New court documents from the investigation of Brazilian Judge Patrícia Acioli reveals just how systematically and forcefully some police members are resisting legal efforts to curb police violence in Brazil, especially against the poor and in the cities. Acioli had been a judge who cracked down on extrajudicial violence of the police forces, and for her efforts, police agents murdered her in front of her own home in October 2011. The murder not only silenced one of the fiercest critics of police violence, but also put a damper on genuine efforts to reform the military police in Brazil, even while it sent a message designed to terrorize investigators and judges into silence.
Of course, the role of paramilitary militias in Brazil is nothing new. Military police (whose function is different from MPs in the US; in Brazil, they are more a militarized police force that respond directly to the armed forces, rather than an internal policing unit for the military) have indiscriminately killed civilians and filled the vacuum in the drug trade caused by the removal of gangs in the favelas for years without any real threat of punishment until recently. Indeed, police murdered Acioli in part because she’s part of a new wave of judges and lawyers who are trying to crack down on police who commit extrajudicial murders, and many in the military police are accustomed to decades of impunity for their actions. Indeed, one of the most subtle and insidious legacies of Brazil’s failure to fully investigate and punish a military regime that murdered hundreds and tortured thousands was that, by failing to address crimes in the past, it also failed to establish a precedent that made it clear that the armed forces were not above the law. That the police are upset at the sudden change in the status quo is unsurprising, and a new effort to finally launch an official (and non-punitive) Truth Commission cannot undo the message that existed for decades that the military would not have to ever answer for its use of excessive violence and force against Brazilian civilians.
Indeed, if anything, the ongoing trouble with police violence in Brazil in the wake of the military dictatorship only reveals to other countries the need to fully prosecute and punish those in the armed forces responsible for murder, torture, and other violent crimes. While immediate prosecution would obviously . Certainly, it will take years (if not decades) to know whether or not prosecutions of military officials in Chile and Argentina in the 2000s successfully prevents this type of blatant state violence by sending a message to the armed forces that they are not exempt, but if nothing else, these countries’ efforts to confront their past has reduced this type of violence, even while it continues unabated in Brazil, where extrajudicial killings and the use of torture against the urban poor are still common features of military police procedure.
And that’s to say nothing of the number of police who are moonlighting in paramilitary militias that are involved in the drug trade. Certainly, the impunity has not discouraged violent acts in the favelas. Yet in a case not dissimilar from Mexico, the state’s poor pay of its lower-ranking military members and police leaves them trying to find alternate sources of income, and a not-insignificant number are turning to the drug trade. If in Mexico, police officers are complicit with the cartels, the structure in Brazil is different, and militias are taking over the drug trade in areas where they have cleared drug gangs.
In the past couple of years, the number of officers arrested for extrajudicial crimes has increased, even if Acioli’s murder threatens that process. Additionally, city, state, and federal governments have employed new tactics that focus on actual infrastructural development and improvement in the favelas, rather than lightning raids that quickly enter and leave, leaving a dozen dead and no real change to life or social structures in the favelas. These tactical changes are a good start in combating drug violence and addressing some of the real structural issues that residents of the favelas confront on a daily basis in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Yet until Brazil cracks down on and provides the training and pay officers actually need, the police themselves will be a significant obstacle to urban peace.