The Bullet Caucus Takes a Shot at Brazil
A gun-toting, tough-on-crime bloc of lawmakers has captured a majority of Brazil’s lower house. And it’s threatening to remake politics in this troubled country.
RIO DE JANEIRO — On May 12, the Brazilian Senate voted, 55 to 22, to suspend President Dilma Rousseff from office. One day earlier, congressman Jair Bolsonaro, one of the most vocal lawmakers calling for her impeachment, was getting baptized in the Jordan River.
Rev. Everaldo Pereira, the president of Bolsonaro’s Social Christian Party and the man who performed the baptism, had organized the visit to Israel for the congressman and his sons — Eduardo, Flávio, and Carlos — to meet with members of the Israeli government and fraternize over their supposedly common struggles. “Just as you all suffer with the untruths about Palestine, we in Brazil also suffer” with worry about “those who just want to bring [the country] to socialism,” he said in a meeting with the president of Israel’s parliament. Throughout the 10-day trip, Bolsonaro repeatedly praised the strength of the Israeli military, highlighting a right-wing kinship between Israel and Brazil.
Upon his return to Brazil, Bolsonaro debuted his new gun-loving alliance with Israel, posting a video montage of his visit, complete with orchestral soundtrack, for his 3 million Facebook followers. The swagger of the trip reflects the expectations of Bolsonaro and the coalition of pro-military, tough-on-crime, “shoot first, ask questions later,” go-with-God lawmakers that he represents — a coalition poised to expand in influence in Brazil as a new government settles into power.
In 1988, Bolsonaro was elected to the Rio de Janeiro city council as a member of what would become the Progressive Party (now heavily entangled in the massive Petrobras corruption probe) after a 10-year career in the military, during which he was stationed near the Brazil-Paraguay border and in Rio, where he gained fame for plotting to throw bombs in the bathrooms of the military academy to protest officer pay. In 1990, he was elected to Brazil’s lower house, where he backed proposals to increase benefits for the military and police, and called for a return to military rule. In 1998, he was a natural fit for the newly formed Congressional Front for Public Security, known informally as the “bullet caucus.”
Since its creation, the bullet caucus has been a thorn in the side of the left, advocating for expanding access to firearms, lowering the age at which young Brazilians can be tried and jailed as adults, and privatizing prisons. Its members include former police and military officials, many of whom have received major campaign contributions from Brazilian handgun manufacturing giant Taurus and the Brazilian Cartridge Company, the nation’s largest ammunition manufacturer.
For most of the bullet caucus’s existence, its agenda has stood at cross-purposes with the political will of the once-ascendant Workers’ Party (PT), which has financed a robust expansion of the social welfare state on the back of a decade of commodity-led growth. But amid Rousseff’s downfall, the caucus has smelled opportunity. Eighty percent of the bloc, whose members constitute more than half of Brazil’s lower house, allied with the tough-on-crime religious right to whip votes for her impeachment. Now, thanks to their numbers and their key role in Rousseff’s removal, both groups expect to command the attention of Michel Temer’s interim government.
Bolsonaro and the bullet caucus are intent on frustrating Brazil’s ongoing efforts to turn the page on military dictatorship, pushing measures that may bring lethal consequences in a country that already racks up the highest absolute number of murders per year outside of Syria. In the wake of the cataclysmic changes sweeping Brazilian politics, evangelical and pro-gun groups in Congress are more unified and powerful than they’ve been in decades. Bolsonaro’s trip to the Holy Land seemed to embody that peculiar combination perfectly: On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he celebrated Rousseff’s suspension in the language of Brazil’s Pentecostal preachers, praising “new airs of change.”
Militarism is, of course, nothing new to Brazil. In 1985, grassroots pro-democracy activists defeated a military dictatorship that had ruled the country since 1964. Even after it came to an end, the police continued using heavy force in a country rocked by political instability, inflation, and a growing illegal trade in cocaine and marijuana.
