Brazil captured a notorious drug boss — then let him go

In September 2019, Brazilian police arrested 43-year-old André Oliveira Macedo — a drug kingpin best known as André do Rap — after being on the run for six years. As one of the top brass of the First Command of the Capital (PCC) — Brazil’s largest organized crime gang — André do Rap was hiding out in a luxury mansion in the Rio de Janeiro beach town of Angra dos Reis.

The investigation that led to his arrest was long and painstaking, involving the collaboration of law enforcement agents from Italy and the U.S., as a result of André do Rap’s involvement with transnational drug trafficking. When he was taken in, several of his luxury possessions were seized, including a helicopter, yacht, and a 4×4 Hyundai Tucson.

However, after just one year in custody, André do Rap was set free on a legal technicality. And before the Supreme Court could rectify this mistake, he was already at large, with authorities believing the drug boss has now fled the country.[restricted]

Slipped through their fingers

André do Rap was a key figure within the international expansion of the PCC and its consolidation as South America’s widest reaching drug cartel. His role was to oversee the trafficking of immense quantities of cocaine from the Port of Santos, in São Paulo state, over to Calabria in southwest Italy. From there, the product was picked up by the PCC’s notorious Italian allies ‘Ndrangheta and distributed Europe-wide. 

But despite a sentence of over 25 years in jail for international drug trafficking, André do Rap walked out of jail last Saturday, thanks to a court order by Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurélio Mello. His lawyers claimed that their client’s preventive detention had not been renewed within the legally stipulated time frame of 90 days — a new rule introduced by the so-called Anti-Crime Bill, ratified by President Jair Bolsonaro in January. Finding this to be true, Justice Marco Aurélio ordered his immediate release.

Indeed, the Supreme Court justice acted according to the law, later affirming in an interview to TV Globo that he made the decision as a member of the Supreme Court, “not as the citizen Marco Aurélio Mello.” “The law is there to be complied with and followed,” he added.

Unsurprisingly, the decision divided opinion among the Supreme Court, legal scholars, and politicians, once more exposing the complexity of Brazil’s penal system.

Shutting the barn door after the drug dealer has bolted

Justice Marco Aurélio Mello’s decision caused such an immediate stir that Chief Justice Luiz Fux moved to suspend his colleague’s decision the very same day, ordering André do Rap to return to preventive detention immediately. He also put the case on the Supreme Court’s docket for Wednesday afternoon, where a majority of justices are expected to vote against Justice Marco Aurélio Mello’s decision.

However, in the interim between the release order and Chief Justice Fux’s suspension, André do Rap had already walked out the front door of a São Paulo penitentiary, where he was driven off by a luxury car after informing authorities he would be staying at a house in the coastal São Paulo town of Guarujá. Once his re-arrest was ordered, police could not locate him in Guarujá, nor at the homes of his family and friends. The Federal Police believes he has fled to Paraguay or Bolivia, where the PCC has established operations.

Political backlash after drug

In Congress, a group of supporters of President Bolsonaro are maneuvering to submit bills to remove the mandatory review of preventive detentions from Brazil’s penal code. Figures close to the president say that Justice Marco Aurélio Mello made an error in his decision, claiming he should have assessed the case at hand and ruled that release was not an option, due to the significant danger posed by the prisoner.

Former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, by way of his press office, declared that he was against the inclusion of the mandatory 90-day review of preventive detentions in January’s new penal legislation. “The article was not in the original draft of the Anti-Crime Bill and I, as Justice Minister, was opposed to its insertion for fear of automatic releases of dangerous prisoners as a result of the mere passing of time.”

Domino effect

At least two individuals in prison for international drug trafficking have already made similar requests for release to the Supreme Court. One, arrested in 2016, is serving a 33-year sentence, while the other is facing 35 years.

As added intrigue to the existing fiasco, online magazine Crusoé revealed that the law firm providing André do Rap’s defense has a former aide to Justice Marco Aurélio Mello among its partners. Asked about this during a telephone interview to CNN Brasil on Tuesday, the justice criticized the question and hung up the phone. “That is defamation. This interview is over,” he said.

So far this year, Justice Marco Aurélio Mello has granted at least 79 release requests based on the provision of mandatory renewal of preventive detentions. The number could be even higher, as a single habeas corpus plea may benefit more than one individual.[/restricted]


Robinho rape conviction clouds return to Santos

Welcome back to another edition of the Brazil Sports newsletter. This week, Robinho returns to Santos — and sparks fierce debate in Brazil, after the forward’s rape conviction in 2017. And Cruzeiro, one of Brazil’s biggest clubs, are beginning to sink without a trace. Enjoy your read!

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Talent always gets another chance

Under normal circumstances, it would be a reason for celebration. Robinho, who got his start at Santos before taking on European football and breaking into the Brazil national team, has now returned once again to his boyhood club. He will surrender the large salary he was earning at Turkish side Istanbul Başakşehir FK, taking a minimum wage at Santos until the end of the year. However, the public discourse is not about a prodigal son’s return, focusing instead on events that occurred in Milan in 2013.

  • In October 2014, Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport published revelations of Robinho’s involvement in the alleged gang rape of a 22-year-old Albanian woman at a Milanese nightclub, during his spell playing for AC Milan.

The case. Three years later, while Robinho was back in Brazil playing for Atlético-MG, the player was tried in absentia and was found guilty, with Italian courts sentencing him to nine years in prison. Due to Italy’s lengthy appeals process — not too dissimilar to what is seen in Brazil — the sentence is pending and the player is not a fugitive from justice.

The debate. Pundits and fans have rushed to condemn Santos for resigning Robinho, questioning the message transmitted by employing an individual convicted of rape, and lauding him as a hero. By and large, however, Santos supporters and the club itself have defended Robinho’s reputation, claiming his innocence and celebrating the return of a fans’ favorite.

Quandary. In previous editions of this Brazil Sports newsletter, we have assessed the ethical questions behind football clubs employing players who had been convicted of crimes. The example of the time was Bruno Fernandes, once the most talented goalkeeper in Brazil and national champion with Flamengo, who was sentenced to 22 years in jail for ordering the kidnapping, torture, and murder of his ex-girlfriend Eliza Samúdio. After six years behind bars, he was granted release due to the delays in his appeal process, and he has bounced around a number of small Brazilian football teams, in a series of controversial signings.

  • The Robinho situation is different, in that he has yet to serve any punishment for the crime, and the legal case is technically still ongoing. However, while playing for Istanbul Başakşehir, Robinho refused to travel with the team for continental matches away from home, reportedly for fear of being arrested.

No moral judgment. Indeed, by the letter of the law, Robinho remains at liberty until proven guilty by a final and unappealable decision. However, as with Bruno being repeatedly resigned by small-time Brazilian clubs, the problem here is that the ethical ramifications of signing Robinho have never been taken into account by Santos. As opposed to offering an opportunity to someone they believe to be innocent and is awaiting appeal, Robinho has been signed for purely business and footballing reasons.

Under the carpet. Speaking to newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, Santos president Orlando Rollo said criticism of Robinho’s signing came from “jealous” fans of other clubs, and played down the player’s conviction. “Who are we to throw stones at Robinho? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he said.

Talent gets a second chance. Brazilian football — along with many professional sports leagues around the world — is full of cases of players continuing lucrative careers despite criminal convictions. Indeed, if we go back to 1987, Santos’ current manager Cuca — then a player for Porto Alegre side Grêmio — was convicted of the rape of a 13-year-old girl during a pre-season tour of Switzerland. He never served time and went on to have an illustrious career in playing and management. Where there is talent, there will always be a club willing to give a second chance.

Cruzeiro hit an iceberg

In previous editions of this Brazil Sports newsletter, we have covered the plight of Belo Horizonte football club Cruzeiro, mired in corruption investigations, Fifa punishments, and eventually relegation at the end of 2019 — the first time the club has dropped below Brazil’s first division. But just when it seemed that Cruzeiro had sunk as far as they could go, the giants plumbed new depths.

Double relegation? Approaching the halfway point of the season in Brazil’s second division, Cruzeiro are currently 19th in the table, seeing their hopes of a quick bounce-back to the top flight slip away — and staring the terrifying threat of dropping down to the third division in the face. The club, with an estimated 8.4 million fans, has won only two of their last 11 matches, and they are now looking for their seventh manager in the space of 14 months after binning latest coach Ney Franco.

Fall from grace. Beyond being one of the Big Two clubs in Brazil’s second most-populous state of Minas Gerais, Cruzeiro are in this mess despite being one of the most victorious clubs of the 2010s. They were national champions in 2013 and 2014, and grabbed the Copa do Brasil trophy in 2017 and 2018.

