Mouths open, eyes closed, faces spattered with blood, two freshly decapitated heads lie on a filthy floor. A pushcart full of dismembered limbs stands in front of a wall of iron bars as men yell in the background. These are just two of many brutal scenes captured in shaky cell phone videos that spread across Brazil in January 2017.
The Northern Family criminal syndicate had staged a rebellion at the overcrowded Anísio Jobim prison complex in the Amazonian city of Manaus, home to over 1,200 prisoners, more than double its maximum capacity. Within hours, they had executed fifty-six alleged members of their São Paulo–based rival, the First Command of the Capital, or PCC, the most powerful syndicate in Brazil.
Days later, 450 miles to the north, the PCC responded at another penitentiary in the state of Roraima with thirty decapitations. Videos of human hearts being removed from bodies made the rounds on messaging apps. “Here is the answer for you — you killed our brothers in Manaus, and now you’re going to pay for it.” It was a particularly gruesome episode in a cycle of violence that the Brazilian government appears powerless — or unwilling — to stop.
More than thirty-five years after the rebirth of democracy in the country, in many of Brazil’s favelas, prisons, and remote rural villages, criminal gangs rule with impunity. Their violence and terror seeps into the surrounding communities of the relatively privileged and pervades the body politic. Like colonial barons, their power is granted with the connivance of local governments. And, just like the olden days, everyone is expected to kick up a fat share of their ill-gotten spoils.
Corrupt law enforcement in many areas decided in recent years to forego the middlemen and establish their own paramilitary mafias, dubbed militias, to control the streets themselves. These mafias have innovated in cruelty and methods of extortion and far surpassed traditional drug gangs in their ability to capture state institutions, pushing Brazil’s drug war to new frontiers. Decades ago, criminals carried rusty revolvers. Today, gangs tied into global markets have rifles powerful enough to shoot down armored helicopters — and even a rocket launcher or two.
In its mainstream press, Brazil’s rampant armed violence is mostly treated as a police question — and, as a result, politicians have invested in armored vehicles and allowed cops to gleefully lean into President Jair Bolsonaro’s “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to their work.
In deeply unequal Brazil, it is the oligarchs, the fearmongering right-wing politicians, the dirty cops and military men who most profit from and perpetuate the violence that serves as a mechanism for and justification of social control. The poor and working classes, overwhelmingly black, suffer almost all the consequences. It would be reasonable for you to assume, then, that the Brazilian Left is laser-focused on the issue of public safety and brimming with winning proposals to end the madness.
You’d be wrong. The Left’s failure on public security is one of the most puzzling and complicated political realities in a country notorious for its inscrutable politics.
Rampant and increasingly hyperviolent criminality does not impact all Brazilians equally, but the terror and despair it instills is nearly universal. Brazilians are afraid to leave their homes and walk down their own streets. A 2018 survey of Rio de Janeiro residents — a city with a typical homicide rate by Brazilian standards, but 5.7 times the average for US cities that year — found that 92 percent worry every day that they will be hit by a stray bullet.
They’re also angry. Angry at the criminals who rob them; at the police who are rarely there when they need them; at the justice system that — despite locking up suspects and throwing them in medieval prisons at record levels — is seen as soft on crime, corrupt, and ineffective; at the politicians, with their empty promises and fake smiles. Angry at the indignity of living with it all in a country so beautiful and rich in natural resources.
Public insecurity is perhaps the best prism through which one can understand Brazil’s often bewildering politics. It is at the root of Bolsonaro’s ascent to power, the rise of the anti-corruption movement that led to the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, the imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the nationwide repudiation of their Workers’ Party (PT) in the last elections, and the Left’s struggle to conquer the hearts and minds of the Brazilian poor and working class.
The PT was in power for more than thirteen consecutive years and came into government with bold proposals to tackle violence, decriminalize drug use, reimagine the prison system, and, for the first time in history, seriously address crime’s underlying causes. How is it possible, then, that homicides have increased, the prison population has ballooned, the war on drugs has only intensified, and law enforcement criminality is a more serious threat than ever? And how can it be that, despite Rio de Janeiro alone recording more police killings per year than the entire United States, the overwhelming majority of Brazilians are clamoring for more cops on the streets?
Blood on the Streets
More than a million Brazilians have been murdered over the past two decades, according to official statistics, which researchers suggest are severely undercounted. That’s a higher death toll than the United States’ “global war on terror” over the same period. Brazil’s 2018 homicide rate is more than six times that of its southern neighbor Argentina and even of the gun-crazy United States.
