Rogue Police Forces Could Threaten Brazil’s Democracy

Fears of a military coup have dominated the run-up to Brazil's election. But violent cops may be right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro's most dangerous ally.
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With or without Jair Bolsonaro, the more violent and authoritarian Brazil he promised will likely live on through the country’s police.
With or without Jair Bolsonaro, the more violent and authoritarian Brazil he promised will likely live on through the country’s police.
Illustration: Jianan Liu/Photo: Getty Images

This is a collaborative reporting project between HuffPost and Alma Preta, a news outlet that specializes in coverage of racial issues in Brazil. A Portuguese-language version of the story can be read here.

Fears that Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro may try to foment a military coup have hung over a tense and violent election season that will reach its apex Sunday, when Brazilians finally vote in a race that Bolsonaro is widely expected to lose.

But another force may pose an even bigger threat to the immediate future of the world’s fourth-largest democracy: Brazil’s Military Police units, relics of the dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985 that have never been fully democratized or brought under civilian control, and that collectively rank among the deadliest law enforcement bodies in the world.

The election, at least in the traditional political sense, has been a snooze. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has held significant and stable leads over Bolsonaro for more than a year. If the polls are correct, da Silva could potentially win the election with an outright majority in the first round of voting on Sunday, without the need for a head-to-head runoff to decide the race.

But Bolsonaro has made clear over the last two years that he does not intend to leave quietly, or to merely accept a defeat to the archnemesis of his right-wing political movement. He has desperately sought to undermine Brazil’s electoral system, spreading baseless conspiracy theories about voter fraud and a political system that he claims, without evidence, has rigged the election against him.

Although some former generals have joined his cause, an actual coup attempt remains unlikely, according to most experts.

But the police remain a source of concern. There are more than 480,000 active officers in Brazil, making the police a substantially larger force than the military. They are also even more aligned with Bolsonaro and his election conspiracy theories than rank-and-file soldiers: Surveys conducted over the last year have suggested that large numbers of Brazilian cops are skeptical of the election system.

The vast majority of police officers are likely to support the election and a democratic outcome, experts say. But there are fears about what rogue battalions or officers might do in the event of a Brazilian version of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection of the sort Bolsonaro has been plotting for more than a year.

Matias Spektor, a professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, said there would be trouble if an electoral dispute on election day or immediately after were met by “an intervention of state police forces.”

“That’s the recipe for disaster,” he said.

Even if that scenario doesn’t unfold, the possibility that it could happen at all points to a larger concern for the future of Brazil: the rising political influence of an institution that embodies Bolsonaro’s authoritarian approach to politics, and that will likely continue to pose a threat to Brazilian democracy ― and the democratic rights of its most marginalized communities ― even after his presidency ends.

‘An Enclave Of Authoritarianism’

Much of the worry about how the Brazilian military will react in the event of an election dispute stems from Bolsonaro himself. A former Army captain, he is the first Brazilian president with ties to the armed forces since the end of the country’s military dictatorship in 1985. Bolsonaro has for decades expressed an affinity for the dictatorship, and in 2018, he chose as his running mate a former general who had once said that a return to military rule may be necessary.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro salutes a policeman during a campaign rally at Praça da Liberdade in Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais State on Aug. 24.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro salutes a policeman during a campaign rally at Praça da Liberdade in Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais State on Aug. 24.
Photo by Ivan Abreu/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

His presidency has been marked by an explosive return of the military to civilian politics and political influence. Bolsonaro has appointed a record number of soldiers to positions within his government. There were 6,175 members of the military in such positions in 2021, according to Brazil’s Federal Court of Accounts, more than double the number under his predecessor in 2018 ― and more than served in the government under the military dictatorship.

Bolsonaro has placed more than two dozen officers to Cabinet positions or leadership roles at state-owned companies. One of them, retired Gen. Walter Braga Netto, is his vice presidential candidate in this year’s election; last year, Braga Netto reportedly threatened that the election could be canceled if Brazil’s Congress did not adopt a package of reforms Bolsonaro had sought.

But even more than the military, Brazil’s police forces have served as “an enclave of authoritarianism” since the end of the dictatorship, said Yanilda María González, a Harvard expert on policing in Latin America.

