To Die Like Cockroaches

A Brief Examination of Killings by Law Enforcement in Brazil 

The Brazilian general election of 2018 was a drastic turning point for the country. After leading in the polls for months, Jair Bolsonaro was elected to the presidency. A far-right politician, Bolsonaro started his career in the military during the 1970s and moved up to the rank of captain. He developed a hard-line mentality during his time in the military and sought to exercise that when he launched his political career in 1988. Bolsonaro is not unique to controversy, as he had made previous comments for advocating torture while also suggesting political opponents to be shot. During his campaign, he made comments towards women, minorities and the LGBTQ+ community that were so immoral it is difficult to relay into writing. Although there are many issues regarding Bolsonaro, there is one that I would like to explore for this article: police brutality under his administration. More specifically, I would like to investigate how law enforcement under Bolsonaro’s administration will affect Afro-Brazilian residents.  

Slave market in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Circa 1824.

Before analyzing the current state of police brutality in Brazil, it is essential to understand the long harsh history that has led to now. Institutional oppression in Brazil against Black people today is linked to slavery, much like the United States. Brazil’s landscape has rich natural resources that Portugal needed to manufacture goods for a profit, including an abundant supply of gold and diamond. Moreover, its environment made Brazil an ideal place for sugar plantations. In order to gather these resources, the Portuguese created a labor supply that consisted of indigenous people. When the indigenous people of Brazil were killed by diseases brought by the Europeans, the Portuguese shifted their labor supply to Africans. Brazil was the most popular importer of African slave labors, as historians have estimated that as high as 50% of the total Africans under the Atlantic slave trade were forcefully sent to the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, compared to 3-5% to British North America. It is important to note that this statistic should not imply the different levels of brutality across the Americas, as slavery was an inhumane and evil institution for indigenous peoples and Africans regardless. One of the ways that Brazil tried to prevent slave uprisings was through law enforcement. Plantation owners would use the police to abuse their slaves into submission through awfully cruel tactics. There is a narrative in Brazil promoted by politicians that slavery was more humane in their country than elsewhere. However, scholars have strongly discredited such a narrative, contending that Africans slaves in Brazil had to endure one of the worst abuses in the Western Hemisphere. Such narratives are dangerous since they undermine the deeply racist policies targeted towards Afro-Brazilians – giving power to Brazilian law enforcement to continue their illegal tactics today. Brazil would become the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to abolish the institution of slavery in 1888. Yet, landowners still had a significant influence over law enforcement and solicited them to resort to violence if any of their Afro-Brazilian workers did not comply with their demands. It should be affirmed with no doubt that the effects of slavery are still felt today.

Police operation in the “Alemao slums”, February 1998

In order to understand the severity of this issue, take a look at some key statistics. While Brazil’s population is 50 percent smaller than the United States, a shocking reality exists: the police force in the United States has killed nearly 11,000 civilians in the last thirty years, but Brazilian police forces have killed that much within a five-year span. Sociologists maintain that the rate of killings by police forces will increase because of the lack of accountability within Brazil, and the Bolsonaro administration is right at the center of it all. Just last year alone, more than 6,160 people were killed by the Brazilian police and for every four persons that were killed, three of them were Black. President Bolsonaro has upheld this hard-line policy by ignorantly asserting he was making Brazil more safe, even though a recent article show the murder rate was declining before his election. In fact, the murder rate appeared to increase after his election. President Bolsonaro affirmed in a recent interview broadcast that his administration will allow police enforcement to pursue aggressive tactics, declaring that criminals will “…die in the streets like cockroaches”.

And we’re sending this bill to the Senate. From the moment, I am protected by the excludente de ilicitude {protection in case of legitimate defence], defending my life and the life of others…. violence will drop drastically. These guys [criminals] are going to die in the streets like cockroaches [if such protections are approved] – and that’s how it should be.

Jair Bolsonaro, during a televised interview, translated to English

Bolsonaro’s comments only add fire to the existing “shoot first, ask questions later” policy that Brazilian law enforcement has implemented. Like the United States, Brazil had previously launched a “War on Drugs”, which increased militarization of the police. Black youth were especially targeted, which clearly demonstrates that racism was the driving force of these policies. Black Brazilians are targeted because of the institutional oppression stemming from the legacy of slavery. Social mobility for Afro-Brazilians was very limited, forcing them to settle into impoverished urban enclaves. When Brazilian law enforcement sought to crack down on drug use, they surveilled these enclaves – despite the fact the drug usage rates were identical among all other racial and economic groups. Correspondingly, most of these crackdowns were towards individuals involved in the lower levels of the drug trade.

FILE PHOTO: Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s presidential election, attending a presidential debate in Brasilia, Brazil June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Adriano Machado/File photo ORG XMIT: TOR101

We need to call it as it is: the police brutality in Brazil is a human rights issue. We do not need to look any further than the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, which Article 3 specifies that, “Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty”. Under the commentary provided with the article, it further declares that, “…firearms should not be used except when a suspected offender offers armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the lives of others and less extreme measures are not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the suspected offender”. Yet, under the “shoot first, ask questions later” policy that exists in Brazil, the victims are not given the chance to surrender themselves, regardless if they are carrying firearms. The Bolsonaro administration wants to expand the protection of law enforcement from any legal actions against them. This would create a dangerous precedent not only in Brazil, but all over the world. We are witnessing the rise of authoritarian practices on every corner of the world, and Bolsonaro’s actions will only inspire others to follow suit. The ones that will be affected the most are marginalized communities, as exemplified with the racist actions towards Black civilians residing in Brazil. As an American citizen myself, it is unfortunate to say that the police brutality in Brazil has too many parallels with the United States. If the international community does not take action regarding this issue, I am afraid that this will affect every other human rights issue that exists today. It will give states the power to eradicate any other voice from their political sphere, leaving them, in the words of Bolsonaro, to die like cockroaches.