One of Brazil’s most popular late-night television hosts, Jô Soares, is arguing with a politician about his tough-on-crime attitude. Police violence could only create more violence, Soares argued.
“I don’t understand why no one agrees with me, or at least a considerable percentage don’t agree with me,” the politician responds. “A million people disagree with this slogan, ‘um bandido bom é bandido morto,’ [a good thug, is a dead thug] but fifty thousand agree, especially those who have been victims.”
That politician was not Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s proto-fascist president-elect who vowed, just last month, “a cleansing never before seen in the history of Brazil” of “red criminals.” Rather, it was José Guilherme Godinho Ferreira, commonly known as Sivuca, who began his career in the 1950s as an elite police officer — he was part of former president Getúlio Vargas’s personal security team — before winning election to the Rio de Janeiro state legislature in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. It was Sivuca’s campaign that popularized Bolsonaro’s favorite “bandido morto” slogan. Sivuca, however, also added that the dead thug should be “buried upright to not take up too much space.”
Watching Sivuca’s nearly twenty-five-year-old interview, it feels as if little has changed. Except that now a considerable portion of the population agrees with Sivuca’s dictate as touted by Bolsonaro. Many voters recoil at Bolsonaro’s most incendiary remarks against women, LGBTQ people, and indigenous and black communities. However, an incumbency effect following fourteen years of Workers’ Party (PT) presidential rule — one which oversaw severe economic and political crises alongside intensifying violence and crime — has resulted in many gravitating towards Bolsonaro’s simplistic solutions. Even the black and brown working class has not been immune to this trend. More guns, more prisons, and more death. Bolsonaro promises that Brazil can simply shoot its way out of its crisis.
A Poverty of Rights
Matthew Richmond in Jacobin describes the paradoxical basis for this Bolsonarismo popular: “The uncomfortable truth is that a hidden and diffuse paramilitary war against proletarian criminals is already a reality in Brazil. Even more uncomfortably, it is supported by huge numbers of favela and periphery residents.”
That informal war mirrors the vast informal economy in which the Brazilian urban poor are embedded. Scholars of Brazil have long noted that informality — defined as social markets outside of the regulated economy — is a structural feature of the Brazilian body politic rather than an aberration. This informality has been analyzed, and often romanticized, through the lens of favelas: urban neighborhoods typically self-constructed by the predominantly black and brown working class due to a staggering lack of affordable housing.
This informality, the narrative goes, renders favelas and urban peripheries incubators of emancipatory and creative social movements that demand “rights to the city.” This is partly true. Residents of these communities have long fought against evictions and demolitions, while demanding that they be equipped with basic services.
However, there is a darker side to informality, rooted in Brazil’s four hundred years of slavery, during which access to housing and even food depended on the favor of slaveowners. Rio’s first favelas coincide with the abolition of slavery in 1888. Many emancipated Afro-descendants who migrated to cities built their homes and neighborhoods close to the era’s emerging factories and other formal work. But other favelas emerged atop the senzala — or slave quarters. In this reading, informality is better understood as a product of structured, coercive precarity. This unstable existence is defined by what historian Brodwyn Fischer calls “a poverty of rights.”
In the twenty-first century, informality continues to embed favela and periphery residents in a complex network with predatory landlords, politicians, and other local profiteers. Such profiteers thrive off clientelist practices by providing access to basic public services like trash collection and electricity in exchange for cash and/or votes.
And public security is no exception. It’s no coincidence that Bolsonaro has adopted Sivuca’s slogan. It is a slogan forged in the political economy of both the state and city of Rio de Janeiro, where both men constituted their political base. Rio’s history as Brazil’s former capital means that policies there often reverberated throughout the country. This is only magnified by the city’s prominence in international media, fostered by the spectacular juxtaposition of impoverished, crime-ridden hilltop favelas buttressing wealthier and whiter beachside neighborhoods like Barra de Tijuca, site of the Olympic Games and Bolsonaro’s home.
