Can More Training Curb The Lethal Police Forces of Brazil?

Soldiers and cops occupied the Favela da Rocinha in 2017 to execute prison warrants against drug dealers. There is a scene in the classic TV show The Wire in which Major Colvin says: “ I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you are at war, you need a fucking enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon the neighbourhood that you're supposed to be policing, that's just occupied territory.” Source: Wikimedia Commons/Author: Fernando Frazao

Public security is one of the main topics during electoral campaigns in Brazil. As usual, during interviews and debates, presidential and gubernatorial hopefuls are encouraged to talk about their perspectives on policing, the criminal justice system, and drug policy. Drugs, as it is widely known, are still a matter of public security and policing instead of being approached within a health and well-being framework. As so many of the stories on this website demonstrate, you can realise how these police operations that usually lead to extrajudicial killings and miscarriage of justice are, in general, repeatedly justified as a necessary means to achieve an alleged noble end: to combat the drug supply and “win” the War on Drugs.

Even though decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs are getting more traction around the globe, Brazil remains a strongly conservative country and, in the current electoral campaign, left-wing candidates are refraining to approach this issue from a progressive angle. Politicians like Marcelo Freixo (Brazilian Socialist Party), a gubernatorial candidate for Rio de Janeiro with a long history in advocacy and campaigning against paramilitary groups and for the decriminalisation of drugs, is dodging the subject. In a 2016 debate with Flavio Bolsonaro (the son of the current President), when both were running for the mayoral office of Rio de Janeiro City, Freixo said that the criminalisation of drugs was the criminalisation of poverty, and was responsible for the deaths of both civilians and police officers. Last month, during a collective interview with other gubernatorial candidates for Rio de Janeiro, when asked about the legalisation of cannabis, Freixo avoided the issue, stating it is a debate that divides society and that this is not the appropriate moment to discuss it. In his government manifesto, drugs are only mentioned through the lens of criminal organisations that must be combated. His strategy for public security is very much centred on reforming police training and qualification.

The gubernatorial hopeful for São Paulo, Fernando Haddad (Workers Party), was responsible for the implementation of a successful harm reduction programme in São Paulo City when he was the mayor between 2013 and 2017. His successor, Joao Doria, demolished the programme and promoted several episodes of violence against homeless people who use drugs on the streets of São Paulo City, especially in the region known as Cracolandia. In his current manifesto, Haddad does not mention harm reduction or a public health approach to drug use. Drugs appear, again, intertwined with organised crime, and drug trafficking appears as something to be combated with policing. In order to enhance public security, the promise is to provide continuing education for police officers.

São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are the two most populated cities in Brazil, with estimated populations of over 12 million and six million inhabitants, respectively. São Paulo State is the most populated state in Brazil, with Rio de Janeiro being the third. Both states are home to the most violent and lethal police forces in the country. Extrajudicial and “accidental” killings are routine, and massacres are conducted every so often. Police officers in these two states also face a high risk of violent deaths and, in Rio de Janeiro State, between 2016 and 2020, they were mostly targeted while off-duty.    

The investment in the criminal justice system is massive in both states: according to research published by the Center for Security and Citizenship Studies (CESeC), Rio de Janeiro State spent R$1 bi (circa £163,1 mi) in 2017 only on the prohibition of use and commerce of illegal drugs. This corresponds to 2.1% of the state’s total budget for 2017. Sao Paulo State, in its turn, spent R$4,2 bi—roughly £685 mi, which corresponded to 2.03% of the state’s budget for that year. Simultaneously, one-fifth of the pupils enrolled in the municipal school system in São Paulo City started the second semester of the 2022 academic year without the uniforms that the municipality should provide them with as part of their educational support. Vulnerable children lacking access to state-funded school uniforms, shoes and clothes is a chronic issue in what is the wealthiest city in Brazil, and an indication of deeper systemic problems of inequality. There are many things lacking in the lives of millions of children and their families in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, from food to options of leisure, from access to education and qualification for the job market to decent housing. These children and their families are often caught in the middle of the violence that is increased in the name of public security. And as if it was not enough, these families are also supporting the state that is perpetuating this violence.

The strategy to cater to conservative constituents—including those left-leaning conservatives —promotes the agenda of the ever-growing militarisation of the police forces. The investment in “intelligence” and hardware is just one side of militarism. Beyond the need to drastically reduce the budget for the acquisition of tools of violence, there is a need to cease the warrior mentality and the dangerous notion that enemies of the public are hiding among the “good citizens”. The notion that civilians are potential enemies of the national state is deeply rooted in the recent experiences of the civilian-military dictatorship in Brazil, and this ghost haunts public security policies in the country. This militaristic ideology is not, however, a Latin-American exclusivity. As criminologist Alex Vitale points out, reflecting on the US, “When our elected officials tell the police that they are waging a war on drugs, a war on crime, a war on terror, and a war on gangs, then the police will organize themselves in a militaristic fashion.” This observation can be extended to Brazil and to every other state around the globe.

Both Freixo and Haddad manifestos are accepting suggestions from the public, and it is up to Rio de Janeiro’s and São Paulo’s citizens to remind them that the War on Drugs, which walks hand in hand with policing and militarisation, will not end with even more investment in police and armed forces. More training and more investment will not help stop this death machine. The answer for police violence is not training and reform, it is defunding and gradually abolishing police forces. We all need to demand more investment in health, education, and fundamental community services that can actually put an end to the carnage associated with a militarised approach to public security. Regulating drugs should be the cornerstone of a project that aims to curb violence no only in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, but in Brazil as a whole. As Vitale puts it:

“As citizens, when we decide where to invest our limited political capital, why would we waste it on police reform when research tells us that the real solution lies in investment in community public safety initiatives? The state will always advocate for the efficacy of “reform” in periods of crisis. Let them take care of that—we should focus on the real solutions.”