Brazil is also the seventh most unequal country on the planet. This inequality is sharply demarcated along racial lines. Not only are black and brown Brazilians more likely to be poor and undereducated, they’re also much more likely to live in higher-crime neighborhoods and be sent to barbaric prisons, and they die violent deaths at three times the rate of their peers — a gap that is growing markedly year over year. It is the living legacy of slavery in the country that imported more African slaves than any other and only abolished the institution in 1888.
The first ever Brazilian police forces were constituted to repress revolts in a society where slaves far outnumbered masters. With the end of formal slavery came new anti-vagrancy laws that empowered officials to arrest those caught being “idle.” The punishment was forced, unpaid labor. Forced labor was abolished under the current constitution, but it still exists in some prisons; its full return is a “dream” of Bolsonaro’s.
Resistance, however, has never been very far away. During the US-backed military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985, poor, mostly black, common criminals who had been deprived of a decent education were locked up with educated, mostly white, well-heeled, radical leftist political prisoners. A political education ensued, and out of the prisons was born the Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, a new kind of gang that preached class consciousness. Many others, like the PCC, founded in a São Paulo prison in 1993, later followed this model. It ran stickup crews, sold weed, and, in keeping with its righteous message, gave back to the favelas that it controlled to earn legitimacy. Such contributions were essential lifelines in communities that had been completely abandoned by the state.
To this day, the Comando Vermelho is one of the largest street-level criminal organizations in Brazil, although after decades of turf wars, competition with militias, and changing leadership, brutal capitalism has supplanted much of the social mission.
Beginning in the 1980s and exploding in the 1990s and 2000s, Brazil evolved from being just a transfer point for the multibillion-dollar international cocaine trade to become a market as well. Profits soared, as did competition for turf, investment in the weaponry to defend it, and the body count. Across Brazil, gangs multiplied and fortified, but it was the protected politicians, military officers, and businessmen who controlled the trade routes that made the real profits.
This evolution of violence was immortalized in the 2002 film City of God, which tells the stories of boys coming of age in a Rio de Janeiro favela as the cocaine trade begins to take root in their community. That same year, Brazil elected Lula as its first working-class president.
Compromise, Conciliation, and Failure
By the time the Workers’ Party (PT) won their first presidential election in 2002, phantasmagoric drug gangs were well established as society’s principal villains in Brazil’s monopoly-dominated media. TV news would faithfully reproduce official police narratives while broadcasting ubiquitous images of lanky young black men dressed in shorts and sandals, with a bandanna or T-shirt obscuring their face, brandishing guns in the favelas they ruled. However, rather than a tale of success, the PT’s attempts to reform Brazil’s justice system offer an illustrative example of the difficulties a left-wing government faces in tackling crime.
Lula won in a landslide in 2002 by moderating the leftist rhetoric from past failed campaigns while still promising bold reforms in public security — based on the correct understanding that poor kids in sandals were not the root cause of the violence, even if they were the face of it. “The Brazilian people are dominated by a widespread feeling of insecurity,” read Lula’s twenty-eight-point public safety plan that year, “and, for this very reason, our government will seek to institute a nationally articulated public security system.”
For the first time in Brazil’s history, the country had a national plan that centered “social exclusion” as a principal driver of criminality and the need for social programs to prevent crime. The plan also highlighted the “lack of preparation” of the police and the “slow pace of justice” as aggravating factors. It did not mince words when pointing out the major role of corruption: “organized crime threatens to compromise the functioning of democratic institutions, often infiltrated by gangs.”
However, the party quickly and quietly dropped any mention of institutional reforms to tackle corruption within the police and justice system. Lula and his successor, Rousseff, neutered the ambitions of their reforms, according to criminologists Rodrigo Ghiringhelli de Azevedo and Ana Cláudia Cifali, due to sharp resistance they were guaranteed to face within the police forces. They were taking the reins of a country shaped by centuries of brutal exploitation and extreme poverty, with exceptionally young democratic institutions — violent policing was one of the few tools the government had at its disposal for Brazil’s many unresolved conflicts.
Police forces in Brazil are organized at the state level, but many public security specialists believe that effective changes will only come through coordination from the federal government. Lula promised this kind of change as a candidate, but he realized that it would require massive congressional support and lengthy negotiations with all twenty-seven governors in order to pass a constitutional amendment. He was most concerned that “the scale and depth of the reforms” would put the presidency “at the center of the public safety issue, giving it unusual prominence in an area that predominantly affects state governments, which would imply an imminent risk of political damage,” according to Luiz Eduardo Soares, a former public security secretary under Lula. So they abandoned the plan.