Rio may no longer be the capital, but its public-security initiatives still have an outsized effect on the country. The military occupation of certain favelas (and now the entire city of Rio since February 2018) and the once much-celebrated, and now effectively dismantled proximity policing program known as Pacifying Police Units (UPPs), are examples of programs which expanded to other cities and even informed policies in Haiti.
Still, like black and Latino communities in the United States, Rio’s favela and periphery residents feel simultaneously over- and under-policed. For them, security is not an equally distributed right. And while Rio is by no means the only theater of this “paramilitary war against proletarian criminals,” for decades state, parastate, and criminal organizations exploited and expanded the politics of public insecurity to jockey for territorial, economic, and electoral control over the metropolitan region.
Death Squads on the Rise
The phrase “a good thug is a dead thug,” “comes from the time of the death squads that emerged in Rio de Janeiro at the end of the 1960s,” explains sociologist Jóse Cláudio Souza Alves, who has studied the history of death squads in the Baixada Fluminense, Rio’s stigmatized urban periphery.
Prominent among these death squads was Rio’s Scuderie Detetive Le Cocq, of which Sivuca was a founding member. Scuderie Detetive Le Cocq was formed after the murder of Milton LeCocq — a fellow member of Vargas’s security team — by a local crime boss in 1964. Police officers, military personnel, journalists, and other “liberal professionals,” as described by Sivuca, came together to avenge LeCocq’s death. Their emblem bore a skull and crossbones and the initials “E.M.” Although they insisted the initials stood for “Motorcyclist Squad,” few doubted the more obvious meaning: esquadrão da morte, “death squad.”
Due to their ties to the state’s security apparatus at the onset of the military dictatorship, death squads were able to operate with impunity and spread to other parts of Brazil, especially neighboring states São Paulo and Espirito Santo. They became an integral part of the state-sponsored torture and assassination of left-wing party militants. Yet their primary target was the “bandido” or “marginal.” A 2012 report from São Paulo–based newspaper Estadão estimates that death squads killed nearly nine hundred people in just São Paulo and Rio between 1963 and 1975 — double the 434 deaths attributed to the military dictatorship by the 2014 Truth Commission.
“This [bandido morto] phrase was already used [at the time of the dictatorship] with the justification that the people they were killing were bandidos. So that the death squads, the groups of extermination were realizing something good for the population, for society,” notes Alves. And just like the over eight thousand indigenous peoples killed during the dictatorship’s exploitation of the Amazon (another policy that Bolsonaro champions), deep racism and class hatred underpinned who was identified as bandidos, while constituting their deaths as outside the region’s Cold War geopolitics.
Much of the death squads’ financing came from protection rackets for local businesses, especially the illegal lottery known as jogo do bicho. The jogo do bicho, a lottery involving numbers assigned to specific animals, is an illustrative example of the lucrative economic and political gains generated by insecurity. Though outlawed, lottery operators called bicheiros were provided cover by death squads in exchange for cash payments and caixa 2 contributions (slush-fund bribes to electoral campaigns).
Bicheiros also offered a form of affordable popular entertainment, even financing samba schools throughout metropolitan Rio, extending the network of criminality and the parastate into the city’s foremost cultural institution. Some remain powerful brokers in the region. One political family tied to the jogo do bicho supported Bolsonaro’s son, Flavio, in his successful bid for senate.
That reporters were also associated with death squads speaks to the business of sensationalist tabloid journalism of the dictatorship era. Police and death squads would tip off journalists about the location of dead bodies, sometimes in advance of any other witness accounts. Journalists made it look like the squads really were cleansing the city of crime, and death squads in turn helped journalists sell their newspapers.