The Military Police are the country’s primary street-level patrol units, and perform most routine public security and policing duties. Units are organized and overseen at the state level, and while civilian policing and public security duties are their primary focus, they are also classified as reserve forces of the Brazilian Army.

And they are among the world’s most violent: Police in Brazil kill more than 6,000 people per year, and even in São Paulo state, which has attempted to reform and professionalize its law enforcement bodies, police killed three people per day in the first three months of 2021. Rio de Janeiro police commit more annual killings than cops across the entire United States, even though the U.S. population is 20 times the size of Rio state’s.

In many ways, it’s Brazil’s police ― and the Brazilian public’s appetite for authoritarian policing ― that best explain Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency. As violent crime and homicide rates surged to record levels four years ago, a majority of Brazilians were increasingly open to an iron-fisted response from the state, and Bolsonaro promised to deliver it. On his watch, he pledged, the police would have “carte blanche” to shoot and kill.

His 2018 victory coincided with a surge of police into politics and public life. In 2010, there were only four members of the armed forces or police in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress. In 2018, that number jumped to 42 ― a 950% spike in less than a decade, according to a recent survey conducted by the Instituto Sou da Paz, a Brazilian public security think tank.

The number has continued to rise: 1,866 police and military members are running for elected positions in 2022, a 27% increase from four years ago. More than 1,000 of them are police officers, and roughly 10% of those candidates come from Bolsonaro’s party. Nearly all of them ― 87% ― are running to represent parties from the right and center-right.

Most are running on platforms similar to that of Bolsonaro, who leaned into a common Brazilian slogan ― “a good criminal is a dead criminal” ― as a de facto motto of his 2018 campaign.

That year, a police officer named Katia Sastre won 264,000 votes and one of São Paulo’s seats in Congress. During her campaign, she touted her role in the May 2018 police killing of a 20-year-old who was attempting to carry out a robbery near a private school. Sastre, a Military Police officer, fired three shots and killed him.

“I shot and I would shoot again,” Sastre declared as she launched her campaign. “I have courage.”

Sastre is again using the case in her campaign ads this year. In September, she reposted a video of the killing on social media.

“They are participating in the democratic process. But what they are touting is not their democratic credentials, but ultimately their authoritarian credentials.”

- Yanilda María González, Harvard expert on policing in Latin America

Majorities of the Brazilian public have supported hard-line approaches to policing since before Bolsonaro ran for president. But his campaigns have sought to inflame those feelings for his own benefit. Bolsonaro has argued that progressive politicians like da Silva will coddle criminals and send crime rates skyrocketing again.

His use of the term “criminal” is an obvious dog whistle in a country where the vast majority of police killings ― more than 75% ― are of Black Brazilians, and where the police wipe their hands of responsibility by asserting that their victims were drug traffickers who deserved it. It’s also a standard way for candidates up and down the ballot to paint anyone who advocates for a different approach as something other than an authentic member of society.

“Anyone who doesn’t like the police is a thief,” Delegado Olim, a Civil Police officer and state legislator from São Paulo who is running for reelection under the banner of a conservative party, argued in an interview. “The good population likes the police.”

There is no data to demonstrate if police have similarly begun to seek office in the United States in higher numbers, especially in the wake of massive protests against police killings of Black Americans over the last decade. But it isn’t uncommon for former officers to run, and both Republican and Democratic candidates from military and law enforcement backgrounds regularly use their experience to bolster their campaigns.

There are, however, notable differences in how they do so. In the U.S., candidates rarely campaign in uniform, and the use of police uniforms or insignia in campaign advertising is barred in many states.

In Brazil, however, officers “openly campaign with their rank,” González said. “They make it clear that they are coming from a law and order background. That’s something that is very worrisome from the perspective of democracy, because they’re literally putting their Military Police affiliation before their democratic role.”

And while many U.S. politicians labor to position themselves as pro-police candidates who “back the blue,” Brazilian officers who run for elected roles are far more likely to tout their role in police killings and their support for actual violence.

“They are participating in the democratic process,” González said. “But what they are touting is not their democratic credentials, but ultimately their authoritarian credentials.”

