If you’ve followed politics in the Western Hemisphere over the past two years, you are pretty familiar with the pattern of commentary following Jair Bolsonaro, newly elected president of Brazil: that his political trajectory seems heavily comparable to that of US President Donald Trump.
In both cases, they have a record of saying things that are bombastic to the point of absurdity. And in both cases each cultivated a persona of being brash and unafraid to speak his mind. Adherents in each case have lauded their guy as a daring truth teller, a maverick unwilling to be muzzled by the strictures of politically correct speech, never minding expectations of civility or statesmanship.
It seems difficult to me to ignore the strong possibility that Bolsonaro patterned himself after Trump in conscious and intentional ways. Mystifyingly so, in fact–Bolsonaro was able to successfully brand himself as a political outsider despite his thirty year career as a congressman. Again, similar to Trump, he has tapped in to the vein of conservatism that values jingoistic sloganeering, scapegoating, and authoritarian tough talk.
His approach to crime has been no small part of his appeal to many voters. He has promised to crack down on maladragem, bandidagem, and initiate and all-out war on the urban drug trade primarily centered in favelas of Brazil’s urban centers.
Earlier this year, O Globo journalist Lauro Jardim, reporting on a speech given to a room full of finance executives (clearly the “it” crowd for all political outsiders, by the way…) that if he had been in charge of a particular militarized invasion of Rocinha, that he would have dropped flyers demanding the bad guys give up, given them six hours to comply and then opened fire. Jardim’s characterization of “metralhando a Rocinha” caught Bolsonaro’s attention sufficient to provoke a response video calling it a calumnious lie. A Bolsonaro advisor released the clarification—that wasn’t much of a clarification at all.
The contention made in the clarification followed that in Jardim’s telling of, the military would be let loose on the favela at large, whereas what Bolsonaro had in mind would have been much more careful of the citizen population and would have targeted only the bandidos.
Which is of course, we assume always the military and police’s intention—but ask any favela resident in Rio and they’ll tell you that invasions such as this have never been so clear cut.
And whether Bolsonaro’s retelling of the story or Jardim’s report of it is the most accurate is not significant given the context. Bolsoaro is riding a wave (inasmuch as you could categorize a 55% electoral tally as riding a wave—especially given the numbers of people who clearly held their nose and voted against the battered Worker’s Party) of fatigue. Fatigue of economic instability and fatigue of ballooning urban crime.
It is a fact, murders in Brazil’s cities are obscenely high. It is also a more neglected fact that the murder rate followed the destabilization of government, the slumping economy, the demise of the UPP system and of favela intervention plans. It started, markedly with the favela invasions in the lead up to the World Cup and Olympics. Rio and Brasil wanted to show the world that they’d made an effort to secure the streets for incoming visitors.
I wrote at the time of the detention of Antonio Carlos Bonfim Lopes, also known as “Nem,” Dono do Morro da Rocinha. At the time, Nem had kept a tight rein on street crime. The Zona Sul was seemingly as safe as it had been in years. Immediately after the invasion that captured Nem attempting to escape in the trunk of a car, crime began an upward swing. To the point that street crime is through the roof and shootouts are a tragically common occurrence.
But military intervention—or armored trucks and soldiers with body armor and assault weaponry has not stemmed the tide. Arguably it has exacerbated the problem.
So, parsing the intentions or semantics of Bolsonaro’s unrecorded speech to the financial execs, seems absurdly beside the important point. What seems most important when understanding the dynamics of crime, ad policing, and social stability is that when Bolsonaro talks tough about maybe it’s ok if some innocents are killed, and that the only problem with the dictatorship government was that it didn’t kill enough bad guys—people, ordinary middle and upper class Brazilians take it to heart.
Already, most Brazilians fear os morros as dens of crime and violence. Bandidos and favelados are practically synonymous in the minds of many Brazilians. In comments sections in the news we read it. In casual conversations we hear it. As a foreign visitor, any time I have spoken with anyone not from a favela, explaining to them the nature and destination of my visit, inevitably I have gotten commentary based in fear and superstition—that rings perfectly harmonious with Bolsonaro’s anti-bandido tough talk.
I am, of course not saying that the government should not intervene. Drug-trafficking related deaths are a scourge on today’s Brazilian urban centers. But we never heard him say he’d crack down on corrupt and out of control policing. We never heard him say he’d crack down on militia killings. So what of those aspects? Quite the contrary in fact. He started a wave of military and police boosterism (again smacks of Trump movement) that says ‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun. The implication being that the BOPE are inevitably the good guys and these nebulously defined “bandidos” are the bad guys.
Bandidos didn’t kill Mariele. It was out of control law enforcement vigilantism—rooted in this mentality that tough on trafficking is the same as tough on the favela.
There’s that saying, “when you’ve got a hammer everything looks like a nail.” Bolsonaro’s hammer is a gun; it’s military force. I am all for solving crime in Rio and elsewhere. But clearly added force has not helped thus far, it has arguably only exacerbated the problem. In and of itself militaristic intervention has not and will not help. Any added policing must be much more careful, more similar to early-era UPPs. But more than that it must be paired with other solutions. It must include solutions akin to the interventions of ten years ago that sought to integrate the favelas into the city. That cracked them open and let in the light of civic interaction.
Favela residents are tired and scared the same as most Brazilians. Military might will not cure the fatigue nor the fear. Nor will it cure the root causes of urban poverty-based crime.