The killing fields of Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Recent report indicates that the number of homicides of male adolescents in Brazil was even higher than in countries such as Syria and Iraq.

Published - August 17, 2019 09:15 pm IST

São Paulo, Brazil, January, 09, 2015: Police Officer in riot gear during act on Paulista Avenue against the increase in tariffs in urban transport

São Paulo, Brazil, January, 09, 2015: Police Officer in riot gear during act on Paulista Avenue against the increase in tariffs in urban transport

On a breezy Sunday morning in April this year, a white sedan being driven by Evaldo dos Santos, 47, slowed down as it approached an Army barricade in the northern part of Rio de Janeiro. Then, without any warning or provocation, the soldiers began to fire at the car, riddling it with 80 shots out of the total 257 they fired in two minutes.

Santos, a black singer, one of his family members and a passer-by were hit. As Santos was brought dead to hospital, the Army claimed their men had responded to gunfire from the car. But the police found no arms in the sedan. A day later, the military arrested 10 of its troopers.

Even in a country, which has the dubious distinction of topping the list of nations with maximum homicides, the murder caused an outrage. The Santos family was aghast, struggling to find an answer.

“Murderers, that’s what they are,” screamed Deborah, the victim’s sister, outside the hospital where he was taken for an autopsy. “First, they killed him and then they went to see that there was a man with a family inside the car,” she sobbed, gasping for breath.

After causing public anger for a few days, the singer’s murder went out of news cycle. It was replaced by reports of other killings: gang members murdering their rivals; gangsters killing the police; police shooting down the criminals; and innocent people being killed by both gangs and police, often caught in the crossfire in the narrow lanes of favelas, where most murders generally take place. But such is the spiral of gun violence in this country that killings by police makes news only when the incident is as outrageous as involving the Santos family of Rio.

According to the State Institute of Public Security (ISP), just in the first quarter of this year, Brazil’s military police, a legacy of its notorious colonial past, killed 558 people, the highest since the Rio State started keeping records in 1998. On an average, seven persons died of police bullets every day, according to the ISP.

Disturbing patterns

While the police here sometimes shoot to defend themselves from the criminals and gangs, human rights groups see two disturbing patterns in the killing fields of Brazil: most of the victims of homicidal violence are young, black boys from poor neighbourhoods; and many killings by the police or security forces are just “extrajudicial executions”.

A recent UNICEF report found that the number of homicides of male adolescents in Brazil was even higher than in countries such as Syria and Iraq.

“Homicide victims are mostly black boys who live on the outskirts of the major cities. They are out of school and come from low-income families,” said the report.

In a country, where more than 50% of the population is of mixed race, the racial debate is largely avoided and often takes a back seat. But some studies in recent years have started to look at the role of race in murders — both criminal as well as at the hands of State forces.

An “Atlas of Violence” released by the Institute of Applied Economic Research in Brasilia shows that in Rio Grande do Sul, a State with more than 82% white population, the number of blacks murdered almost doubled between 2007 and 2017.

While many young black men are victims of gang violence too, their proportion remains extremely high in the killings carried out by the police, mostly in the name of “fighting crime”.

In 2018, the police killed 1,544 people in Rio de Janeiro state, according to ISP data.

“Summary executions are being carried out in favelas and other peripheral areas,” says Renata Souza, a local politician. “It is a barbaric state policy that amounts to genocide.”

The policy may now become even worse. Since assuming power in January, President Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to make laws that will allow police and civilians to “shoot suspected offenders” without fear of prosecution.

“These guys are going to die in the streets like cockroaches — and that’s how it should be,” he said in a recent interview. He said Brazil’s police should be decorated for using guns, not taken to courts.

With its uncontrolled murder rates, the last thing Brazil needs is an out-of-control police force. But that may just become legal.

Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo.

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