Brazil’s never ending war on the poor

Brazilian police are waging a deadly war against the poor because they were created to do just that.

Police patrol Jacarezinho neighborhood in Brazil
Police officers patrol the Jacarezinho slum during a new 'pacification operation' in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 19, 2022 [Alexandre Loureiro]

Violence – and particularly state-sanctioned violence – is part of everyday life for many Brazilians. This is true especially for those who are unlucky enough to be poor, live in a favela and have “the wrong skin colour”.

Indeed, poor Black and brown people living in precarious situations are the preferred victims of the Brazilian police – a force that is seemingly committed to eradicating not poverty, but the poor.

In Brazil’s favelas, residents live with a constant fear of “police operations” – or to be more accurate, indiscriminate shootings across narrow residential streets involving automatic weapons and helicopters. They know that if a police officer happens to approach them – regardless of what they may or may not have done – they could be threatened, beaten up, jailed, killed or simply “disappeared”. They know that their house can be invaded any minute, their possessions confiscated, their lives turned upside down – all with the complete support of their country’s government and other state institutions.

On May 24, 25 people were killed during a police operation in the Vila Cruzeiro Favela in Rio de Janeiro. On July 21, 2022, yet another police raid claimed 18 more lives in Complexo do Alemao in the same state.

These massacres were only a few in a much longer chain. According to a study conducted by Federal Fluminense University researchers, 182 people have been killed in at least 40 separate police operations in Rio de Janeiro alone between May 2021 and May 2022.

These deadly operations have the full support of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who regularly praises bloody police action in favelas and proudly claims all those who were summarily executed were “criminals” and “thugs” who have been “neutralised”. Of course, activists and international organisations emphasise that only a small percentage of those who have been killed in these operations have had arrest warrants in their names. And favela residents often talk of people being “hunted down” by police, and at times executed even after they surrender. But in the eyes of the Brazilian state, these details do not seem to matter.

While Bolsonaro and his many supporters often try to defend the bloody, and clearly unlawful, actions of Brazil’s police forces by claiming that they are fighting violent, heavily armed and dangerous criminals, officers don’t always kill alleged drug traffickers and gang members in street battles either.

On May 24, for example, on the same day as the deadly raid in Vila Cruzeiro, federal highway patrol officers asphyxiated an unarmed Black man named Genivaldo de Jesus Santos in the boot of their police car in the northeastern state of Sergipe. Images recorded by witnesses show the officers pinning Santos down on the ground, before forcibly keeping him in the back of their police vehicle as a dense cloud of white smoke emerges from the SUV. The 38-year-old handcuffed man – described by his family as suffering from schizophrenia – can be heard screaming and his legs, which stick out of the vehicle, kick for a time, until they eventually stop moving.

Neither the police massacres in favelas, nor the killing of poor and vulnerable Black Brazilians like Santos by law enforcement officers are surprising or hard to explain occurrences in Brazil.

In this country, racialised police brutality is an inevitable consequence of a deep-rooted culture of criminalisation of poverty and the poor. Coupled with a failure to adequately train security forces and reluctance on the part of authorities to even acknowledge the problem, this culture of criminalisation turns police officers into willing and eager perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence.

The training is bad, and the culture that ‘you learn to work in the street’ encourages bad practices to be passed on from one generation to another on the job,” a police officer, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, recently told me. They further explained that criminals often have better guns and gear than police. This, they claimed, causes officers to constantly fear for their lives, which increases the lethality of their interactions with the members of the public.

It is clear that under-trained, under-equipped and always in fear, Brazil’s police officers feel that they are fighting a war that they can only win through preemptive violence.

The lack of training, investment and support for police officers, however, explains only a small part of the problem. The main reason why the Brazilian police are acting the way they are – and seemingly waging a deadly war against the poor – is that the force was created to do just that.

Historically, police forces were first formed in Brazil – just as was the case in the United States – not to ensure public safety as we understand it today, but to control, repress and intimidate slaves.

Brazil’s first favelas appeared in the 19th century in Rio de Janeiro and they grew exponentially after the end of slavery. Over time, poor migrants escaping armed conflicts also joined the former slaves and their descendants in these communities. Soon, similar favelas started to emerge and expand in other parts of the country. And the police forces, which had served to protect the elites, their property and lifestyles from dangerous “plebs” from the very beginning quickly focussed their attention on favelas.

David Nemer, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, wrote in his book Technology of the Oppressed: Inequity and the Digital Mundane in Favelas of Brazil, that “prejudice has been documented since the beginning of hillside settlements [which] came to be seen as a place of dangerous and marginal people.”

Brazil’s elites have always perceived the favela as a space to be controlled, a place where the poor must live and be watched. And the police, as the protectors of these same elites, took it upon themselves to keep the favelas in check through intimidation, abuse and violence. As Cecilia Oliveira, a journalist specialising in public security once explained to me, “Police brutality is linked to many factors in the construction of Brazilian society and to the fact that Brazil has not cleared up its history: from slavery to dictatorship.”

Today, the culture of policing the favelas – and generally the poor – with violence continues also because of the fact that there is no enforcement against poor performance and abuses by law enforcement. “The Public Prosecutor’s Office does not fulfil its function of overseeing police activity, the judiciary does not fulfil its function of protecting victims of abuse who resort to the courts, the state government does not regulate its agents,” Oliveira says. “It is a whole system that allows the police to be what they are. The lives of Black and poor people are palanquin for those who sell cheap solutions to a complex problem.”

Brazil’s security forces are spreading terror in the favelas and brutally murdering vulnerable Black citizens during traffic stops because that is what they were designed to do – and because they are not being trained, equipped or encouraged to police these communities in any other way.

In Brazil, the state’s bloody war on the poor and the vulnerable will never come to an end until those in power take action to overhaul the country’s security architecture and build a police force that is willing and able to truly protect rather than terrorise the population. And with Bolsonaro and his supporters in charge, it is sadly inevitable that police violence in the favelas will continue for the foreseeable future and we will witness many more police killings like that of Santos.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.