Soon, the Brazilian police became soldiers in the global war on drugs, conducting casualty-heavy raids under the sweeping auspices of U.N. drug-control treaties into poor neighborhoods suspected of serving as trafficking hubs. Rio police were rewarded with “bravery bonuses” for on-duty killings. The result of this escalation: By 1997, the national homicide rate of 25 per 100,000 people had skyrocketed past that of some countries in the midst of civil war. By the mid- to late 1990s, “Rio had become almost uninhabitable, Recife was in flames, [and] São Paulo had entered full-scale crisis mode,” said Robert Muggah, the Brazil-based Igarapé Institute’s research director, in a 2013 interview.
Anti-violence religious activists and civil society groups like the nonprofit Viva Rio found that these dynamics disproportionately impacted the country’s poor, and the police often enjoyed impunity. Outrage over several high-profile episodes of police violence in the late 1990s and in 2000 eventually forced President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to adopt a national plan for public security, which grew under Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva to train police in less combative tactics and civilians in community-based, violence-prevention strategies. In 2003, the government increased the age and documentation requirements for civilians to buy guns; the next year saw the first national decrease in recorded gun deaths since 1980. In 2015, Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, a sociologist at the Latin American College of Social Sciences, estimated that the requirements had prevented 160,000 deaths since their implementation.
Yet, a different philosophy prevailed among those lawmakers who held fast to their sacred belief that a well-armed citizenry was crucial to maintaining order. In 1998, congressman and former Brasília Police Col. Alberto Fraga, an old friend of Bolsonaro’s, founded the bullet caucus in order to improve the working conditions of police and military officers, expand access to firearms, and stiffen criminal penalties.
“[Jair] Bolsonaro was with us from the beginning,” Fraga told Foreign Policy. “It was natural that his son Eduardo joined as soon as he was elected to Congress in 2014.” (Eduardo’s brother Flávio is a Rio state congressman, and his brother Carlos is a Rio city councilman. The family chronicles its political adventures on a blog. There, they also reaffirm their commitments to family and Christian values and rebuke public and media criticism, usually of Jair, for such actions as telling a female congresswoman she was not worthy of being raped and dedicating his impeachment vote to the man who supervised Dilma Rousseff’s dictatorship-era torture.)
The bullet caucus scored big legislative victories early on, in 2005 and 2006. First, it successfully opposed a ban on civilian handgun purchases, an issue on which America’s National Rifle Association got involved with strategy help for some pro-gun campaigners. Then, the caucus worked toward provisions in a 2006 drug law that prohibited bail for detainees accused of drug trafficking and hiked the minimum sentence for trafficking to five years. Critics, such as social scientists, public defenders offices, and human rights organizations, say these provisions were key factors in the 110 percent increase in Brazil’s prison population between 2005 and 2014. By 2014, the prisons had swelled past their capacity by around 250,000 prisoners, giving Brazil the world’s fourth-largest prison population.
Some state governments, meanwhile, resisted the bullet caucus’s influence. Pernambuco, a state in northeast Brazil, reduced homicides by 39 percent between 2006 and 2013 by increasing its monitoring of the police and setting district targets for crime reduction. In 2008, Rio launched its pacification program based on community-policing teams. These were tasked with building trust-based relationships with residents in poor neighborhoods rather than hunting down drug traffickers. In six years, the program led to an 85 percent drop in police killings and a 65 percent drop in general homicides in its areas, according to government data.
But Flávio Bolsonaro publicly denounced the influence of community-policing strategy on pacification. “It’s a military question,” the Rio state congressman told FP in an interview. “You’re going into combat. What are you going to do if there are 200 traffickers in there with weapons?”
Robson Rodrigues, a 31-year police veteran who retired as a colonel and led the pacification program, called Flávio Bolsonaro’s logic “punitive, oversimplifying, [and] extremely dangerous.” Yet the political pressure the younger Bolsonaro represented delayed execution of a new training program that aims to reduce police killings, and pacification as a whole has suffered deadly setbacks due to poor implementation.