Reap what you sow. The desperation of the situation was perhaps best summed up by Cruzeiro’s long-serving goalkeeper and captain Fábio, in a post-match interview off the back of another embarrassing home defeat. “We are reaping what we have sown. (…) There has been terrible administration [of the club] for a long time, the titles hide that. And now it’s blowing up on the people who are here at Cruzeiro. The others who made a lot of errors have all jumped ship and the responsibility was left to us. (…) We’re here, but everyone who made bad decisions in the past is watching at home.”

Relegation: a chance for rebirth? Unlike major European leagues, big teams in Brazil are no strangers to the dreadful fate of relegation. Of the current top flight, only Flamengo, Santos, and São Paulo have never once dropped below the top division, with the rest all having their spells in the second tier. 

  • With this, comes an often overlooked silver lining: big sides are put under less pressure in the second division, playing against weaker opponents and with less of a media spotlight. As such, they can go about rebuilding their squads, restructuring wage bills, and coming back stronger than before. 
  • However, with constant chopping and changing and no real stability at the top, Cruzeiro are not benefitting from the extra breathing room allowed by second-division football. The giant club is now facing another year outside of the top flight, which would extend even further if they are relegated for a second time.

What else you should know

  • Internationals. Brazil kicked off their World Cup qualifying campaign with an easy 5-0 home win over Bolivia on Friday. The team are likely to face sterner competition tonight against Peru in Lima, but Tite’s men are fully expected to come away with two wins in two.
  • Corinthians. The women’s side of São Paulo giants Corinthians gained increased attention last week, after footage of a spectacular team goal they scored in mid-September went viral worldwide on social media. Maiara’s finish after a wonderfully flowing passing move was called “the best goal we’ve ever seen” by popular football Twitter account FootballJOE.
  • The Robson Case. In March 2019, Brazilian citizen Robson Oliveira was arrested in Russia for entering the country while in possession of controlled substances, reportedly requested by the family of Spartak Moscow footballer Fernando, who employed Mr. Oliveira at the time. The substance in question was methadone chlorhydrate — commonly used for the treatment of heroin addiction but also found in chronic pain medication. It is a banned substance in Russia and Mr. Oliveira has been in jail ever since. However, the case took on a new twist last week, when Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro pledged to speak with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in order to negotiate Mr. Oliveira’s return to Brazil. The case will be dealt with in full in future editions of the Brazil Sports newsletter.

Violence against women increases during the pandemic

According to data from urban violence monitor Fogo Cruzado, the number of women shot dead increased between August and September, when six victims were confirmed. Last month alone accounts for 50 percent of all cases of fatal cases of gender-based violence since isolation measures were first enforced in Brazil, late in March.

Overall violence figures, on the other hand, are on a downward trend: over the past six months, Fogo Cruzado recorded “just” 2,359 shootings in the Greater Rio de Janeiro Area between March and September. Believe it or not, these figures represent a 43-percent drop from the same period last year, when 4,114 shootings were reported.

At least 763 people were injured by bullets in the Greater Rio Area, or which 384 were fatally wounded. As a matter of comparison, the same period in 2019 saw 776 dead and another 737 injured. 

You should also read:


Gun licenses and imports shoot up in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

During the 2018 campaign trail, one gesture symbolized the Jair Bolsonaro campaign more than any other: at every rally, on every social media post, in every photo op with supporters, he could be seen with an open-mouthed grin and his trademark finger guns — less of a branding exercise, and more a campaign promise. For decades, Mr. Bolsonaro has been a vocal supporter of scrapping gun control regulations, asserting that Brazilians must take matters of justice into their own hands. In a 2017 interview, he said “violence must be fought with violence,” while in an April cabinet meeting, he exclaimed that “an armed population will never be enslaved.”

But besides the rhetorical bluster to expand the ownership of guns in Brazil — which consistently ruffled the feathers of his opponents on the left — did Mr. Bolsonaro actually walk the walk after talking the talk? Data suggests he did. Gun imports have doubled in Brazil, and firearm license requests skyrocketed since he took office as president.[restricted]

Between January and July 2020, Brazil imported nearly USD 49 million in guns and ammunition — more than double the same period in 2019. A 28-percent share of these purchases came in Austria — home of renowned manufacturer Glock — followed by Turkey and the U.S. with 19 and 11 percent.

This increase in imports is a direct result of a May 2019 decision by the president, which served to shatter the monopoly of homegrown firearm manufacturer Taurus. Previously, rules stipulated that guns could only be imported from abroad if Taurus did not already produce an identical or similar model.

When the prospect of loosening restrictions was announced by the president on January 15, Google searches for ‘owning firearm’ and similar terms exploded, as seen in the interactive chart below.

The measure came as a blow for the already struggling Taurus, which had been hit with an image crisis after faults in its pistols, widely used by police forces around the country. The company is now banned from holding contracts with the São Paulo military police for at least two years, as a result of a lawsuit brewing since 2016.

NGOs that monitor public security were not completely against the measure, as the breaking of Taurus’ monopoly would allow police forces access to higher quality equipment. However, they warn that background checks should be put in place on the exporting company. “If this is done in a reckless manner, the suffering stays with the receiving country, with the receiving civil society,” says Bruno Langeani, project manager at Instituto Sou da Paz, speaking to the Brazilian Report.

Besides the change to import rules, the government’s measures have also relaxed broader regulations that restricted access to firearms, which has led to a significant increase in civilians owning guns. 

According to National Firearms System (Sinarm) data obtained by The Brazilian Report through an Access to Information Law request, almost 90,000 new firearms were registered in the first seven months of 2020, and 56,000 civilian gun licenses were granted. These totals are comparable to results from the entirety of 2019, which saw 96,064 weapons registered and 54,413 individual licenses.

When analyzed in the context of Mr. Bolsonaro’s public declarations, security experts have warned of a growing ‘political use’ of firearms. “It’s one thing to imagine more armed people, more crime, in the context of self defense. It’s another thing to have a confirmation from the president that he is interested in forming a militia to put pressure on the opposition,” says Mr. Langeani. “Then, we are then speaking of a threat to democracy.” 

Opening the door with all guns blazing

Beyond increasing exports, President Bolsonaro has shown that he wants a complete opening of the firearm market. His son, member of Congress and fellow gun enthusiast Eduardo Bolsonaro, has been lobbying for foreign gun manufacturers to set up shop in Brazil. In April last year, he tweeted about a meeting with representatives of German-American manufacturer Sig Sauer. “They want to set up a factory in Brazil. Competency and excellency in their product exist, what is missing is the political assurance that the lobby will not insert lots of red tape to hinder their installation,”  wrote Eduardo Bolsonaro. 

In June, newspaper Folha de São Paulo reported that the Brazilian Army is negotiating a partnership with Sig Sauer by way of state-owned war material company Imbel. Citing sources from the Armed Forces, Folha said the deal only lacks approval from the Brazilian and U.S. governments.

However, talks of a significant market shift may be premature, as domestic manufacturers, such as Taurus, are still able to benefit from looser regulations. “We have seen evidence that the legal gun market in Brazil has grown, so we have more guns circulating, and also an increase in the market share of foreign companies in this total, which was practically dominated by national production,” says Mr. Langeani. 

“But you can have a growth in both foreign and domestic supply,” he explains, adding that homegrown manufacturers have the advantage of not having to face initial regulatory challenges by which foreign firms may be hamstrung.[/restricted]

Brazil Weekly

Justice oversteps bounds in Rio Governor suspension case

This week, a look into how the Justice system has become excessively political. And a massive police operation against Brazil’s most powerful criminal organization.

Important: Next Monday is a federal holiday, Brazil’s Independence Day. Therefore, next week’s Weekly Report will be sent out on Tuesday, September 8.

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What Rio governor suspension says about Brazil’s Justice system

On Wednesday, the Superior Court of Justice decides [restricted]on whether to uphold a Friday decision by one of its justices, which suspended Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel from office due to his alleged involvement in a corruption scheme to embezzle part of the state’s coronavirus budget. The individual decision was highly controversial, raising suspicions of being politically-driven — it also is a good example of how the Justice system operates in Brazil, writes reporter José Roberto Castro.

Exception becomes the rule. Brazilian high courts are designed to work as collegiate boards, with the intention of reaching fairer decisions. The Supreme Court has 11 justices, while the Superior Court of Justice (STJ), the second-highest judicial body in the land, has 33 members. Individual decisions should only occur in exceptional cases — and never in consequential decisions such as suspending a governor from office.

  • In 2010, the Superior Court of Justice authorized the Federal Police to arrest a sitting governor — but did so only after the entire court voted on the decision.