The notoriety of death squads extended into popular culture. Headlines dubbed Mão Branca, or the “White Hand,” the most notorious single vigilante in Rio’s Baixada Fluminense region. In 1980, funk and soul singer Gerson King Combo immortalized Mão Branca’s exploits in song: “They assault, beat, kill, and violate, creating an empire of terror / but they’re weak cowards, who live pleading: ‘Mão Branca, don’t kill me please!’”
More recent research suggests that mass media created Mão Branca from an amalgam of paramilitary actors, a profitable product of the reciprocal relationship between death squads and journalists. This relationship would later serve to obscure the assassinations of fourteen political candidates linked to paramilitary groups throughout metropolitan Rio between November 2015 and October 2016. This even as thousands of journalists covered Rio’s Olympic Games.
This grotesque type of predatory journalism continues to be a feature of traditional Brazilian crime reporting. But more recently, it’s also given rise to the spread of viral vigilantism and fake news. Incidents of mob justice are widely shared via the WhatsApp messaging service, death squads promote their services and the deadly results on Facebook, and police officer Katia da Silva Sastre used footage of her killing an armed mugger in front of her daughter’s school while off-duty as part of her successful campaign for federal representative of São Paulo state.
This mass popularization of vigilantism helped catapult Bolsonaro to the presidency. It also quadrupled the number of former police and military officers, like Sastre, in Congress and state assemblies, many from Bolsonaro’s once obscure, far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL). In the same 1993 interview where he coined his infamous “bandidos mortos” phrase, Sivuca also exclaimed “my truth does not need to be the true truth!”. This is another apt slogan for Bolsonaro’s decentralized, digital style of fascism.
The Political Economy of Death
According to Alves, members of death squads started running for office themselves in the 1980s and ‘90s throughout Rio, just as Sivuca had done. With the end of the dictatorship, they feared losing the cover of impunity. But as drug traffickers began to seize control of favelas and peripheries, their tough-on-crime stance and access to illegal campaign contributions made them ideal public figures for the coming drug war.
Consolidating control via elections was only one facet of death squads’ “modernization” at the turn of the century. As Alves shows, they also outsourced vigilantism to civilian associates, rebranding death squads as citizens’ militias defending neighborhoods from traficantes where the state had failed. In 2006, Rio’s former mayor Cesar Maia infamously dubbed the death squads-turned-militias “community self-defense” groups.
This acceptance by much of Rio’s political class may explain why militia-controlled neighborhoods, despite dominating approximately 40 percent of metropolitan Rio, rarely received Pacifying Police Units (UPPs). UPPs were established in 2008 by Secretary of Public Security for the State of Rio de Janeiro, José Beltrame. At the time, both the city and state governments of Rio were controlled by the big-tent, ideologically opportunistic Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). These PMDB politicians touted the security program as “proximity policing” that would couple a respect for residents’ rights with investments in health and education.
Residents often praised the program not so much for reducing the presence of traffickers, but for reigning in the abuses of a bellicose police. That UPPs reduced homicides in the dozens of “pacified” favelas is without question. Fewer guns circulated and the climate of confrontation subsided, but this initial success revealed the limits of attempting to render what had long been constructed as a privilege within Rio, public security, as a right. “Because for those who learned, watching the media, that the UPP was a marvel, those who lived in [‘unpacified’] favelas felt excluded; ‘once again, something good does not reach us,’” argues anthropologist and public security specialist Luiz Eduardo Soares.
UPPs were fraught from the beginning in a short-term strategy to secure valuable neighborhoods ahead of the World Cup and Olympics. Further, they employed the same militarized logic as militias and gangs: territorial occupation. Though a policy of the state government, thirty-seven of the thirty-eight UPPs installed under Beltrame between 2008 and 2014 were located in the city of Rio proper. The vast majority were in favelas either in the city’s wealthier South Zone, or in the hills separating the South and North Zone near where much of the Olympic infrastructure investments were concentrated.