During his eight years in office, Lula was still able to implement some ambitious policies, beginning with the federal disarmament statute that severely restricted the ability of average citizens to purchase and own guns. This measure alone is widely credited with creating an immediate, marked reduction in homicides, but the PT nonetheless conceded the narrative to pro-gun, “law-and-order” voices on the Right that attacked the policy as a gift to criminals at the expense of “good citizens.”
The government was perpetually worried about being labeled “soft on crime” by a largely conservative electorate. Instead of building on its reformist successes, it chose to simultaneously endorse a series of laws that swelled the prison population and pushed the criminal justice system to the limit.
Chief among them was a 2006 law that increased penalties for drug trafficking. While it decriminalized drug possession for personal use, a progressive measure on its face, it did not specify quantities, which perversely led to many poor, black Brazilians with a joint in their pocket facing serious time for “narcotics trafficking” while rich, white kids got off the hook. The discriminatory law allowed location to be taken into account for sentencing, so a small quantity of drugs seized in a favela was more “suspect” than the same amount in a wealthy neighborhood.
Worse still, 84 percent of drug trafficking prosecutions for ten grams or less are based solely on police testimony and don’t have physical evidence to back them up. During the PT years, Brazil’s incarcerated population tripled to 726,700 people, the third-largest in the world.
Rousseff, who took office in 2011, was far less ambitious in her broader public security agenda than her predecessor had been, but even more zealous on the crime question.
In the first weeks of her government, the newly appointed secretary for drug policy, Pedro Abramovay, who had previously served as a top justice official under Lula, told the O Globo newspaper that the administration wanted to end prison sentences for small-scale, nonviolent drug dealers who were selling to support their own habits. This would correct one of the principal failures of the 2006 drug law. “We are talking about people with no ties to organized crime, putting them in prison, and a year and a half later, now with organized crime connections, returning them to society,” explained Abramovay, who argued that the policy was also contributing to prison overcrowding.
Rousseff was furious. She demanded that the justice minister fire him immediately and go on the record making clear that the government was in fact moving in the opposite direction. Abramovay resigned, and the proposal never saw the light of day.
Soares, Lula’s former public security secretary, recounted another emblematic disappointment for progressive reformers that occurred that July. Ministry of Justice leaders had spent six months preparing new policy proposals to tackle skyrocketing murder rates. “The long-awaited date arrived: the meeting with the president. The minister handed her the document while the technician prepared to present it,” wrote Soares.
“Homicides?” Rousseff replied. “That’s up to the states.” As Soares recalls, “she put the document aside and ordered that they move on to the next item on the agenda.” Homicides rose 18 percent during her presidency.
Under intense pressure from the United States ahead of hosting the Olympics and World Cup, and facing unexpectedly vehement anti-government protests, in 2013, Rousseff passed a repressive counterterrorism law and another that gave police greater power to obtain evidence and infiltrate suspected criminal organizations — both broad enough to be used against social movements. These choices alienated allies on the Left but also provided the legal tools that the Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) anti-corruption investigations would exploit to persecute the PT, setting in motion a chain of events leading to Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment and Lula’s 2018 imprisonment.
In 2014, Rousseff also signed a “Guarantee of Law and Order” (GLO) decree that deployed the military in Rio’s favelas to fight drug gangs and “pacify” them ahead of Brazil hosting the World Cup that year, resulting in a laundry list of abuses, crimes, and rights violations.
“The favela streets and life were brutally militarized by the rulers in that recent so-called democratic period,” wrote Gizele Martins, a journalist and activist from the Complexo da Maré favelas, which were occupied under the GLO. For seventeen months, “we lived with curfews, surveillance, arrests, and house raids, in addition to the prohibition of any type of activity on the street.” According to Martins, local activists like her were “censored” and “threatened” for documenting daily abuses.
Left-leaning politicians counter that they are limited by conservative popular opinions. This is largely true. Only 24 percent of Brazilians support legalizing recreational marijuana, for example. But the PT’s own polling data from 2015 reveals a complex mixture of opinions that suggests the public could be persuaded either way on many public safety issues, if presented with the right leadership and messaging.
While 72 percent said cops ignore wrongdoing by colleagues, the same portion said they trust the police, and the most cited problem was not enough police on the streets. “Invest more in police training and equipment” and “combat police corruption” tied as the most popular responses for how the government should improve safety. And while 82 percent approved of using the military to fight crime, the same number said police should change their strategies to avoid deaths and that greater oversight was necessary. Overwhelming majorities believed that “Brazilian prisons are a school for organized crime” (84 percent) and that “overcrowding of prisons violates human rights” (77 percent).
Interestingly, 90.8 percent said they had never heard the phrase “demilitarize the police,” a popular slogan at left-wing anti-government protests two years earlier that had already been embraced by some progressive politicians.