Overt politicization of Justice. Both Brazilian courts and the Federal Prosecution Office have become excessively politicized. And, as President Jair Bolsonaro has openly used his power to name two Supreme Court justices in the next two years as a carrot, it leads to suspicions that judges are using their courts to audition for the top job in Brazilian law. The fact that prosecutors and judges often praise Mr. Bolsonaro and bash his opponents on social media only adds to the suspicions.

  • The STJ’s former presiding justice granted house arrest benefits to Fabrício Queiroz, a longtime friend of the president who is believed to have run a money-laundering scheme within the office of Senator Flávio Bolsonaro — the president’s son. He remained at large for over one year — which would disqualify him from receiving said benefits under normal circumstances.
  • Just two days before Mr. Witzel was suspended, Brazil’s top prosecutor issued a recommendation that Senator Flávio Bolsonaro should be granted parliamentary immunity in the money-laundering probe, despite the case not meeting the criteria to do so.

Witzel v. Bolsonaro. Elected on Mr. Bolsonaro’s coattails, Mr. Witzel quickly became a sworn enemy of the president’s, openly vying for the top job himself in 2022. One accuses the other of using their power to direct law enforcement against adversaries. Speaking on Friday about the judicial decision, Mr. Witzel said he is being suspended because Mr. Bolsonaro reportedly wants to influence the appointment of the next Rio top prosecutor — a decision typically made by the sitting governor.

Flipside. Judges and prosecutors are not the only ones to blame for the political contamination of the court system. Political parties also have become trigger-happy in filing lawsuits to settle disputes that should remain in congressional spheres.

BREAKING: A mega operation against Brazil’s most powerful drug gang

pcc federal police operation
Photo: Justice and Security Secretary of Minas/SSP-MG

Brazil’s Federal Police has launched a mega operation this morning against the First Command of the Capital (PCC), a drug gang that emerged in São Paulo in the early 1990s and became the country’s best-structured organized crime group.

  • Courts have frozen around BRL 252 million (USD 47 million) in assets and have issued over 600 arrest and search and seizure warrants against people linked to the group. The operation is being carried out in 20 of Brazil’s 27 states and over 1,000 law enforcement agents have been mobilized.
  • According to the police, 210 people currently incarcerated continuously received monthly stipends from the group for having occupied high-ranking positions within the criminal organization. The payments were made through individuals not connected to the PCC, in order to make them difficult to trace.

Why it matters. Today’s operation is one in a series of moves by law enforcement against the PCC.

The PCC. Brazil’s best-organized criminal group began as a prisoners’ union in the aftermath of the 1992 Carandiru massacre, when 111 inmates were slaughtered in just 30 minutes by police after a riot.

  • Few Brazilians knew about the group’s existence until May 12, 2006, when the PCC staged a series of attacks against police forces. This violence came in response to the state government’s transfer of 765 inmates – including the PCC’s alleged leader – to a maximum-security prison. On the following day, violent attacks were carried out outside of prisons, as 59 police officers were murdered in a total of 293 attacks.
  • Twenty-five years after its creation, the organization now has over 30,000 members spread across nearly every Brazilian state. According to some estimates, the PCC has an annual turnover of between BRL 400 million (USD 106 million) and BRL 800 million. The lower estimate is double what the gang was believed to have earned in 2015. If the PCC were a corporation, it would be among the wealthiest 500 companies in the country.

How the group manages its finances. PCC members who are not in prison must pay a BRL 950 monthly membership fee, nicknamed a “cebola” (onion). Inmates must pay “union dues” ranging from BRL 100 to 600. If a prisoner is unable to pay, he goes into debt and must repay the organization once he is released from jail – usually by committing crimes.

  • The group has yet to make the full transition to a mafia-like organization, with a series of legitimate businesses to operate as a front for illegal operations. Today, though, most of the group’s transactions remain in cash.


The deadline for Gol Airlines to pay a USD 300-million loan guaranteed by Delta Air Lines expires today. Ratings agencies, however, say default is likely. “Gol is facing constant cash burn without refinancing possibilities,” said Amalia Bulacios, of S&P, which rates Gol’s debt as CCC-. According to calculations by Reuters based on Gol’s cash flow, cash equivalents, and liquid investments, Brazil’s biggest airline could have just USD 285 million left in the bank.

Government benefits: the pandemic effect

The number of Brazilians in vulnerable situations and depending on government-issued benefits has quadrupled in 2020 — from 20.5 to 85.3 million from last year. In 2019, 10.8 percent of the population got money from the government, a rate that jumped to nearly 45 percent after the pandemic struck. In 25 of 27 states, there are more people getting the coronavirus emergency salary than there are formally employed workers.

Looking ahead

  • 2021 budget. The government must present its proposal for next year’s budget by the end of today. With the need for beefed-up aid programs, ministries are battling not to have their funds cut and reallocated. On Friday, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles pulled a bold move, announcing he was halting all actions against deforestation in the Amazon and Pantanal due to a lack of funds — which naturally generated an image crisis, and prompted Vice President Hamilton Mourão to publicly state that the money wouldn’t be cut. But not all other cabinet members will be able to pull such maneuvers.
  • GDP. Brazil is set to publish its official Q2 GDP figures on September 1. We already know that the drop will be significant, as economic activity was halted for much of the quarter. According to most financial institutions’ projections, the quarterly drop will be somewhere between 8 and 10 percent. If projections are confirmed, it means that the Brazilian economy will regress to levels recorded in Q3 2009 — meaning that the pandemic has scrapped 11 years of (feeble) growth.
  • Emergency salary. President Jair Bolsonaro is expected to officially announce the extension of the coronavirus emergency salary on Tuesday. The BRL 600 (USD 111) payments were set to expire this month, but the president said he wants to maintain the program at least until the end of the year to help voters cope with the economic crisis. The value of future handouts is unknown — the current monthly price tag (BRL 50 million) is untenable, but Mr. Bolsonaro said the Economy Ministry’s BRL 200-per-person proposal is not good enough.
  • Elections. Starting today, parties are allowed to hold their conventions and choose their candidates for the November municipal elections. Due to the pandemic, campaigns will predominantly happen on social media and by way of TV and radio ads. This year brings a completely different context from the 2016 race, with a weakened Workers’ Party not well-placed in any of the biggest stages, namely São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

In case you missed it

  • Coronavirus. Brazil has so far registered 3.8 million coronavirus cases and 120,828 deaths. However, the 7-day rolling average of new daily deaths is now at 875 — still one of the highest in the world, but the lowest for the country since May 21. However, as The Brazilian Report showed on multiple occasions, the pandemic has progressed unevenly in a country that is as large and unequal as Brazil. 
  • Trade. The Mercosur-EU trade deal has lost its main advocate on the European side, with the resignation of Ireland’s Phil Hogan as the EU trade commissioner. Mr. Hogan stepped down after being accused of breaching Covid-19 guidelines during a trip to his home country Ireland. Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe said the Mercosur deal could be ‘put on ice’ by the European Commission.
  • 5G. According to estimates from Ericsson, the implementation of 5G networks in Brazil will generate investments of around BRL 9.2 billion from telecom companies until 2025. The company also discusses the creation of 205,000 direct jobs and an increase of up to 2.4 percent in the Brazilian GDP. Of course, Ericsson is not an unbiased observer, being a 5G provider itself.
  • Argentina. After almost six months of lockdown due to the coronavirus, bars and restaurants in Buenos Aires are reopening today, though with heavy restrictions such as no indoor seating and no more than four people per table. President Alberto Fernández announced last week that the quarantine would be extended until September 20 but groups of up to ten people would be allowed to meet outdoors in Argentina.[/restricted]

Sex, drugs, and gospel music: Brazil’s madcap soap opera politics

This week, Brazil has been engrossed by a true crime soap opera that would make Game of Thrones screenwriters blush. Flordelis de Souza, a federal lawmaker and former gospel singer, has been implicated in the assassination of Evangelical pastor Anderson do Carmo, her adopted son-turned-son-in-law-turned-husband. Nine of Ms. Souza’s 55 children — of which 51 are adopted — were arrested this week, and she only remains at liberty thanks to her parliamentary immunity.

Besides the sordid details of the case, including a bizarre number of failed assassination attempts and the morbidly on-the-nose Google searches of one of Ms. Souza’s children — including “assassin where to find,” “poison to kill a person that is lethal and easy to buy” — the affair is an illuminating look into the bonkers aspect of Brazilian politics.[restricted]

As it happens, this particular case might not even make it into the top ten of scandals involving sitting members of Congress.

Brazil’s lower house — where Flordelis de Souza sits — has seen its fair share of convicted criminals, scam artists, murderers, alleged drug traffickers, and all conceivable types of scandalous individuals who make full use of their parliamentary immunity. 