That is to say, policymakers did not target the areas with the highest rates of crime or homicides, leading mayors of neighboring suburbs to contend that UPPs had only pushed traffickers and crime to new territories. And residents of favelas with relatively successful UPPs came to understand that the program had no intention of providing the historically marginalized with security. Rather, it was a necessary step for real estate speculation to price out poor people just as services, and tourists, arrived.
The program scaled to larger favelas with competing criminal and parastate factions just as investments in social services diminished. As a result, police abuses returned, evident in the much decried disappearance, torture, and death of construction worker Amarildo de Souza in Rocinha.
Ahead of mega-events, gaining buy-in among favela residents and attracting international tourists depended not just on statistical drops in crime and homicide. It also depended on marketing a perception of successful UPPs.
Amarildo’s disappearance in 2013 marked a turning point in the image of the UPPs. This was apparent when UPP installation failed in the favela Complex of Maré. Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party responded by sending in federal armed forces for fifteen months ahead of the 2014 World Cup. This further exacerbated the perception that the UPPs had not changed the logic of confrontation between police and favelas that had long defined Rio’s structural maintenance of insecurity.
Militias filled the void left by the simultaneous over- and under-policing of marginalized communities. That dynamic was compounded by the UPPs, which reverted to a racialized characterization of favelas and their residents as complicit with drug trafficking. Beltrame only installed one UPP in a militia-controlled area, Batan, after the gruesome torture of journalists from the newspaper O Dia. Since 2008, militia territorial control has increased exponentially, with some researchers estimating that two million people throughout the metropolitan region live in expansive areas controlled by the parastate.
Unlike drug trafficking gangs that seek territorial control exclusively to sell narcotics, militias operate under a criminal political economy that Soares calls “totalizing.” “[Militias] strive to completely dominate all economic, commercial, financial, real estate dynamics, promoting internal migrations to speculate on public land, displace populations, obtain votes, imposing themselves through candidac[ies] that form a band connected to certain territories in the city.”
They thrive off informality, providing underserved neighborhoods with unregulated transportation and access to utilities to finance their political and criminal enterprises. Public housing in Rio’s precarious West Zone often serves as a territorial and financial base for militias. (Rio’s PMDB officials used funds allocated under the PT’s “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (My House, My Home) program to construct many of these units in the wake of mega-event displacement). And much like corrupt police, many also make deals to protect certain drug factions, supplying them with contraband guns and ammunition from police and military stocks to further consolidate control over goods and services.
The militias more so than Rio’s more old-school drug trafficking factions have come to resemble traditional mafias, playing a parastate function in areas abandoned by “the official state.” Though politicians had begun to publicly distance themselves from militias, they regained political ground with the triumph of their chosen gubernatorial candidate for Rio state, Wilson Witzel.
Bolsonaro and Witzel sell a narrative of sniper-equipped police officers battling Rio’s drug dealers as if they were in Brazil’s blockbuster film Elite Squad. The reality is that they will legitimize the dirty cops and paramilitary groups depicted in its more successful sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which dramatized the torture of the O Dia journalists on the big screen. (Luiz Eduardo Soares co-authored the books that led to both films).
Bolsonaro has never seen a need to rebrand militias. In a 2003 address to the Chamber of Deputies that anticipated his future presidential platform, Bolsonaro bemoaned how “since the arrival of human rights . . . (social) marginality has felt more at will.” He continued:
As long as the state does not have the courage to adopt the death penalty, these extermination groups, in my understanding, are welcome. And if there is no space in Bahia, they can come to Rio de Janeiro. If it depended on me, they have complete support, because in Rio de Janeiro only innocent people are decimated. In Bahia, the information that I have — logically these groups are illegal, but [I give] my congratulations — marginality has decreased.
Ignoring the growth of militias in his own state, Bolsonaro dismisses their criminality to uphold the economic and anti-human rights pathos of the death squad.
