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Up in arms

Astrid Prange / db
June 19, 2013

More than 240,000 people rallied in major Brazilian cities against corruption and the huge costs of hosting the 2014 World Cup. Riot police reacted with extreme violence.

A riot police officer holds a weapon during clashes in Rio de Janeiro s AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE SIMON (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrators in Sao Paulo, Rio, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia and Porto Alegre on Monday night (17.06.2013) vented their anger at the military police that had fired tear gas and rubber bullets in violent clashes with protesters just a few days ago.

"The police should never have used rubber bullets and tear gas on sensitive body parts such as eyes and the face," left-wing congressman Adriano Diogo said. His comment did not go unnoticed: on Monday, riot police did not resort to heavily armed special task forces. All the same, the police force's line of action highlights the controversial role of the military police in Brazilian society.

A police officer uses pepper spray on demonstrators REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Police used pepper spray on demonstratorsImage: Reuters

Diogo, who also heads the Truth Commission in Sao Paulo, says there is no debate about democratic reforms in the police. "We are a far cry from that." Instead, there is a desire to clamp down on criminals by lowering the criminal responsibility age and detaining drug addicts, he told DW. "If people in the suburbs are killed by death squads or militia, that means Brazilian legislation - that does not allow the death penalty - is violated," the parliamentarian days.

Clampdown instead of reform

Five separate police units are responsible for maintaining law and order in Brazil: federal police, highway and railroad police, patrol officers and military police - the latter includes the fire department. The military police was assigned to the Brazilian armed forces in 1967, three years after the military coup, with the task of pursuing political resistance fighters. Today, the military police are responsible for traffic controls and fighting crime. Each of the country's 27 federal states has its own military police that answers to the respective governor.

Police killings

Brazil's military police is notorious for its brutality. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), 372 people died in clashes with the police in the state of Rio de Janeiro in the first six months of 2011: 252 people were killed in the state of Sao Paulo. Last year, the UN Human Rights Council admonished the Brazilian government to dissolve the military police and increase the fight against the death squads in the country


Protesters with Brazilian flag Marcello Casal Jr/ABr
Protesting lavish government spendingImage: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr

It is not a new phenomenon. The world was shocked when in April 1996, military police shot dead 25 people at a protest march by landless workers in the Amazon region. On October 2, 1992, military police were called to quell a revolt in Carandiru penitentiary in Sao Paulo. They stormed the building and executed 111 prisoners. Earlier this year, a court sentenced 23 police officers to jail for their role in the massacre.

Political failure

"Brazilian society has changed a lot more than 20 years after the end of the military dictatorship, but there have been no structural changes within the military police," says Pedro Rodolfo Bode. Social movements and large parts of society struggle against the violence, the sociology professor at the Paraná University Center for Public Security and Human Rights says. "We must invest in demilitarization and combine regular patrol officers and military police, instead of the two units working apart and as rivals," Rodolfo, also a member of the Commission for Preventive Custody of the Brazilian Lawyers Association (OAB), argues.

In the 1990s, Brazilian parliamentarian and human rights activist Hélio Bicudo tried to join the separate police units. The Brazilian Congress has yet to agree to his suggestion to at least abolish military jurisdiction, submitting military police to civil jurisdiction should they break the law.

"Those are Brazil's contradictions," Adriano Diogo says. "The people vote for a leftist progressive government, but the right wing still has a strong political influence." The parliamentarian admits the ruling PT Workers' Party has not managed to tackle police reforms since it launched its government coalition government in 2003.

Security expert Antonio Flavio Testa holds politics partly responsible for police brutality. "The Carandiru massacre took place under civilian command," the politics professor at Brasilia University says. In practice, public security policies determine the military police's behavior, which in turn should be consistent with democratic principles, Testa says. "Extreme violence is unacceptable, but it exists."