Infamously, former Senator Arnon de Mello — whose son Fernando Collor de Mello went on to become president — shot a colleague on the Senate floor in 1962. He was never prosecuted and was re-elected twice before his death in 1983.

In the late 1990s, it was revealed that federal representative Hildebrando Pascoal was a high-ranking drug dealer in his home state of Acre, and that he also led a brutal death squad. The grisly torture methods he used on rival drug dealers earned him the nickname “Congressman Chainsaw.”

Brazilian politics has long surpassed the country’s famous telenovelas in terms of sheer sleaze and intrigue, but there is a reason that Congress attracts such a large amount of rogues and mavericks, and it lies in the design of Brazil’s political system and the notoriously weak political parties it has generated.

Demented soap opera politics

Brazil has an open proportional system with no effective mechanism for party representation in the legislature based upon large electoral districts. The political system, as a result, is permanently trapped in a swamp of weak fragmented parties sometimes characterized as “coalition presidentialism” — meaning that the president must cobble together a coalition that is not party-based in order to pass anything through Congress. 

This system encourages voters to support candidates based on their personal qualities, and makes it more advantageous for politicians to cultivate direct relationships with the electorate, rather than through a party. 

A grand total of 30 parties hold at least one seat in Brazil’s Congress. Another three have no representatives, and several others are vying for approval from electoral courts. The vast majority of these parties lack any discernible political identity, and have become notorious for having potentially the most misleading names in world politics.

Flordelis de Souza, for instance, holds a seat for the non-socially democratic Social Democratic Party (PSD). In fact, upon its creation, the party’s chairman famously said the PSD was “neither on the left, or the right, or in the center.”

Brazilians, in turn, have little party loyalty — with few exceptions — and are generally conditioned to approach voting with a certain degree of cynicism. Name recognition can be enough to gain you a seat in the Congress. The lack of faith in the political system also turns voters on to what they see as “protest votes,” that is, picking joke candidates as a way to flip off traditional leaders.

In 1959, Rio de Janeiro cast over 100,000 votes for Cacareco, a female rhinoceros living in the city’s zoo. She ended up winning the race, though unfortunately non-humans are not allowed to take office in Brazil.

Fifty years later, São Paulo elected famous clown Tiririca to Congress with over 1.3 million votes. His campaign consisted of running comedy sketches in the place of party ads, with a slogan saying that things simply “couldn’t get any worse.”

But that kind of statement backfires, due to the country’s proportional system — in which the number of seats a party gets depends on its share of the overall votes.

Given the widespread disillusionment with politics and politicians in the country in the wake of what now seems to be a permanent political crisis in Brazil, the tradition of demented soap opera politics is more or less an institutional part of politics in Brazil.[/restricted]


Brazil lowers murder rate, but racial disparity remains massive

Almost 60,000 people were murdered in Brazil in 2018, according to the latest Violence Atlas study released this week, one of the broadest and most reputable public security surveys in the country. While a shocking absolute total, this points to a 12 percent fall in homicides between 2017 and 2018 — the sharpest drop in at least ten years. Once again, however, the study exposed the huge racial bias in Brazilian violence: 628,595 people have been murdered in the country between 2008 and 2018 — the vast majority of murder victims were black or multiracial.[restricted]

In 2018, for instance, three out of four Brazilians killed were black or multiracial, a rate that was lower in 2008. These populations are now more likely to be murdered than they were 12 years ago, with the opposite trend seen for the rest of society.

“This reduction [in murders] is related to three factors: demographic changes and an aging population help reduce the homicide rate, the disarmament statute, and the dissemination of public security policies in the states”, said Daniel Cerqueira, one of the Violence Atlas researchers.

Mr. Cerqueira mentions the north-eastern state of Paraíba as a positive example, having seen falling murder rates for nine consecutive years. Meanwhile, he showed concerns about border states Roraima and Amapá, and is skeptical about the very low numbers declared by the state of São Paulo.

Murder rate divided by racial lines

As explained above, black and multiracial Brazilians are far more likely to be murdered than the rest of the population — 2.7 times more likely, in fact. However, in some violence hotspots, this risk grows much higher. In the state of Alagoas, homicide victims are 17 times more likely to be black or multiracial. 

“The numbers are a good reflection of Brazil’s everyday racism. We also notice that violence prevention policies have only managed to reduce the death of non-black people. When segmented between black and non-black people, the data is as if they are from different countries, such is the disparity,” says researcher Samira Bueno.

Gun policies shoulder blame

According to the Violence Atlas, the most common age for murder victims is 21, with over half of homicides involving people between 15 and 29 years old. Most deaths occur between 6pm and midnight, while 71 percent of murders are caused by firearms. 

The latter is of particular concern for researchers from the Brazilian Public Security Forum and Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea), the institutions that collaborate to produce the Violence Atlas. The tendency is that Brazil’s firearm legislation will be loosened further under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has eased rules for obtaining permits and purchasing ammunition.

“The federal government’s arms policy will cost many lives. Throughout academia, there is practically a consensus that more guns mean more crime. Since 2019, there has been an incentive to increase firearms and ammunition, which will have a very negative impact on homicide rates,” says Mr. Cerqueira.[/restricted]


Explaining Brazil #121: The end of an era in Colombia

This week’s episode, The Al Capone of Colombia, was supported by AMEC, the Brazilian Association of Investors in Capital Markets. AMEC brings together around 60 institutional investors from Brazil and abroad — which have a combined portfolio of over USD 130 billion.

It also had the support of, a platform that offers a SEO Mastery course which will make your company’s website the top-ranked in your field, in no time at all. 

Arguably the most powerful politician in Colombia, former President Álvaro Uribe has faced countless accusations of human rights violations and links to paramilitary groups. But just like Chicago gangster Al Capone was nailed for tax evasion, Uribe’s downfall might actually come from a case involving fraud and witness tampering — which led to the country’s Supreme Court placing him under house arrest earlier this month.

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  • Sebastián Ronderos is a Ph.D. student in Ideology and Discourse Analysis at the University of Essex. He holds a master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Granada, further specializing in Conflict Resolution at the Pontifical Xavierian University, in Sociology at the School of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo, and in Comparative Politics at the University of Lisbon. He studied Politics at the University of the Andes.

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Latin America

Ex-president’s arrest order could spell the end of Uribismo in Colombia

Arguably the most powerful politician in Colombia, former President Álvaro Uribe suffered a huge legal defeat on Tuesday, as the country’s Supreme Court ordered he be placed under house arrest as part of a case involving fraud and witness tampering. This marks the first time in Colombia’s history that a former president has been placed under arrest.

Mr. Uribe served as head of state between 2002 and 2010, but the scandal leading to Tuesday’s arrest order related to events in 2012, when the ex-president held a seat in the Senate.[restricted]

Accused by fellow Senator Ivan Capeda of having links to far-right paramilitary groups, Mr. Uribe sued his colleague for defamation — a ploy that soon backfired. The Supreme Court threw out the former president’s plea and instead moved to investigate Mr. Uribe over allegations he had coerced potential witnesses who may have provided evidence against him. 

After months of investigations into these claims, Colombia’s highest court issued its historic decision.

Mr. Uribe pleads his innocence, tweeting that “the deprivation of my freedom causes me profound sadness for my wife, my family, and the Colombian people who still believe I have done something good for the country.”

Colombian President Iván Duque — himself a political disciple of the right-wing figurehead — went public in defending Mr. Uribe’s integrity, leading to questions about the extent of the separation of powers in the country.

Hours after the court’s decision, the 68-year-old former president announced he had tested positive for Covid-19.

‘Uribismo’ in trouble

The aftermath of the arrest order served to underline how influential Mr. Uribe remains in Colombian politics, from the statements of President Duque to the celebration of the opposition. However, his political clout is clearly waning.

His last major blow came during the regional elections of 2019, when Mr. Uribe’s Democratic Center (DC) party lost key mayorships across the board, namely in Bogotá and Medellín. What’s more, his conservative coalition only managed victories in two of the country’s 32 departments, electing governors in Casanare and Vaupés.

According to Sebastián Ronderos, a Colombian professor of politics at the University of Essex, these recent losses show that Uribismo is in “intensive care,” potentially paving the way for a new political cycle in a nation with a historically conservative agenda.

“Álvaro Uribe established a new power structure around himself when he was elected, with his own personality cult. But now, with his arrest and the popularity of the Iván Duque government collapsing, Uribismo is on life support,” Mr. Ronderos tells The Brazilian Report.