The “anti-human -rights” framework is the historic, authoritarian thread that runs from slavery through informality and death squads-turned-militias to Bolsonaro’s fascist discourse. Unlike the United States, where, at least on paper, rights and due process mitigate the state’s monopoly on violence, the privileged dominance of Brazil’s elite has long rested on the state’s monopoly to completely devalue and destroy poor, black, and brown life.
Jesuit priests used to implore slave owners to feed the enslaved rather than allow them to starve and then traffic cheaper, healthier human beings from Africa. Informal housing and labor markets ensure a cheap workforce that preferably commutes from distant peripheries. Death squads eliminating “marginals” underpins the narrative that the military dictatorship was a crime-free golden era. And militias purport that they protect communities; but life is only guaranteed if you are willing to pay.
Alves emphasized this political economy of death:
For assassination to become a political commodity it needs a high demand. The state does not offer a particular good, a particular guarantee, which is the guarantee of life, the dearest and most valued good. It should be the main obligation and duty of the state to maintain the lives of citizens, and it does not offer it so that other groups can, in a completely arbitrary, calculated way to control spaces of power in these areas.
Despite vowing “to be a slave to the Constitution” — choice words in a country that imported nearly five million enslaved people, two million through the port of Rio — Bolsonaro has already distanced himself from violent attacks against PT supporters and LGBTQ people, including the death of black capoeira master Moa do Katenda in Salvador. The illegality of vigilantes and death squads is irrelevant so long as they uphold the patriarchal, racial, and class order. Bolsonaro has been explicit that he will only grant rights, be they political or to life itself, to those who will fall in line.
Dead Thugs and Killer Citizens
With state-led initiatives like the UPP failing to deliver for the majority of citizens, and militias’ privatized security converging with gangs, Bolsonaro promises to take insecurity to its neoliberal, anti-human rights conclusion. He proposes “liberating” individual gun ownership and unburdening police from today’s limited checks on their ability to kill at will.
While Bolsonaro promises to laud killer cops, the only real winners in this scenario will be gun manufacturers. As Alves explains, this simplistic approach ignores the fact that Brazilian police already kill in staggering numbers and that police in turn die in the cyclical nature of confrontation: “It is a homicidal and suicidal police.”
One person who dedicated her life to combatting the homicidal and suicidal effects of insecurity was Marielle Franco, a black, bisexual socialist city council woman. Franco was assassinated along with her driver Anderson Gomes on March 14, likely by militia members, mere days after demanding more transparency in Rio’s military intervention and police operations. Franco’s activism dates to her youth in the Maré favela where she grew up. But her political career, significantly, began as an assistant to socialist Marcelo Freixo in his city council inquiry into militias and their political supporters in 2008 — the same year the UPP program began.
In her 2014 master’s thesis analysis of UPPs she wrote about how state-perpetuated insecurity cuts short the lives of favela residents and police alike:
There is no way to hierarchize pain or believe that it would only be maddening for the mothers of young favelados. The bellicose and militarized state is responsible for the pain that also looms in the sixteen families of police who have died since the beginning of UPPs.
Franco understood that many of these police officers, and their mothers, are also residents of favelas and urban peripheries. She viewed this as not so much a paradox, but rather as another facet of a centuries-old elite war to monopolize the guarantee to life against black and brown working class people.
Bolsonaro hardly commented on Marielle’s death. Meanwhile, at a Witzler campaign rally in the city of Petropolis, two of his fellow PSL candidates destroyed a plaque commemorating her memory and boasted about it on social media.
Even liberal commentators have remarked that the most likely outcome of a Bolsonaro presidency will be bloodshed. With no viable immediate alternatives in the wake of real and perceived increases in violence, it is unsurprising that more voters today believe the phrase popularized by Sivuca. However, it is heartbreaking to witness how Bolsonaro’s campaign has extended the logic of the death squads. Today, just as “a good thug is a dead thug,” a “good citizen (or cop) is a killer citizen (or cop)” — and quite likely a dead one as well.