armed forces, would be responsible for this victory is as alive today as it was during the last military dictatorship. Unless it abandons the identity of a police force of control and instead adopts the identity of a police force of service, Brazil cannot expect to end extrajudicial killings or even fight crime effectively. And until then, it would be a disservice to them—to the Evaldos, the Santos, the convicts, and the mall-going teenagers—to call it a true democracy.

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