“Mr. Uribe’s house arrest is the most critical stress for the rule of law in Colombia in the last decade,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Duque administration and the ruling party need to respect the court’s decision and independence by ensuring that President Uribe defends himself through the legal process, not through threats of judicial reform and groundless accusations.”

Indeed, the fall of Mr. Uribe’s political sect is not solely down to its leader. President Duque, often called Mr. Uribe’s ‘puppet,’ has been targeted by street protests, with members of the public demanding more funds for public education, less corruption, and changes to labor laws. This unrest lit the fuse for the political bomb that went off on Tuesday, with the former president’s arrest order.

Terrorism under Uribe

The allegations against Álvaro Uribe involve witness tampering in connection to the ‘false positive’ scandal, when civilians murdered at the hand of the Colombian army and far-right paramilitary groups were erroneously presented to the media as deaths of guerrilleros, members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) or National Liberation Army (ELN).

Fighting guerrillas with a “strong hand” was always Mr. Uribe’s motto, and his presidency began as violence rates in the country escalated to over 60 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

A vast portion of the population didn’t care how President Uribe planned to solve the conflict, they were simply content with the fact that guerrilla forces would be hunted down by the state. At the same time, however, several NGOs denounced human rights violations in Colombia, with at least 2,248 ‘false positives’ recorded in Mr. Uribe’s second term alone.[/restricted]


Massive police operation targets Brazil’s biggest crime gang

On Tuesday morning, law enforcement from 11 states in Brazil launched a massive sting operation comprising 212 arrest and search and seizure warrants targeting members of the notorious First Command of the Capital (PCC) organized crime gang — the largest of its kind in the country. Over 1,000 police officers knocked on doors across 71 cities in the states of Alagoas, Pernambuco, Ceará, Bahia, Paraíba, Sergipe, Piauí, Paraná, Mato Grosso do Sul, São Paulo, and Minas Gerais.

The operation sought to dismantle a new wing of the criminal faction, based in Mato Grosso do Sul and in charge of the PCC’s so-called ‘crime tribunal,’ by which the gang orders the executions of rivals around the country, often within prisons.[restricted]

Tuesday’s operation was the second phase of Operation Flashback, which began in November 2019 and resulted in the imprisonment of 81 people across eight states. This subsequent stage is led by the Justice Ministry, with the participation of the Federal Police and state law enforcement.

The investigations that culminated in Tuesday’s arrests highlighted the participation of an increased number of women members of the PCC, with a notable increase in the number of women holding commanding roles within the criminal faction’s organizational structure.

One PCC cell in the state of Alagoas, known as the Dames of Crime, comprised 18 women and one man. A total of 40 women — almost one-fifth — were targeted by Tuesday’s warrants, in what is usually a heavily male-dominated environment. Indeed, the PCC’s “feminine core” was pointed out as being just as vicious as the gang’s male members.

Parallel sting targets drug trafficking

The majority of arrests and search warrants of Operation Flashback II came in Brazil’s Northeast region. In the state of Alagoas, the Federal Police used the sting to synchronize the investigations with other groups involved, as some of the targets were simultaneously in law enforcement crosshairs for their involvement in a vast drug trafficking scheme.

Therefore, Feds also launched Operation Njörd, carrying out 39 arrests and 25 search and seizure warrants in the state capital Maceió, in São Paulo, other cities in Paraná and Mato Grosso do Sul. 

During the three months of investigations that comprised Operation Njörd, evidence was produced that, according to law enforcement, proved the existence of the crimes of drug trafficking and conspiracy to sell drugs committed by the suspects. In this period, Feds caught five suspects in the act, arresting them for drug trafficking, apprehending almost half a ton of narcotics.

The Federal Police noted that part of the payment for the drugs was carried out by bank accounts opened in the names of residents of São Paulo and Paraná. These accounts were duly frozen upon court order and the holders were taken in for questioning by the police.

Feds also stated that they identified members of the criminal organization who were responsible for acquiring and transporting the drugs to Alagoas, as well as those who received and distributed the narcotics on the street.

pcc drug organization brazil
Feds carry out warrants against PCC members in Alagoas. Image: SSP/AL

PCC plans to dominate South America

With an estimated 30,000 members, the PCC orchestrates prison riots, armed robberies, kidnappings, assassinations, and drug trafficking schemes, among other criminal endeavors. Originally founded inside a prison in the state of São Paulo, the gang is now present in at least 22 of Brazil’s 27 states — and has members in other countries, such as Bolivia, Paraguay, and Colombia.

In Paraguay, the PCC has staged some of the highest-profile crimes in the country’s recent history, such as Hollywood-esque robberies of banks and companies transporting valuables. It has also fueled carnage with other groups, vying for control over Brazil’s so-called “hillbilly route” of cocaine trafficking, where drugs from Bolivia and Peru cross into the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul and the São Paulo countryside, before being transported to the Port of Santos for distribution to Europe.

In January 2020, a group of 75 inmates linked to the PCC escaped prison in Pedro Juan Caballero, a Paraguayan city located directly on the Brazilian border, in a jailbreak worthy of a big-budget action movie. Paraguayan authorities found a tunnel inside one of the prison blocks — as well as numerous sandbags. But the country’s Justice Minister Cecilia Perez says the tunnel might have been a diversion, believing instead that the inmates simply walked out of the prison’s front door after paying guards USD 80,000 in bribes.[/restricted]

Latin America

The controversial role of the Colombian army

Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) became Latin America’s biggest guerrilla movement in 1964, the role of the Colombian army has been shrouded in controversy. After more than 50 years of crossfire between the FARC and the military, the Colombian National Center for Historical Memory estimates that at least 260,000 people were killed. Of those, 82 percent were civilians.

Sexual violence has also been a persistent problem, brought back to light by a horrific case this year involving the gang rape of a 12-year-old indigenous girl by a group of Colombian military officers. In the last four years alone, at least 118 members of the Armed Forces are under investigation for sexual violence. According to prosecutors, rape is a practice that is ingrained in the Colombian military, though it is dismissed by high-ranking officers as “individual conduct.”[restricted]

The recent case involving the indigenous minor from the small western town of Pueblo Rico dominated headlines in Colombia, coming just a few days after Congress approved a constitutional amendment to reinstate life imprisonment after 110 years. With the massive support of conservative President Iván Duque, the “new old law” targets those convicted of rape and murder of vulnerable individuals. 

Now, as Colombia waits for the Constitutional Court to deliberate whether the law from 1910 will in fact be reinstated, the army faces growing criticism. While the left-wing sees it as a monument to a history of institutionalized violence, right-wing movements claim the military has been corrupted. So, what is the future for the Colombian Armed Forces?

According to Sebastián Ronderos, a Colombian professor of politics at the University of Essex, among the Latin American countries that live through a military dictatorship, Colombia is an outlier in terms of the prominence of its military and its impact on politics. But this logic — that has defined Colombian society for the last 60 years — is slowly changing.

“Even without having had military regimes like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, Colombia has a longstanding culture of militarization. It is still one of the nations that spend most on defense, at around 3 percent of the GDP. However, the ‘false positive’ scandals and rape charges have been weakening the military’s image and opening a public debate regarding their role in the country,” Mr. Rondéros told The Brazilian Report.

The ‘false positive’ debacle relates to the massacre of civilians at the hands of the military, who were presented erroneously as members of guerrilla movements. Like the recent rape cases among army officers, the numbers of civilian killings only came to light in recent years, revealing the role of the Armed Forces in summary extrajudicial executions. Prosecutors say that the Army carried out more than 2,200 executions between 1998 and 2014.

Has peace really been restored?

In 2016, Colombia’s then-President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being the first leader to officially sit down and come to a truce with the FARC, with a view to ending the 50-year-long conflict. The guerrilla movement laid down its guns and became a political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, cheekily maintaining the FARC acronym. 

The peace deal was, however, an extremely divisive issue among the Colombian population. Asked to vote whether they wanted the agreement to be signed, 50.2 percent of Colombians said “no.” The majority held that the creation of special courts under the new deal would forgive war crimes, erasing the lines of a violent history that deserve fair punishment.

Now, almost four years after the controversial deal was signed, the country faces new problems: FARC dissidents have taken up arms by forming splinter groups and conservative sectors have mounted enormous pressure to rip up the peace agreement.

As Mr. Rondéros explains, this could be an opportunity for the Colombian Army. “The militarized speech, especially in the last decades, is associated with the existence of an ‘internal enemy.’ Even though the Armed Forces have an image crisis, the conservative sectors which support the military’s role in Colombia find strength by arguing that the armed conflict still exists.”