In the end, the PT’s conciliatory strategy led it to seek institutional arrangements with the Brazilian security establishment rather than pursue reforms. As a result, without progressive leadership framing the issue, the most reactionary elements of Brazilian society have dominated the public safety debate with a simple, clear, and vengeful message.
On the morning of February 9, 2020, seventy heavily armed police rolled up on a farmhouse in the sleepy, rural town of Esplanada in the interior of the northeastern state of Bahia. The property belonged to a local politician from Bolsonaro’s most recent political party. The details of what happened next are contested, except for one: the police killed Adriano Nóbrega, at the time Brazil’s most notorious militiaman and fugitive. Police say he died in a gun battle, but autopsy photos suggest he was shot at point-blank range and possibly tortured.
While on the lam, Nóbrega met with multiple close confidants of the Bolsonaro clan, attended parties, and even participated in rodeo competitions.
The Brazilian press had exposed during the previous year that Nóbrega’s family was employed by Bolsonaro’s son Flávio, and that they were intimately involved in the family’s alleged embezzlement scheme. Investigators suspect that Nóbrega, a former captain in Rio’s elite BOPE SWAT team, helped launder and invest the Bolsonaros’ stolen funds. But Nóbrega first gained national notoriety for commanding the “Crime Office,” a militia group and hit squad alleged to have carried out the assassination of left-wing Rio city council member Marielle Franco in March 2018. Ten years earlier, Franco was a staffer for progressive state representative Marcelo Freixo when he led a congressional commission investigating militias.
Two of Nóbrega’s militia colleagues — including Bolsonaro’s next-door neighbor and the father of his son’s ex-girlfriend — are awaiting trial for allegedly carrying out the killing. Like Nóbrega, multiple people suspected of being involved in the hit died under suspicious circumstances. Almost four years later, the case is still unsolved, and the masterminds remain at large.
The brazen killing of Franco, the ineffective investigation, and the close relationship the suspects have with Brazil’s first family represent the apex of a national militia movement decades in the making — with government assistance. The earliest modern antecedents to today’s militias were “extermination squads” formed by off-duty cops in cities like Rio during the dictatorship. They were paid by local business interests to “clean up the streets” and execute “undesirable elements,” while being cheered on by the press and granted virtual impunity by the state.
In Rio de Janeiro, as militias grew, intense operations against drug gangs by the police and military in strategically important neighborhoods paved the way for militia takeovers. A study by Fogo Cruzado, an organization that tracks armed violence, revealed that more than half of Rio is now controlled by militias.
And it’s no coincidence that Nóbrega chose to lay not-so-low in Bahia, where militia activity is on the rise. Prosecutors in the state are investigating police mafias for murder for hire, theft, witness kidnappings, drug trafficking, torture, and extortion.
In the northern state of Pará, where the Amazon River meets the Atlantic Ocean, militias battle for drug territory with the local chapter of Comando Vermelho. Militias, as in Rio, control informal public transportation services, hold monopolies on pirated TV and internet connections and cooking gas, extort local businesses for “protection,” and sell drugs. Pará is second only to Rio in police killings per year.
These territorial disputes inevitably lead to more death, but once the militias install themselves and formal police authorities leave them alone, shoot-outs in their areas tend to be less common. “Disappearances,” however, are much higher, and they aren’t included in crime statistics. This allows complicit politicians to claim that they are effectively fighting crime, when in fact they are only hastening crime’s capture of public institutions.
Despite outrage over Marielle Franco’s murder, Brazil elected a wave of militia-aligned political candidates just eight months later. Their far-right message vociferously opposed the PT and its supposed predilection for crime, corruption, communism, and cultural degeneracy. Their platforms also included demands for greater police impunity to “fight crime,” including carte blanche to kill suspects, a public safety policy known as the “Slaughter Law,” proposals to inhibit investigations and prosecutions involving police malpractice, and a push to make it much easier to buy guns. Cheered on by right-wing members of the media, these open proponents of police crookedness by a different name rode a cynical wave of “anti-corruption” sentiment that almost exclusively targeted the PT and the Left.
Many of the successful “law-and-order” candidates were former police and military themselves — including a representative from São Paulo who made her name off of a surveillance camera video that showed her pulling her service pistol out of her purse to shoot dead an armed robber in front of her child’s school. The governor, eyeing the upcoming election, hastily organized a ceremony the next day to honor her with a pink orchid.
Left Out of the Debate
The Left suffered massive defeats in 2016 and 2018. In São Paulo, Lula’s home base, poor and working-class neighborhoods that had long voted faithfully for the PT flipped overwhelmingly to Bolsonaro-aligned, tough-on-crime politicians pushing a neoliberal economic agenda.