There’s also reason to believe that Brazil’s democratic transition out of military rule has stalled. During and after the 2014 World Cup, the army took over a group of poor neighborhoods, or favelas, home to 140,000 people, near Rio’s international airport. Called Maré, it was previously controlled by drug traffickers and extortion gangs; the occupation was ostensibly to transition to police presence, but now the army has gone, and no police have arrived. The human rights organizations Justiça Global and Amnesty International are currently investigating reports of soldiers shooting unthreatening residents during the occupation. “People have already been living with arbitrary military rule consistent with what happened during the dictatorship,” said Lena Azevedo, a researcher at Justiça Global. “In a Temer government, I see a worse outlook” because “it is backed by forces even more known for repression and impunity.”
Temer belongs to the ideologically shifty Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). His interim government will lean heavily on the bullet and evangelical caucuses. Rousseff allied with the PMDB to govern in Brazil’s fractious party system, but the party has an “oppositionist” wing that historically combats the PT in Congress in return for political favors. Last year, its leader, Eduardo Cunha, was elected house speaker; he fast-tracked legislation that united congressional sentiment against Rousseff such as a bill proposing to try and sentence 16-year-olds as adults, despite already overcrowded adult prisons with 70 percent recidivism rates. Both Brazil’s bullet and evangelical caucuses supported this measure due to their punishment-focused public security philosophies.
Fraga, the leader of the bullet caucus, proposes to address prison overcrowding by building new, private facilities — a plan that has been met with scorn from many experts, including Julita Lemgruber, a former director of the Rio de Janeiro penitentiary system. “It’s going to cost twice as much to keep someone in a private prison,” she said. “We all know what it would take to make our public prisons better on so many levels. It’s not a question of money. It’s a question of political will.”
For months now, that will has been on the side of the bullet caucus. Last August, its controversial proposal to lower the age of criminal responsibility finally passed Brazil’s lower house. The measure also drew 100 new members to the bloc, Fraga says. Its proponents spoke of separating “criminals” from “citizens of good.” Since then, supporters of Rousseff’s impeachment — a mix of opposition members, the religious right, those calling for a return to military rule, and a growing strain of hard-line libertarians — have continued to use these phrases to describe their struggle against the PT, who they contend are the “criminals” in Brazil’s system-shaking political drama.
Jair Bolsonaro liked what he saw of the libertarians’ moment in the sun. In March, he asked the small, far-right think tank Instituto Liberal to rewrite the platform of the Social Christian Party, which he had joined earlier that month “because the party said he could run for president if he … [could] poll at more than 10 percent of national voters,” Fraga explained matter-of-factly. Bolsonaro is currently planning his 2018 presidential run: Polls in December showed him coming in fifth place; by April, he was in fourth.
But Bolsonaro doesn’t need to reach the presidential palace to change Brazil. His views have seeped into the firmament of the ruling anti-Rousseff movement. On May 12, Temer appointed as justice minister a man known for his violent repression of social movements during his tenure as São Paulo security chief. The same day, Rio state security officials announced the army is considering occupying six favelas in Rio near tourist areas and Olympic sites for the August games due to rising crime in the city. Fraga, who received $22,000 in donations from the handgun manufacturer Taurus in the last election, predicts he will easily push changes to incarceration and gun control laws under Temer. After Jair Bolsonaro was long written off as political fringe, Brazil’s current turbulence has resurrected his repressive philosophies into the powerful mainstream.
Photo credits: FERNANDO BIZERRA JR./EPA; ANDRESSA ANHOLETE/AFP/Getty Images
Corrections, June 10, 2016: President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s national plan for public security was later named “Pronasci” after its expansion under Lula. A previous version of this article incorrectly called Cardoso’s plan by this name. Also, Alberto Fraga was a police colonel for Brasília, not São Paulo, as a previous version of this article stated. Also, 2004 saw the first national decrease in recorded gun deaths since 1980; a previous version of this article mistakenly said the decrease happened in 2003.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn