Authoritarian Legacies: Policing in Brazil and Latin America

By Harriet Allan

During the wave of race protests following George Floyd’s death, a video emerged showing a military police officer stepping on the neck of a black woman in São Paulo, Brazil. On 19 November 2020, João Alberto Silveira Freitas, a 40-year old black man, was beaten to death by two security guards at a Carrefour in Porto Alegre, Brazil. One of the guards involved in the attack was an off-duty military police man, and neither were on the national register regulating the profession. The police forces of Brazil and the rest of Latin America are struggling under the legacy of their authoritarian past. Infiltrated by corruption and distrusted by the general public, most police forces in Latin America are ineffective and employ excessive violence, disproportionately affecting people of colour.

Black and mixed-race people account for about 57% of Brazil’s population, and constitute 74% of victims killed by police. Brazil has a long legacy of racism. More than four million people were brought from Africa during the slave trade, more than any other country in the world. It was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro denies the presence of racism in Brazil. However, the influence of slavery is evident. Black Brazilians make up 64% of the country’s unemployed, die younger, and are almost three times as likely to be victims of homicide. 

Serious deficiencies in policing in Brazil and Latin America are rooted in their more recent history. Many of Latin America’s police forces today have evolved from the militarised police forces of the authoritarian regimes that governed from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. For example, the Military Police in Brazil, forming 80% of the country’s police contingent, was subordinated to the armed forces during the dictatorship of 1964-84, taking part in counter-insurgency techniques such as extra-judicial executions, death squad activity, torture and enforced disappearances. Following the dictatorship, neither purging of the ranks, nor restructuring or retraining, took place. The 1988 Constitution left the Military Courts intact, protecting the forces, and ensuring the continuity of the dictatorship-era operational practices and personnel into the democratic period. Even where ‘root and branch’ reforms have occurred, this experience remains common in Latin American countries. 

The police forces’ authoritarian pasts and military training has encouraged a focus on tackling crime, rather than citizen protection. The United Kingdom’s police force has evolved by the principles developed by Sir Robert Peel for an ethical police force. They emphasise a need for policing by consent, where officers are regarded as citizens in uniform, policing with consent of their fellow citizens, whilst being subject to transparency and accountability. Force is consequently a last resort. Conversely, in the U.S. and Latin America the police forces share a different ideology. Policing has focused on crime control rather than noncriminal services, in turn deteriorating the relationship between the people and the police. With the violent clashes between civilians and police in the U.S. during the civil rights movement, and the role of Latin American police in repressive regimes of the late 20th century, neither region has built close ties between the people and police. 

The history of police force involvement in the recent civil wars and dictatorships in Latin America has fostered deep distrust. In 11 of Latin America’s 18 democracies, over 15% of citizens characterised their amount of trust in the police as “not at all”. Complete distrust was as high as 32% in Mexico. Even in Chile and Uruguay, where homicides rates are the lowest in the region, more than half of the population favoured bringing the army back onto the streets to fight crime. 

Critically, distrust in the police and lack of confidence in due process has led to citizens taking policing into their own hands in the form of lynchings and honour killings. In 2016, one person was killed by a mob every two days on average. Suspected thieves account for more than half of reported deaths for which the lynch mob’s motive is known, as they are often caught in the act. In 2016, mobs beat, stabbed and stoned robbers to death. Excessive use of force and ‘false rescues’ contribute to this lack of trust.

Excessive use of force is common in Brazil, with the situation reaching atrocious proportions. Killings by police reached a high of 1,800 in 2019 – five deaths a day. Police open fire recklessly in the poorest neighbourhoods, and routinely excuse themselves by claiming self-defense. 

A New York Times analysis of four dozen police killings in Rio found officers routinely gun down people without restraint, protected by their bosses and the knowledge that even if they are investigated for illegal killings, they will not lose their jobs. The Attorney General’s Office reported to the Human Rights Watch that it had filed charges in only 25% of the 3,441 police killings recorded between 2010 to 2015. Often, there is no record of police investigators conducting a crime scene analysis, police officers involved in killings are not questioned, non-police eyewitnesses are not sought out for interview, and basic forensic tests are not conducted. Impunity regions and the administration has effectively given the police a licence to kill.

The military police tend to call medical emergency services in the case of victims of traffic accidents. However, the Human Rights Watch found that the police transport the bodies from shootings to hospitals themselves to try to save them – they arrive dead. These ‘false rescues’ have been going on for over a decade in Brazil, where officers claim they are moving victims to save their lives and instead destroy evidence and hamper investigations. Such brutality and corruption do nothing to dismantle criminal groups afflicting Latin America as a whole, and instead feeds a cycle violence and distrust. 

Excessive force has been facilitated by the militarisation of the police. Since the Second World War, the U.S. offered training to Latin American armed forces, teaching them counter-subversive techniques to tackle communism, including illegal practices of torture and unlawful detention. In 1986, the U.S. government created the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program to provide international police assistance. With the help of the DEA and FBI, 15 Latin American countries received aid in the 1990s, accounting for nearly half of all investment. 

In March 2015, the FBI provided questioning and interrogation training to the Secretariat of Social Defence in Pernambuco, Brazil. Enduring US involvement and replication of US models of security is concerning given the historical consequences of international police assistance in Brazil, in addition to the U.S.’s history of military training in Latin America.

Military involvement in policing has been linked to cases of corruption and human rights violations. Militarisation of public security leads to increased use of military-style weapons, clashing with policing doctrines, whilst focusing on crime control rather than prevention or investigation.

Police reform in Brazil has neither focused on demilitarisation nor made the police more respectful of citizens’ rights. Rather, it has focused on making the police more effective at capturing criminals and apprehending narcotics. In most cases in Latin America there is general consensus that police institutions are insufficiently trained and equipped to deal with increasing complexities of the criminal world and developing illicit markets. 

Though homicide rates are falling (murders in Brazil fell by 25% in the first two months of 2019 compared with the previous year), police killings have increased since Bolsonaro gained power. The President has encouraged people to kill more, saying criminals should be killed “in the street like cockroaches”, emphasising that “a good criminal is a dead criminal”. He hoped to change the country’s criminal code to allow police officers and civilians to shoot supposed offenders without fear of persecution, echoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s policing policies in the Philippines. 

Insecurity is now one of the most pressing issues on the public agenda. In many Latin American countries, the police are violent, corrupt and ineffective, and police reform is temporary and ineffectual. With many Latin American countries lack state monopoly on security, non-state actors are prompted to step in. Paramilitaries, vigilantes, and private security groups have more personnel, better infrastructure and weapons, contributing to greater insecurity. Combined with lack of public investment and weak political commitment to reform, a wide array of internal problems faces many police forces in Latin America. 

In April 2020 Bolsonaro appointed a family friend Alexandre Ramagem as head of the federal police. Bolsonaro claimed he was concerned about his family’s safety. However, Justice Minister Sergio Moro (who resigned over the issue) alleged Bolsonaro wanted a “personal contact” in the top police job “from whom he could get information, intelligence reports.” Bolsonaro’s selection was blocked, a successful fight for Sergio Moro, a fierce anti-corruption advocate. However, the scandal demonstrates the extent of corruption in Brazil. 

Militarisation of the police, excessive use of force, and the public taking policing into their own hands affects people of colour the most. Black, mixed-race and indigenous peoples are suffering the brunt of the deficiencies in Latin American policing. Brazil and its neighbours have a long way to go to create an effective and trustworthy police force.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image Source: Dikran Junior via Associated Press

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