‘An anachronic system’: focus on military police reform after Brazil riot

The mob attack on Brazil’s supreme court, congress and presidential palace earlier this month has focused attention on the country’s military police, with calls for the force to be reformed growing amid what experts say could be a “window of opportunity” for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Thousands of far-right radicals supportive of former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed the presidential palace, the congress building and the supreme court on 8 January.

The intention, many political analysts believe, was to create a sense of chaos and disorder that would allow for far-right forces – possibly with the support of Brazil’s armed forces – to depose Lula.

During the assault, the capital’s military police stood by, allowing the mob to ransack the seats of power, and it was only when Lula stripped them of their command several hours into the insurrection that federal forces regained control of the situation.

“I am convinced that the door to the [presidential] palace was opened so these people could get in because I didn’t see the front door had been broken down,” Lula told reporters last week. “And that means that somebody facilitated their entry in here.”

Officers at the supreme federal court in Brasília on 8 January.
Officers at the supreme federal court in Brasília on 8 January. Photograph: Andre Borges/EPA

Almost two-thirds of Brazilians believe the capital police did not do their duty, according to a poll by Datafolha. Both the governor and chief of police were removed from their posts and about 82% of those polled said Lula was right to order a federal intervention.

Those numbers provide the leftist president, who beat Bolsonaro in an October election and took office on 1 January, with an opportunity to debate reforms, said Benedito Mariano, a former ombudsman for the São Paulo military police.

Mariano said military police are poorly paid and do not feel valued. Their military codes and mindset mean they are more used to fighting enemies than protecting citizens. Working conditions are often rough and mental health is a serious issue.

An overhaul is long overdue, he said.

“This is an anachronic system built in an authoritarian era and reform has to be on the political agenda,” he said.

Policing in Brazil is shared by different bodies. The military police are in charge of prevention and the civil police oversee investigation. Both fall under the jurisdiction of Brazil’s 27 state governors.

Cooperation between the forces is not always exemplary.

Because policing is a state responsibility, most presidents have been reluctant to interfere.

Bolsonaro, though, is a former army captain who speaks the language of the barracks and packed his government with high-ranking officers. He also won support from those in uniform when he reformed the pension system to benefit officers in both the police and military.

That helped lead to an increase in the number of pro-Bolsonaro radicals in police ranks. Almost half of all military police officers (48%) engaged with far-right groups or figures online, according to a study published last year by the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety. That number jumped by a fifth between 2020 and 2021.

“Deep down we have an institution that is permeated by Bolsonarista ideology that accepts a democratic rupture in the name of a far-right project,” said the forum’s president, Renato Sérgio de Lima.

What Lula plans to do is still unclear but the insurrection means the issue is now front and centre, said Melina Risso, a research director at the Igarapé Institute.

In one promising sign, Lula reached out to Brazil’s state governors immediately after the attack, prompting hopes a collaborative approach may prevail.

“There is a window of opportunity, this is now on everybody’s radar,” Risso said. “It all depends on political will and their ability to negotiate with congress. Passing legislation to reform the police is no more difficult than passing legislation to reform the tax code. It’s complicated but it is a question of priorities.”

The Guardian

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