Bolsonaro’s ties to Brazil’s police go far beyond rhetorical similarities, and their support for him is about much more than his open cheerleading of their violent tactics. Three of Bolsonaro’s sons are lawmakers, and the family has long had deep links to the police and the extrajudicial militias ― violent paramilitary gangs that are made up of current and former cops ― that patrol and control large swaths of Rio de Janeiro.

Flávio Bolsonaro, the eldest of the Bolsonaro sons, approved 495 motions in support of police as a Rio state legislator, and awarded 32 medals to officers. One of those he honored was Adriano da Nóbrega, a former police officer and one of the most well-known militia operatives in Brazil. Official investigations have linked the militia Nóbrega once led to the 2018 assassination of Marielle Franco, a Black, queer Rio city councilwoman. Until 2018, Nóbrega’s wife and mother were on the official payroll of Flávio Bolsonaro’s government office.

Four hundred officers raided the Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janeiro on July 21, leaving at least 18 people dead.
Four hundred officers raided the Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janeiro on July 21, leaving at least 18 people dead.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As president, Bolsonaro has only deepened those ties. Although criminal justice legislation that would have provided more protections to police officers who kill failed in Congress, Bolsonaro signed a pension reform law that shielded their retirement benefits from cuts that hit other private and public sector workers. He also appointed a police ally to lead Brazil’s Ministry of Justice, and pardoned Daniel Silvera, a former Military Police officer turned member of Brazil’s Congress, after Silvera was arrested for threatening members of the Brazilian Supreme Court.

Not all police are on Bolsonaro’s side: Roughly 3% of the officers seeking elected positions are running as members of progressive or leftist parties, including those who are supporting da Silva in October’s presidential election.

Kleber Rosa, a police officer running as a leftist for a state-level position in Bahia, in Brazil’s northeast region, last year helped form an anti-fascist organization of like-minded police officers. The group opposes Bolsonaro’s authoritarian politics, which are “more freely spread via public security policies, because Brazilian public security policy is a fascist policy, it is a racist policy, a policy of hatred toward minorities even,” he said.

The group is “a national, nonpartisan movement,” said Roberto, an officer from the northern state of Ceará who preferred to use an alternative name to protect his identity and safety. “We are a police movement, as the name implies, anti-fascism and pro-democracy.”

But it has made few inroads on the Brazilian left, which has not been comfortable making direct appeals to the police and armed forces since the end of the dictatorship. The anti-fascist push has made even less progress among police themselves, who may be the country’s most uniform bloc of Bolsonaro supporters.

“There is no polarization, because polarization presupposes a balance of forces,” Rosa said. “I would say that in the police there is a predominance of Bolsonarista sentiment, but there are important niches of resistance to Bolsonarismo and fascism within the police.”

‘The Nightmare Scenario’

Bolsonaro’s attempts to undermine faith in Brazil’s election system, which has never faced credible allegations of fraud and is often considered one of the world’s safest and most efficient, have naturally found a receptive audience among police. Just 39.6% of Brazilian officers agreed that the election system guarantees fair results in a recent poll conducted by the Brazilian Public Security Forum. About 30%, meanwhile, believe it doesn’t.

The fact that the latter figure isn’t higher has driven some optimism among researchers and observers that large numbers of police won’t go along with a Bolsonaro-driven scheme to contest the results if he loses.

“Although there are possibilities of disruptive movements, the research shows that this is not the majority of police officers,” said David Marques, one of the people who conducted the Public Security Forum survey. “Institutionally, I also do not think that this idea is reverberating. In the Military Police, where there is a stricter hierarchy, I do not think that the positioning of individuals or groups becomes something institutional.”

In states like São Paulo, where Military Police units are generally considered more professionalized than those in smaller locales, police commanders have already fired at least one officer for taking part in pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations and sought to ensure their forces do not become political actors during the election.

The São Paulo state government will use more than 83,000 police officers to monitor and protect the elections on Sunday, it said in a statement this week. The officers will help “guarantee public order” and a peaceful election day in Brazil’s most populous state. The police will work at polling stations, election offices and other government buildings to protect election officials and voters.

Governors directly oversee Military Police units, and the fact that many in key states oppose Bolsonaro could help keep police forces in line in the event of a Jan. 6-type eruption, said Glauco Carvalho, a reserve colonel in the São Paulo Military Police.

