Brazil Must Address Its Own Racist Police Violence
Afro-Brazilians make up over half of the country’s population, but they are still fighting for their right to live.
RIO DE JANEIRO—Sitting in front of a house dotted with bullet holes, Joel Luiz Costa, a criminal lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, told me about one of his former clients, when we met in June last year.
During a police operation in 2018, heavily armed officers patrolling the alleyways of Manguinhos, a favela north of the city, found a walkie-talkie on the ground, just outside one of the houses. Police entered the property, where a young Black man named Wellington was sleeping next to his girlfriend. After yanking him out of bed, officers took the 25-year-old into custody on the grounds that he worked for the drug dealers who ruled the community, and that the walkie-talkie was evidence of how he kept in touch with his employers. Wellington—who prefers not to use his full name for security reasons—had prior convictions, so he spent eight months behind bars, awaiting trial.
Costa sought pretrial release for his client, but his habeas corpus request was denied. On the day of the hearing, Costa was prepared and launched a tough cross-examination of police witnesses. He was familiar with the area where his client was arrested, so he posed very specific questions. “I asked the officers to describe the street, how was it, was it straight, was it curved; was he at the end or at the beginning of the street?” he recalled. “What were you doing there, what were you looking for; did you actually hear someone saying ‘Wellington, do you copy?’”
“It didn’t take long for the officers to start contradicting themselves,” Costa said proudly. The judge found the defendant not guilty. After eight months behind bars for a walkie-talkie found on the floor outside his house, Wellington was free to go. Brazil’s constitution states that every citizen has the right to a lawyer, but most of those who pass through the system are unaware of this. If it wasn’t for Costa taking Wellington’s case pro bono, the young man would most likely still be in jail, awaiting his turn to get in front of a judge.
In countries at war, the presence of an enemy within—real or imagined—tends to increase the public’s capacity to tolerate the excesses of the state. There are 725,000 people behind bars in Brazil. In the whole world, only two countries incarcerate a larger number of their own populations: China has 1.7 million people in prison, and the United States has 2.1 million. Over 40 percent of Brazilian inmates are still awaiting trial, while only 14 percent are imprisoned for violent crimes and homicide.
Brazilian jails and prisons, overcrowded and left at the mercy of powerful drug cartels, are known in the criminal world as “universities.”
“We produce our own suicide bombers,” said the journalist and author Bruno Paes Manso, who has written extensively about Brazil’s main criminal organizations. “The only difference is that our jihadis prefer to die or go to jail before they get to 25 years of age, rather than bowing their heads to a system that will humiliate and oppress them.”
Costa’s own father spent most of his life on the run, supervising the drug trade in Jacarezinho, a favela in the north of Rio, using the proceeds to pay for his son’s education. Now, at 31, Costa is deeply invested in the movement to decriminalize drugs and bring an end to a war that has mostly claimed the lives of poor Black Brazilians.
“People’s problem is not with where the money comes from,” Costa, who, like over half of Brazil’s population, is Black, told me when I met him in Rio last year. “Their problem is with the person committing the crime, because when the wife of a corrupt politician buys a designer bag or pays for tennis lessons in Switzerland, nobody questions the money’s origins.”
Brazilian police are among the world’s deadliest, and Rio’s are the country’s most lethal. Last year, in Rio de Janeiro state alone, 1,814 people were shot dead by police officers, with more than 75 percent of the victims Black people, according to the city’s Institute of Public Safety. Brazil’s police force also leads the world in the number of officers lost in the line of duty: In 2018, 343 officers were killed on the job. Not even the arrival of a global pandemic has been enough to halt the violence.
At 6 a.m. on May 15, Tiê Vasconcelos woke up to the sound of heavy artillery. “My first reaction, as always, was to lie down on the floor,” said the 25-year-old community organizer and YouTuber, who lives in the Complexo do Alemão favela, a sprawling, impoverished community in northern Rio. “It lasted until around 10:30 a.m. There was an intense exchange of fire, heavy noises, sounds of war, grenade explosions, armored vehicles roaming the streets.” The firefight was the result of a police incursion led by Rio’s elite Special Police Operations Battalion, known by the Portuguese acronym BOPE, aimed at capturing local drug dealers. By the time the operation came to an end, officials had seized a total of eight machine guns. In the process, 13 people lost their lives. Their bodies, left exposed in the middle of the street, had to be carried away by local residents.