As it seems, ending half a century of conflict requires much more than just half a decade, and support for the Colombian military continues, albeit as a “necessary evil.”[/restricted]


Latin America Covid-19 News Roundup: Jul. 15, 2020

?? Colombia. Per Human Rights Watch (HRW), gangs in Colombia have been using the quarantine as an opportunity to carry out “acts of terror.” (Yahoo, in Spanish)

?? Honduras. The Honduran government signed a USD 76-million loan with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to fund actions against the coronavirus. (Prensa Latina, in Spanish)

?? Peru. The economic crisis — worsened by the pandemic — forced President Martín Vizcarra to change at least half of his cabinet ministers. (Reuters, in Spanish)

?? Argentina. The country was selected to carry out tests of a Covid-19 vaccine promoted by BioNTech-Pfizer. (El Universo, in Spanish)

?? Venezuela. Covid-19 cases have surpassed 10,000 as the government is called out for underreporting cases. (Rome News Tribune)

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Guide to Brazil

São Paulo’s forgotten rebellion

Today, July 9, is traditionally a public holiday in the state of São Paulo, commemorating the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolution, eventually quelled by President Getúlio Vargas. However, São Paulo’s history of battles and skirmishes goes beyond 1932. One particular uprising, that of 1924, has largely flown under the radar in the state’s history.

Cannons, trenches, bombings, roughly 5,000 injured and hundreds of deaths — not a scenario one would usually associate with Brazil. This was the setting for an entire month in São Paulo in the 1920s, as the country’s most important economic center saw itself caught up in a military uprising as social changes brought the region to boiling point. With time, the damages were covered up and along with them the story of the worst conflict in Latin America’s biggest city.[restricted]

“Oh well, that’s because of a curse. It’s the revolution doomed to be forgotten for 100 years,” jokes Celso Luiz Pinho, author of ‘São Paulo – 1924,’ a book about the uprising of rebellious army members that tore the city apart for almost a month in July of 1924. While the grim forecast of an army commander passed on to Mr. Pinho is now an anecdote, it actually remains accurate. While the 1932 uprising is celebrated with the highest monument in the city — an obelisk built to hold the remains of fallen soldiers — and a public holiday, the events of 1924 are barely discussed by Brazilian historians, not to mention the population.

For Ilka Stern Cohen, author of ‘Bombas sobre São Paulo – A revolução de 2014,’ “memory is made out of choices that make sense or not. The events of 1924 do not make sense to São Paulo’s narratives. It all happened in the city by chance, local politicians were not involved. Of course it was important, it changed the lives of those who were besieged for more than 20 days, but it disappeared because it does not serve any interest,” she told The Brazilian Report.

Though it seems lost in time, this failed coup actually sheds light on ever-present questions in Brazilians politics: the need for social reforms and the involvement of the army in everyday politics.

A powder keg in São Paulo

While the uprising itself started on July 5, its causes go far back. The 1920s were a period of social change in Brazil, with the first steps of urbanization and industrialization taking place in its coastal cities. Amid the changes, the political system known in Brazil as “the Old Republic” — marred by rigged elections, low public participation in politics, and a rotation of rural elites in power — slowly started to crack.

One of these cracks showed up in the armed forces, in a movement referred to by the textbooks as tenentismo, or Lieutenantism. The lower ranks of the Army — an institution seen as almost unbreakable in modern-day Brazil — were keen on social changes. “I explain 1924 as an attempt to re-establish the ideals of the 1889 Republic. It is a moment when the political model is questioned”, says Ms. Stern Cohen.

Two years before, 18 soldiers had shown their dissatisfaction in Rio de Janeiro, when they tried to take over the Copacabana Fort, being besieged by the federal government forces and dying on the beach.

As an attempt to dissipate the movement, explains Mr. Pinho, some of those involved were deployed to far-away provinces, such as Mato Grosso do Sul and the countryside of São Paulo. Indeed, they were far from the federal capital of Rio de Janeiro, but not from each other. There, they were able to spread their ideas and gather support. Unaware of the situation, the city of São Paulo lay in between the rebels and their goal: to overthrow then-president Artur Bernardes in Rio de Janeiro.

The heat of the battle

The uprising began on the second anniversary of the attempted coup in Copacabana. The rebels, commanded by general Isidoro Dias Lopes, took over the 4th Cavalry Battalion in Santana, to the north of São Paulo, as reported by newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo. From there, they took the military airport of Campo de Marte and bombed the official government palace, which was located in São Paulo’s city center.

The conflict was brutal, with the rebels firing cannons and being targeted by aerial bombing in response. Trenches were dug all over town. Civilian areas such as the working-class neighborhoods of Mooca and Brás were targeted; the Liceu Coração de Jesus school, which was close to the palace, was hit by three bombs.

“[Federal government forces] bombed São Paulo and whether due to lack of technical knowledge or by a will to end the confrontation as soon as possible, they were not very fond of buildings, houses. There was broad destruction”, said historian Boris Fausto, in the Netflix documentary series Guerras do Brasil.

A quick fight was also the goal of the rebels, says Mr. Pinho. “They wanted a blitz. In little time, they occupied strategic spots, but did not have outside support. It was easy to see, after 20 days, that it wouldn’t work. Planning is beautiful on paper, but when it came to reality, they were not prepared.”

In her book, Ms. Stern Cohen explains some episodes of misfortune and bad planning that worked against the rebels, such as an informant that tipped off military commanders loyal to the government, who managed to organize a resistance and arrest some of the main leaders of the rebellion: brothers Joaquim and Juarez Távora.

But dragging the conflict on for so long took a heavy toll on civilians. Caught up in the conflict, they couldn’t tell rebels from loyalists, as both wore the same uniforms. Amid the besieged state, thousands fled to the countryside and the city’s supply chain largely dried up. Left to their own devices, the population tried to organize the city and mediate the conflict. But those efforts were not enough to avoid massive losses. Sources diverge in terms of deaths; official counts speak of 503 casualties, but historians put that number closer to 800. Regardless, the uprising of 1924 remains, to this day, the biggest armed conflict in the city of São Paulo’s history.

A symptom, not the cause

The rebellion itself did not have popular support in the streets, as Ms. Stern recalls, but the causes supported by the rebels were not strange to Brazilians. “It happened at a time of overall dissatisfaction. You had strikes, police repression … There was no one in the streets, but you can tell, by looking at the newspaper editorials, that there was some sort of sympathy [toward the uprising] as they were pointing to a new direction for the country,” she said.

The lieutenants did not know, but while they fled to the countryside after losing the unplanned battle for São Paulo, military uprisings in their support took place in Amazonas, Mato Grosso, and Sergipe, according to Fundação Getúlio Vargas.

Even though their claims were vague — and included ousting an elected president by the threat of violence — other demands made by the uprising find echoes in modern Brazil, such as improved education, cutting illiteracy, fair elections, and an end to corruption. Mr. Pinho recalls that, in the end, lieutenants were no longer a rank in the military, it was a name for all of those who supported their cause, whether they were members of the military or not.[/restricted]


Explaining Brazil #114: Violent effects of Brazil’s job apocalypse

Since January, Brazil has already lost 1.4 million formal jobs — according to data from the Economy Ministry. Meanwhile, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics reports that a total of almost 13 million people are out of a job. And that doesn’t even count the millions who, due to the pandemic, simply cannot — or will not — look for a job. Besides the obvious problems with that, a group of researchers showed that job loss can drive crime rates up. Way up.

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On this episode:

  • Diogo Britto is a postdoctoral researcher in economics at Bocconi University, in Italy. He holds a joint Ph.D. degree in Law and Economics at the Universities of Bologna, Hamburg, and Erasmus Rotterdam, a MSc from the University of Bologna and Bachelor from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He is mainly interested in the economics of crime and development economics.
  • Benjamin Fogel is a regular contributor to The Brazilian Report, he also writes for Jacobin magazine and Africa is a Country. He is conducting a Ph.D. on the history of Brazilian corruption at New York University.

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Explaining Brazil is made by:

  • Gustavo Ribeiro is the editor-in-chief of The Brazilian Report. He has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets, including Veja, Época, Folha de S.Paulo, Médiapart, and Radio France Internationale.
  • Euan Marshall is a journalist and translator who has lived in São Paulo, Brazil since 2011. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, his work has been published in The Telegraph, Al Jazeera, The Independent, among others.

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Record police killings in São Paulo during quarantine

In the wake of worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism triggered by the killing of George Floyd in the U.S., the São Paulo police department caused 116 deaths in April, the highest number of monthly killings on record.

Despite a decrease in movement on the streets due to quarantine guidelines in the city, the number of deaths during police operations jumped by 54.6 percent in April when compared to one year ago, according to official reports. But while police violence went up, data from the state’s public security authorities revealed that crimes such as robbery and theft had fallen 53.3 percent from last year, during the quarantine.