Bolsonaro called his supporters to the streets on Sept. 7, Brazil's independence day, in an attempted show of force ahead of an election he has sought to undermine.
Bolsonaro called his supporters to the streets on Sept. 7, Brazil's independence day, in an attempted show of force ahead of an election he has sought to undermine.
Gary Coronado via Getty Images

Some police officers even doubt anything like the U.S. Capitol insurrection will take place: “Nothing like that will happen,” Olim, the police officer and São Paulo state lawmaker, said. “Brazilians are orderly. The troublemakers are on the other side.”

But many others aren’t so sure. Bolsonaro and his most ardent backers have used similar arguments ― that the left is the source of crime, that it’s the left trying to conduct a coup to overthrow his government ― to excuse their most blatantly anti-democratic rhetoric and actions. And that could soon become justification for whatever they do in response to an election loss.

Brazilian police in some states, meanwhile, have demonstrated that they are willing to go rogue to get what they want. Despite laws prohibiting them from striking, Military Police in the northern state of Ceará walked off the job en masse amid a wage dispute in 2020, causing a brief crisis that sent homicide rates skyrocketing and plunged the state into chaos. And in Rio de Janeiro, police continued carrying out deadly raids in the city’s favela neighborhoods during the pandemic, defying orders from Brazil’s Supreme Court to halt such practices. In May 2021, 28 people died during a raid of the Jacarezinho favela in Rio, one of the deadliest police operations in Brazil’s history.

Most experts and officers agree that there won’t be a major institutional rupture within the police. While there are police “who can be co-opted,” said Roberto, of the anti-fascist policing organization, “I don’t think it will be massive.”

At the same time, experts say, it may only take a rogue band of cops in one of Brazil’s 27 states to cause havoc around the election.

Spektor, the professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, worries that police in small states could break with governors who oppose Bolsonaro in the event of disputes at election centers, especially if Bolsonaro or his supporters make claims of fraud on the day of the vote.

“That’s the nightmare scenario,” he said.

Some police, González noted, could also cause problems by doing too little ― or nothing at all. U.S. Capitol Police forces were drastically underprepared for the events of that day, even though intelligence reports and public postings on right-wing social media forums made it clear that some Trump supporters were openly plotting to invade the Capitol and interrupt the certification of the election results. Even if it was unintentional, they severely underestimated the threats posed by a right-wing mob. (At least 31 police officers from 12 states were investigated for participating in Trump’s Stop the Steal rally or the ensuing Capitol riot, according to The Associated Press, and at least 19 have faced criminal charges.)

González worries that some Brazilian forces could just “let things happen” if pro-Bolsonaro protesters take to the streets in huge numbers or attempt to replicate the Jan. 6 insurrection. During the transition to democracy in the 1980s, police in São Paulo at times stood by and let protests devolve into full-scale riots in the hopes of getting the military-controlled government to declare a state of emergency.

“They were trying to get the military regime at the time to intervene in the state,” said González, who documented such events in her book on policing in Latin America. “They were pretty clear about when they were taking action and when they would become inactive in their patrols and actions around protests.”

Whatever unfolds over the next month, the Brazilian police are likely to remain a potent political force, both directly as candidates and through more traditional law-and-order-focused campaign appeals. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, and that of the large number of officers-turned-candidates, has emboldened Brazilian police. The cops who have won political office, meanwhile, have often used it to erode the few mechanisms for police accountability that do exist.

The effects will hit the Brazilian communities that already bear the brunt of violent policing: Black people, poor people and other marginalized groups, and especially those who live in poor suburban periphery neighborhoods and in Brazil’s favelas, informal working-class communities that have often been the focal point of Brazil’s ongoing war on drugs.

“We are talking about confronting a micropolitical state,” said Aiala Couto, a researcher at the Brazilian Public Security Forum. “I am referring to the idea of a policy of death, which has been widespread in Brazilian society for a long time, with the Military Police as an armed wing, as a war machine in communities, in favelas, on the outskirts of large Brazilian cities.”

Bolsonaro may be gone by the end of this year. The more violent and authoritarian Brazil he promised, though, seems sure to live on through the country’s police ― whether they assist his efforts to stay in power or not.

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