The PT and its allies, after years of passing laws that made the justice system more punitive and arbitrary, spent 2018 focused almost exclusively on the punitive and arbitrary imprisonment of their leader, after two years fixated on the unjust impeachment of Rousseff. While they tried to avoid the subject of corruption almost entirely, their opponents effectively tarred them as “the most corrupt party in the history of Brazil.”
The anti-PT claims, of course, were greatly overstated. The corruption that took place was hardly novel and involved most of the same people leading the attacks on the party. Much of it was the “cost of business” for bringing establishment parties into the governing coalition in Congress. Even after years of intensive investigations, prosecutors have been unable to prove that Lula or Rousseff made a dime through corruption. But that didn’t matter. The narrative had already taken root, thanks in large part to years of unquestioning wall-to-wall press coverage of the now disgraced Lava Jato investigation.
In the eyes of many Brazilians, the details didn’t matter. During the PT governments, they’d watched militias and gangs grow, seen that impunity for criminals and crooked cops was worse than ever, and perhaps directly experienced small-scale corruption involving a police officer or government official. Maybe they even lost their job or some of their savings when the country’s most celebrated entrepreneur of the era, the flashy huckster Eike Batista, grew rich with plenty of PT support, only to be exposed as a fraud and have his empire collapse. By 2014, Brazil was plunged into its deepest economic recession in history, and crime rates were worse than ever. If all this bad business was happening under the PT’s watch, was it so hard to believe that they were crooks, too?
Just as they had tried to do with street crime, the PT had the vision to clean up high-level crime and corruption but lacked the will or the power to implement the structural reforms necessary. As a result, half measures served to fortify the party’s enemies. Ironically, the PT built nearly all the tools that would be used to tear it down through the justice system. It granted greater autonomy to the federal police, the public prosecutor, and the comptroller general, empowering them to more freely investigate political corruption, and it legalized new investigatory methods that would be used and abused in the Lava Jato trials. But it did not implement political or electoral reform that would dilute the power of money in politics, weakening their enemies as well as the need for any party in power to buy allies to cement a ruling coalition. Nor did it go through with promised regulations that would break up influential right-wing media empires, instead flooding them with government money.
The party’s biggest failure was “the Lula strategy” of “permanent conciliation,” argued Lincoln Secco, a historian whose work focuses on the PT. “It was useful to elect Lula in 2002,” Secco said in an interview with El País, but conditions changed, and the PT under Lula and Rousseff continued with “the tactic of being pragmatic while the opposition became radical and ideological.” Structural reforms were not adequately pursued “when Lula had very high popularity and it was possible.”
The non-PT left, however, has proven even less prepared on these issues. One segment, led by former presidential candidate Ciro Gomes, has pivoted hard right on security, while another has embraced identitarian and radical slogans that do not resonate outside their activist circles.
The Socialism and Liberty Party, or PSOL, has best represented this trend. It was formed by a dissident faction of PT exiles who objected to alliances with old-guard oligarch politicians. They left, but the PT’s working-class base did not follow. Despite advocating for pro-worker policies and making efforts to recruit nonwhite candidates from favelas, the lion’s share of their voters — just like their leadership — live in the wealthiest, whitest, and most progressive neighborhoods.
This disconnection is demonstrated by slogans like “abolish the police,” which has been embraced by the PSOL.
“Recently, we’ve seen groups within left-wing parties trying to reenter the debate but heavily employing identitarian discourse, in a way that ends up scoring points online rather than engaging in conversation,” says Maria Isabel Couto, a director at Fogo Cruzado. “It is disconnected from broader bases that are in dialogue with people frightened by rising violence.”
Crime is too important an issue to be left in the hands of the Right. After all, it is an expression of oppression, especially in countries like Brazil with brutal histories of dictatorship, racism, and violence. The Left took power with a transformative vision for reducing crime and attempted to implement reforms — but it ultimately ended up prioritizing its relationships with institutional actors, in an effort to maintain power, over its expressed vision for an egalitarian society. While taking power always requires some sort of accommodation, these very compromises with conservative forces helped create the conditions for a deadly surge in violent crime, dissatisfaction among the base, and the subsequent rise of the far right. At the same time, the non-PT left has failed to mount a credible alternative in terms of public security.
Quite simply, the bloody scenes in the Anísio Jobim penitentiary and across Brazil were the product of “law-and-order” forces that are themselves deeply embedded in organized crime and that oppose the social programs that can fight the root causes of violence. They hold the working-class victims of crime in contempt — but a Left that ignores them isn’t serving the public much better.