Latin America is in the midst of a homicide crisis. According to the Igarape Institute, more murders occur in the region’s five most violent countries than every major warzone combined, and Brazil is no exception. This can be attributed to the country’s history of drug trafficking, gang violence, and guns accessibility which led to a record 64,000 killings in 2017.
Although the overall number has dropped since 2017, there has been a spike in one area of homicide: police killings. In 2019, 6,220 people were killed by members of the police force – the highest death toll in the last five years. This averages out to around 17 people per day, with roughly 10 suspect deaths to every 1 police or soldier killed on duty.
The incendiary and dangerous rhetoric of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, has also contributed to this dramatic increase in state killings. Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has waged a trigger-happy war on crime, stating that, “a good criminal is a dead criminal”. After attempting to increase protections for officers who kill suspects, he also stated that police officers who gunned down criminals “need to be decorated, not prosecuted”.
At the end of last year, the president unveiled a bill called the Guarantee of Law and Order Bill. This legislation would provide protections to police officers and soldiers who committed homicides by both reducing prison sentences and, in some cases, granting full judicial protection to law enforcement. Not only does this legislation potentially incentivise the murder of suspects, but it may also allow the police force to become more corrupt. Police have reportedly gunned down suspects without so much as a search warrant, leaving investigations half-finished and a trail of innocent corpses in their wake.
That’s not to say there have not been attempts to control state violence in the past. In 2017, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned Brazil’s actions and declared that the country had failed to investigate questionable police killings. In response, the country established a task force to investigate police homicides. However, it has been largely ineffective. The task force was met with thousands of cases and quickly became overwhelmed. As such, only a small minority of cases are ever reviewed.
Many cases also lack evidence. By law, Brazilian police cars are required to record events through cameras. However, these devices have been vanishing, as has its accompanying evidence. Even in cases where an officer has been charged, more than 72,000 have been acquitted and none have ever been imprisoned.
Outside of Brazil, human rights groups have commented on the inhumane nature of this level of state violence, and experts have warned that encouraging police brutality is unlikely to address the root causes of violence.
Yet Bolsonaro’s constituents tend to agree with his inflammatory rhetoric. Opinion polls have suggested that a broad majority of Brazilians side with him and that they believe drastic measures must be taken to curb the crime that plagues their cities. Citizens of Brazil have seen the areas within Rio De Janeiro controlled by gangs, drug traffickers, and paramilitary groups through fear and intimidation, and they have had enough. They voted in Bolsonaro to see his draconian policies come to fruition, so it’s unlikely we’ll see internal resistance.
Even outside of Brazil, a few of the world’s major powers, namely the United States, have seemed to support these same policies. Bolsonaro is said to have a fascination with President Trump, having recently followed his trip in India, and often expressing support for the man. In return, Trump has continually shown cordiality to Bolsonaro, praising him for “doing a great job for the people of Brazil” and stating that “the relationship between the United States and Brazil has never been stronger”. Trump’s blanket approval of the dangerous bills emerging from the Bolsonaro administration makes him complicit in its results.
However, even the world powers that do attempt to intervene and condemn the country’s actions are easily swept aside. Given the tumultuous history of foreign intervention within Latin America, countries that try to step in are met with disapproval from countries across the region. They are seen as “neo-colonialists”, trying to meddle in another nation’s affairs for their gain, and are often compared to examples of US intervention during the late 20th century such as the installation of Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in 1973.
Bolsonaro has shown that he is largely unfazed by international pressure, as exemplified during the Amazon rainforest fires of 2019. At the time, the fires had claimed over 906,000 hectares of land with smoke that was observable from space. The G7 nations pledged $20 million in aid for Brazil, yet Bolsonaro initially stated that he would reject any environmental aid. As such, influencing Brazilian politics from the outside is incredibly difficult, especially since the president maintains a high approval rating within his population. So perhaps the best course of action is to raise awareness of Bolsonaro’s incompetency to shift the vote within Brazil.
Popular international shows such as John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight have done pieces that showcase the risk Bolsonaro’s presidency poses to Brazil. As more and more of the population becomes affected by his administration, we can only hope that constituents will change their mind by the time the next election rolls around in 2022.
As for now, without pressure from other world powers nor from within its own constituency, the Brazilian government will feel compelled to continue on its current trajectory: one fuelled by the death and oppression of its population.
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