For experts, the increased number of police killings is a result of reduced oversight during the pandemic, as well as a historical defense of a “zero-tolerance” approach. During the 2018 campaign, Governor João Doria said that, under his command, officers would “shoot to kill” if suspects didn’t immediately surrender.

“When we have an increase [in killings], in general, the police’s excuse is that the numbers follow a rise in crimes or that the [police’s] response time was lower,” Samira Bueno, director at the Brazilian Public Security Forum, told newspaper O Estado de São Paulo. “Criminal trends do not justify [April’s] results, though.”

Ms. Bueno’s organization says 75.4 percent of victims from police operations between 2017 and 2018 in Brazil were people of color, suggesting a strong correlation between police brutality and racial profiling in the country.

Rio sees downturn in shootings, yet killings still persist

Meanwhile, in Rio de Janeiro, shootings were down 36 percent during the three-month quarantine period, as presented by data-keeping organization Fogo Cruzado. Nonetheless, the city still registered 468 people shot and 239 gun-related deaths during the pandemic, including eight people shot at home during police operations, also according to Fogo Cruzado’s data.

On May 18, teenager João Pedro Matos Pinto, 14, was shot dead at home during a joint operation by the Federal and Civil Police. João Pedro was playing inside his house with his cousins when policemen invaded the residence, opening fire and leaving 72 bullet holes in the property. Protests in Brazil over João Pedro’s death paled in comparison to the Black Lives Matter public commotion in the U.S.

On Friday, President Jair Bolsonaro removed cases of police violence from the federal government’s annual human rights report — considered one of the best thermometers for human rights violations in the country.

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What will Brazilian society look like after the pandemic?

Brazil might be the worst hit country by the Covid-19 pandemic in the world. As of writing, the country has 850,796 cases and recorded 42,791 deaths, though the real figures are likely to be significantly higher. The situation is so bleak that the government tried to hide the total number of cases and deaths on its official online dashboard. When asked about the missing numbers, President Jair Bolsonaro joked that it would make news organizations “run out of subjects to talk about.” While the crisis still has no end in sight and we may well be stuck in this half-life of social distancing and fear for years, it has not stopped many from speculating about what type of society will emerge out of this pandemic. 

At the beginning of the global coronavirus crisis, back in March — another lifetime ago — many speculated that Covid-19 might prove to be a global wakeup call: governments would return to science-based policy, regulate unfettered markets, invest properly in healthcare, take the environmental crisis seriously, and intervene to reduce inequality. After all, what was the risk of being optimistic?[restricted]

Now only three months later, such sentiments seem hopelessly naïve. At least in the case of the Americas’ two most-populated countries, Brazil and the U.S.

Covid-19 was tipped to be “the great equalizer.” Everyone was supposed to be equally at risk from an invisible enemy, but rather predictably class and race define who is more likely to die from the disease. While the pandemic has proved to be a mirror on Brazil’s social problems, it has also revealed that nobody has anything approaching a credible solution to them. If anything, it has demonstrated the inability of existing political forces to offer a credible alternative to the existing cycle of demagoguery, polarization, and violent authoritarianism. 

In fairness, this is by no means confined to Brazil. The state of international cooperation and solidarity is rather dire.

Far from being a wakeup call, it feels more and more like the pandemic will produce a worse version of the same, by worsening existing social crises and accelerating authoritarian tendencies. Some predicted the end of ‘populism’ and return to evidence-based politics but failed to see how accelerating the crisis might prove to be a survival strategy for those ‘populists’ in power. However, I very much hope that I am wrong; predicting the future is a fool’s errand, after all.

The Great Hangover for Brazilian society

Lockdowns are ending in Brazil, most likely prematurely. In part due to the deliberate efforts of the government, the population began to feel the coercive pull of economic factors to return to the streets. But even for those who have not lost their jobs, things are hardly likely to go back to ‘normal’. After all, what can be normal after families have lost their loved ones and millions are left without work? And many more may die of illnesses unrelated to the pandemic, as The Brazilian Report has shown. Brazil was stuck waist-deep in political and economic crisis before the coronavirus made its unwelcome arrival on its shores.

And that’s excluding the mental health knock-on effects of tragedy and isolation. Trauma can emerge a set of shared experiences that either produces further violence and alienation or in some cases solidarity and hope. What is needed for hope is the ability to imagine that perhaps tomorrow will be another day, a better day. While there are numerous cases of bravery and solidarity in the face of the pandemic, too often they have been a response to the indifference and incompetence of the powerful. The numerous examples of favela dwellers organizing medical services and protective equipment are pertinent examples.

It may of course also be the case that people just move on ignoring the costs of the pandemic, but the fact that the economy is expected to contract by at least 8 percent this year, the economic knock-on effects are unprecedented and could well dwarf those of the Great Depression. As Martin Wolf of the Financial Times notes in reference to Covid-19’s effects on developing economics “the impact … is unlikely to be brief. Many economies and billions of people are likely to be scarred. This might be the beginning of many lost years, or even worse, for multitudes.”

Government fanning the flames

While one should always take such measures with a pinch of salt. The latest Global Peace Index report has Brazil dropping into the red zone of high-risk countries. Brazil is ranked as the 126th least peaceful country in the world. The only countries ranked lower in South America are the still-war-ravaged Colombia and Venezuela, which remains stuck in the swamp of political turmoil and hyperinflation. According to the report, Brazil is likely to face social unrest and political turmoil due to the pandemic. 

President Jair Bolsonaro has just about done all he could to ensure that Brazil’s crisis will be as devastating as possible, he has consistently undermined public health responses, politicized the moment, and encouraged his supporters to attack social distancing measures. His principal response to the crisis — apart from dispatching one Health Minister after another — has been to force an unproven and possibly dangerous cure (hydroxychloroquine) down the throats of his fellow countrymen in order to get people back to work. His future as president is dependent on him empowering the most ancient and venal forces in Brazilian politics.

Instead of trying to aid vulnerable populations, security forces seem to be offering more of the same. In Rio de Janeiro, police intensified their deadly operations in the city’s favelas, refusing to stop even after the Supreme Court ordered them to decrease their violent onslaughts.

Brazil’s political class is still locked in a cycle of opportunism, intrigue and conspiracy, instead of trying to act as a responsible unified force in response to the worst pandemic in a century. The political wounds of the recent past have yet to heal and if anything, are beginning to go septic. While there were a number of attempts to fashion some sort of a unified opposition response to Mr. Bolsonaro, The Brazilian Report showed the opposition remains directionless and hopelessly divided as the country’s largest political party, the center-left Workers’ Party, remains mostly absent from these efforts. 

As The New York Times recently noted, “the crisis has grown so intense that some of the most powerful military figures in Brazil are warning of instability — sending shudders that they could take over and dismantle Latin America’s largest democracy. But far from denouncing the idea, President Jair Bolsonaro’s inner circle seems to be clamoring for the military to step into the fray.”

Talk of a coup is in the air, considering the military more or less seems to be running most of Mr. Bolsonaro’s government and that senior cabinet ministers have been indulging in gratuitous attacks on the Supreme Court, these cannot simply be dismissed. 

The scars left by Covid-19 on Brazilian society will remain long after the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine a positive scenario emerging at this point in time. Even if there are competitive democratic elections in 2022, the likely death toll and economic devastation will be staggering. 

Unfortunately, permanent crisis continues to be a breeding ground for dystopian forms of authoritarianism. [/restricted]


Supreme Court halts police raids in Rio favelas during pandemic

Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin has prohibited any police operation inside Rio de Janeiro favelas until the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. The goal is to avoid compromising healthcare services and putting the lives of low-income Brazilians at risk

In his decision, Justice Fachin referred to the murder of teenager João Pedro, who was shot by the police in May. “Nothing justifies a 14-year-old getting shot over 70 times.”

Back in March, The Brazilian Report’s Brazil Weekly explained the implications of the spread of the novel coronavirus to the country’s favelas. As of early May, the disease, which arrived in the country through upper-class Brazilians, was already disproportionately affecting low-income non-whites — many of them favela residents.

The Supreme Court decision allows for operations only in “absolutely exceptional” cases.

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How Brazil’s Military Police became a key supporter of Jair Bolsonaro

This past Sunday, in one of his now weekly public appearances, President Jair Bolsonaro rode out to meet his supporters in Brasilia on horseback, borrowing a trusty steed from the military police department of the Federal District. Around the same time, military police counterparts in São Paulo were launching tear gas canisters and flash bombs at a group of anti-fascist demonstrators on Avenida Paulista, in the city center.

