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Quick Note: Security in Brazil under Populism


As the largest country in South America, Brazil should get outsized attention for its policies and social developments. In reality, it is often overlooked in a manner consistent with how Latin America is overlooked as a region. This is no less true when examining the populist phenomenon gripping democracies around the world.

In fact, Brazil currently has one of the most hard line and controversial of populists in its president, Jair Bolsonaro. The president was elected despite a record of crude rhetoric, discriminatory speech, and inarticulate policy positions. He also survived an assassination attempt and highlighted Brazil’s problems with violence and corruption.

When dealing with the former of these two issues, Bolsonaro has made a campaign promise into a governing priority. Indeed, crime is perhaps the largest issue looming over Brazil’s development. In the first 18+ years of the 21st century alone, over one million Brazilians have been murdered. In 2017 alone nearly 64,000 people were killed in Brazil. In terms of annual rates, the statistics in some Brazilian states meet or exceed those of El Salvador, currently the deadliest country in the world. It is therefore no wonder that Bolsonaro would quickly take credit for more recent declines in the murder rate (a record 25% to be precise) and attach himself to an easy and obvious position of popularity.

Bolsonaro has done more than just attached himself to a declining murder rate. He has been extremely outspoken about the need for an enhanced role for police in tackling crime. In his flamboyant, over the top style, he has therefore directly advocated for killing criminals in order to reduce homicides. Practically speaking, this has resulted in two outcomes. First, militarized policing has taken hold in major cities. Rio de Janeiro, for example, has a police force controlled by the military (an arrangement that is very popular with the majority of the citizens in the city). This policy is in place following the introduction of specialized “pacification units” which aggressively policed the favelas (slums) of the city in recent years; after these controversial units were removed from service, murder rates climbed. Second, informal and clandestine groups of current/former police officers have formed “militias” which are designed to penetrate and pursue criminal elements of society.

It is important to note that both of these policies involve corruption and extrajudicial killings which represent one of the more serious problems with security in Brazil today. In this way it is understandable that Bolsonaro’s government is focusing seriously on corruption and organized crime (though largely ignoring and even encouraging police-sponsored killings). In addition to measures like alcohol and firearm regulatory reforms, the government is also promoting a new anti-crime bill that gives prosecutorial and judgement leeway for excusing tough police tactics such as excessive force and profiling.

Looking forward, it remains difficult to see how the picture changes in Brazil. Bolsonaro currently occupies a position of popularity on this issue, and one in which his brand of populism is well supported. This bodes ill for the level of actual crime that occurs in the country given the empowerment of police and “militia” forces to attack elements they deem “criminal” with impunity. That said, conditions on the ground in Brazil are not entirely of Bolsonaro’s making. Much of the drop in the nominal crime rates is attributed to factors outside of the federal government. State governments, many of whom are facing existentially serious crises in public safety, have drafted and/or adopted local policies to counter localized threats. In this way the smaller reforms in municipal and city police departments (including improved mapping, training, coordination, and community policing) may have had a bigger impact, as has cold hard statistics such as a falling youth population and declining unemployment rate.

These conditions are currently assisting Bolsonaro and bolstering his popularity but could easily change and cause tension and unrest. That is presently unlikely given the strong alignment of interests between communities, policy departments, and the federal government’s priorities to improve security and the economy. In this way, it is understandable that many Brazilians see populism as a life improvement platform tackling the country’s biggest challenges. The biggest question going forward, therefore, will be whether such populism can sustain such significant reform and policy implementation, ensuring enhanced security and greater development.

William VogtComment