So far in Alemão, there have been 108 cases of the coronavirus, 37 deaths, and 10 recoveries. But Vasconcelos said that the actions of the police make it harder to fight the virus; as Foreign Policy has reported, accessing hospitals or getting a bed has been nearly impossible for the community’s residents. “How are we supposed to self-isolate if we don’t feel safe in our own homes? How are we supposed to avoid crowds if when police do this kind of thing and we are forced to get together to collect the bodies left behind?”
Three days after the bloodbath in Alemão, João Pedro Mattos Pinto, 14, was killed at home by police forces in São Gonçalo, a working-class city that faces Rio de Janeiro from the other side of Guanabara Bay. João Pedro had dreams of becoming a soccer star. “He always used to say: ‘Dad, one day I’ll make you proud,’” his father told The Guardian. João Pedro’s house took in more than 70 high-caliber bullets, after heavily armed police officers entered the wrong property in search of drug traffickers. In the wake of the teenager’s killing, Brazilian news outlets and online platforms held a brief discussion on race, police brutality, and the fight against drug trafficking—but for the most part it was business as usual.
Then the images of George Floyd’s killing in the United States hit the news. Brazilians of all races took to the streets to march against racism like many others around the world. It didn’t go unnoticed that it took the killing of an African American man more than 5,000 miles away for white Brazilians and mainstream media outlets to pay attention to their own homegrown race problem. “In Brazil, when Black people die, white Brazilians stay silent,” said Manoel Soares, one of the few Black journalists working for Globo, the country’s largest TV network. “That silence allows the media, the government, and even Black people to normalize those deaths.”
Historically, Brazil has always tried to align itself with the United States. Brazilians even have an expression for this: complexo de vira-lata, which in English translates to “mongrel complex.” The term was coined in the 1950s by the sports writer Nelson Rodrigues, after Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup. It was said the national team was afraid to play its own brand of soccer—especially in later years against Argentina. The mongrel complex alludes to a Brazilian nation low in self-esteem, with very little confidence in the power of its own culture, economy, and scientific expertise. On the other hand, the country often deems everything coming from abroad, especially from the United States, as superior to anything found within Brazil.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro sees in his U.S. counterpart someone to be emulated; like President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has played a major role in further polarizing his country along racial lines. Earlier this year, indigenous activists vowed to sue the far-right president for racism after his latest bigoted outburst. In one of his weekly Facebook broadcasts, Bolsonaro declared: “Indians are undoubtedly changing. … They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us.”
Almost 20 years after Cidade de Deus, an impoverished community in the west of Rio, burst into the world’s consciousness with the film by the neighborhood’s English name—City of God—very little has changed for those living there. Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, the 2002 film featuring a mostly Black cast tells the story of two young men who choose different paths while growing up in Rio during the’70s. Rocket, played by Alexandre Rodrigues, is a budding photographer who documents everyday life in his neighborhood. José “Zé” Pequeno, played by Leandro Firmino da Hora, is an ambitious drug dealer who uses Rocket and his photos as a way to increase his fame, as a turf war erupts with his rival, “Knockout Ned,” played by the singer Seu Jorge. Like many favelas all over Rio, the one depicted in the film also has a long history of violent police incursions. One of those took place three days before George Floyd’s killing in late May. BOPE soldiers went in without warning, guns blazing, stopping volunteers from distributing food and hand sanitizer to local residents.
This time, an 18-year-old boy was shot dead. There are conflicting reports about the victim’s affiliations. Some say he was shot while on his way to the shop to buy a kite; others claim he was part of the local gang that rules the area. Rodrigo Felha, a filmmaker born and raised in Cidade de Deus, said he was caught off guard when police opened fire: “As if the government’s absence wasn’t enough, not contributing in any way with [coronavirus] relief efforts, they don’t let us do the work either, they don’t let us help our own people.”
There have been a few brave individuals in Brazil, who have dedicated their lives to denouncing the abuses committed by the state’s security apparatus. One of those people was Marielle Franco, a popular Rio city councillor, elected in 2016 with the fifth-highest vote count among council members. A fierce feminist and human rights campaigner, she was known for speaking truth to power, especially when it came to police brutality against favela residents. In March 2018, Franco was gunned down in the streets of Rio, along with her driver, on her way home from an event. The investigation into her murder is still ongoing, but among her supporters there is little hope that those who ordered her killing will ever be found.
In the favelas I’ve visited over the years, residents have been almost unanimous in their view that the police do more harm than good, and that they would be better off policing themselves, left alone to look after their own communities. “The ones bringing chaos into the favelas are the police. In the same way you walk around Ipanema without a problem,” Felha said, referring to one of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods, “it would be my pleasure to show you around Cidade de Deus.”
He then paused for a second, before adding, “Without the police there, of course, because at any moment they might invade.”