Since March, with the implementation of Covid-19 isolation measures across the country, the president and his supporters have held public street protests every Sunday to urge people to get back to work and call for the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. Last weekend’s anti-Bolsonaro demonstration, however, was the first to be repressed by the police.[restricted]

This is no coincidence, as President Bolsonaro has built up a faithful following within Brazil’s law enforcement ranks after years of representing police officers’ agenda in Congress. During the 2018 campaign, he was regularly seen visiting Military Police barracks, taking photos with officers, and claiming their support.

The sitting administration is already heavily militarized. The number of non-civilian government officials currently hovers around 3,000 — even military dictatorship administrations included fewer representatives of the Armed Forces.

The military’s proximity to power under President Jair Bolsonaro has raised a number of concerns in a region where the Armed Forces remain major power brokers. Now, these same questions can be asked of the police’s role in the Bolsonaro administration.

Who polices the Military Police?

Brazil has four main institutions of law enforcement: first, there is the Federal Police and Federal Highway Police, which are subordinate to the Justice Ministry. Then, at the state level, there is the Military Police and the Civil Police. The latter work as state bureaus of investigation, being in charge of detective work and forensics, while the Military Police is a heavily armed gendarmerie whose members act as “beat cops,” focused on preventive policing.

Each state administration has its own military police force, and the individual corporations answer to the state governor. However, this is not to say that local administrations wield a great deal of power over their law enforcement divisions, as the relationship between governors and police troops is often fraught due to wage disputes. 

State administrations are often held hostage by military police lobbies, demanding higher wages while other public servants, such as teachers, are left waiting. In February, Minas Gerais Governor Romeu Zema caved under pressure and gave raises to the military police, delaying the salary payments of public school teachers.

President Bolsonaro has engaged in a number of Military Police photo ops since taking office. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR
President Bolsonaro has engaged in a number of Military Police photo ops since taking office. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Rafael Alcadipani, a member of the Brazilian Public Security Forum and a professor at think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas, emphasizes that, combined, Brazil’s 27 military police forces have more troops than the Army and more than any armed group in South America. 

“In Brazil, governors have always had great difficulty in exercising command over their police. The military police staff is immense, powerful; they have a monopoly on street control in Brazil. And that makes controlling the police a tough task. The police are also reluctant to external control.”

Not only are they a strong force, but they are also largely aligned with President Jair Bolsonaro — a proximity that is looked upon with distrust by state governors. According to newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, governors and state security chiefs are concerned the military police may turn into a parallel power in the states if the current crisis worsens. 

On Sunday, far-right Congressman Daniel Silveira shared a video on social media in which a military police officer asks a colleague to open fire on a pro-democracy banner. Later, Mr. Silveira — who is a close ally of President Bolsonaro’s — warned protesters that there are “many armed policemen at these demonstrations,” implying that they would be inclined to use violence against anti-fascist movements.

“The big question is: if [Mr.] Bolsonaro tries to launch a coup, how will the military police react?” says Mr. Alcadipani. “I think it will depend a lot on the occasion and the situation, and I don’t think the response will be unanimous. But my impression is that the police will tend to remain within constitutional laws.”

He adds that “more radical people” may try to use the military structure to support a potential coup d’etat, “but, I believe that would be quickly dealt with by the police themselves.”

Bolsonaro’s popularity in the barracks

Regardless, Mr. Alcadipani thinks it is possible to say police officers — or at least a section of them — are one of the pillars holding up the Jair Bolsonaro government. 

“The signs can be seen on social media. Several important Bolsonaro supporters are former policemen, and many of the government’s congressional allies have close ties to the military police. Many police officers still post their support of the president. And before the election, he held a lot of campaign acts inside military police barracks,” he argues.

Roxana Cavalcanti, a lecturer at the University of Brighton who works on projects related to issues of legitimacy and police violence in Brazil, says that there are dissonant voices within the police force. 

“When I did my research in Pernambuco [state], I identified military police officers who did not want to be in a militarized institution. There are groups of anti-fascist police. This diversity of opinion about militarization is likely to be replicated with regard to the Jair Bolsonaro government.”

Furthermore, the Military Police does not exist as a single entity — these are 27 different institutions with different police chiefs, making it virtually impossible to refer to them as a homogeneous force. Even inside the same corporation, there are differences.

The growing role of the Military Police in Bolsonaro's government
Jair Bolsonaro is popular among police officers. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Why support Bolsonaro?

Looking at Brazil, Ms. Cavalcanti sees the country’s police forces following global patterns. According to her, the police have “conservative tendencies” in many countries, which matches Mr. Bolsonaro’s government. At the same time, there is also much appeal for zero-tolerance crime policies within law enforcement ranks.

“Brazil is a country that suffers violence in many ways, with more than 60 thousand murders each year. The permanent fear tends to a punitive feeling. And this society of fear favors politicians with a hard-line message. Inside the police, I didn’t identify any generalized critical awareness concerning this punitory discourse,” she says.

Besides advocating for the police’s agenda, Jair Bolsonaro is also a consistent supporter of police activity. In a country with dangerously high levels of police violence, the president has proposed that police officers who kill people on duty should not be held liable for their actions.

“Police officers support Jair Bolsonaro for several reasons. The president defends the idea of tough policemen who kill criminals, and he has regularly defended police actions, which you rarely see any left-wing politicians doing,” says Mr. Alcadipani.[/restricted]


Why Black Lives Matter protests haven’t taken off in Brazil

The U.S. enters its ninth day of protests following the murder of George Floyd, a 47-year-old black man, by the hands of four Minneapolis police officers. The case sparked daily rallies against systemic racism and police brutality, in what has become the most widespread wave of protests the country has seen in half a century. The map below, courtesy of Al Jazeera, shows that Mr. Floyd’s killing also sparked solidarity protests in several other countries — from Europe, to the Middle East, to Oceania. But in Brazil, the wave of support was more like a drop in the ocean, with one single rally taking place in Rio de Janeiro over the weekend.


Brazil[restricted] has no shortage of cases just as disturbing as the killing of George Floyd. In September 2019, 8-year-old Agatha Félix was shot in the back by a bullet fired by the police. And just a few days ago, 14-year-old João Pedro died after the police shot over 80 times at the house he was playing in. Both incidents occurred in Rio de Janeiro.

Part of the problem is the fact that black and multiracial people in Brazil do not see themselves as a united ethnic group. 

In Brazil, race is self-determined — and until the 1991 census, whites represented the majority of Brazilians, amounting to 51 percent of the population. In 1976, when census researchers asked citizens to describe their own skin color without any options to choose from, they ended up with more than they bargained for. Between them, the thousands of Brazilians surveyed gave the researchers a list of 136 different colors, ranging from “coffee,” “cinnamon” and “honey” to “toasted,” “singed,” and even “wheat.”

That is the byproduct of a deliberate political will to “whiten” the country and marginalize the black and multiracial population. Public policies encouraged miscegenation, not as a way of integration, but rather to “improve the race.”

That has changed over the past three decades. in the 2010 census, for the first time ever, more than half of the population identified as either black or multiracial — 54 percent, to be exact. Credit is due to the struggles of the black civil rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, which paved the way for social gains such as racial quotas in public universities.

No shortage of reasons to protest

It is not only self-identification that is growing among black and multiracial Brazilians, these populations are also subjected to increasingly disproportionate levels of violence, often at the hands of law enforcement. A study by the Human Rights Ministry shows that a black or multiracial youth is murdered in Brazil every 23 seconds, meaning that, in the time it took you to read this paragraph, one young black or multiracial person was killed in the country.

A survey by the government’s Special Secretariat of Racial Equality Policies shows that 56 percent of Brazilian agree with the statement that “a violent death is less shocking when it is with a black or multiracial youngster as opposed to a young white person.”

Many such deaths, however, are the direct result of centuries of inequality in what was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. When Brazil finally did outlaw the practice in 1888, it did so without any compensation for the now emancipated black community, creating a destitute underclass in the country. Brazil’s structural racism has kept black and multiracial families cramped in favelas, where the state’s presence is almost non-existent.

In Brazil, racism was never defined by law, allowing the country to pretend that its profound social gaps were all economy-related — the truth is, black and multiracial people were never allowed to break certain barriers.

Black professionals earn 36 percent less than their white counterparts, according to data from the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socio-Economic Studies (Dieese). Another report, this time by Inter-American Development Bank and Brazilian Ethos Institute, showed that blacks are still the minority in the business market. Only 4.5 percent had reached positions on the board of directors among the 117 companies listed in the survey.

Still, the protests that have started to erupt in Brazil are focused more on politics than race. Indignation against violence on black and multiracial people remains mostly circumscript to these communities, struggling to be recognized as a society-wide issue.[/restricted]