Public Security, Identity, and Democracy in Brazil: Interview with Ilona Szabó

Public Security, Identity, and Democracy in Brazil: Interview with Ilona Szabó

. 8 min read

Ilona Szabó de Carvalho is the co-founder and executive director of the Igarapé Institute, which focuses on drug policy and citizen security throughout Latin America.

What was the state of Brazil's criminal justice system before Bolsonaro’s election?

This is an area that did not really democratize after the end of our dictatorship in the mid-1980s. I say this because the population still sees public security and criminal justice as something far from their domain in a way that they could interact. This has immense consequences, not only when you think about the amazingly excessive numbers of homicides in the country. Brazil has had the highest absolute numbers of homicides for many, many years. Brazil has the third-largest prison population in the world after the United States and China. We also have a very high number of police killings at 5,800 a year. For comparison, the United States, which already has a very high number for a developed country, has roughly 1,000 police killings per year.

In Brazil, the idea that we have first-class and second-class citizens is a legacy of colonization: look at the way indigenous people were dealt with by the Portuguese. Then, they laid slavery. We were the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. In recent years, the dictatorship didn’t do the best job in terms of showing the population the importance of a fair, agile, and efficient public security and criminal justice system.

One of my colleagues recently wrote an article pointing out that Brazil has one of the most militarized police systems in the world. I thought that was really interesting; is that a legacy of the military dictatorship?

Our police system is very unusual because we have two police systems. The main police that we see every day is the state's responsibility. Each governor is responsible for two police. One is the military police, the other one is the civil police. One does the patrolling (and more repression along with it), and the other one investigates and submits evidence to the judiciary. That is something very complex because both have their own needs, but also the way they're trained makes it much more difficult to cooperate. We have a complex and inefficient model of policing.

When you look at the relationship to the other bodies of the criminal justice system, I would say there is a lot to be improved in terms of shared responsibility. Because of the dictatorship, the constitution specifies that the military police will be this reserve arm for the army in case of an emergency moment. Soldiers are trained for war, so the army is very different from the police. I can’t say the military dictatorship is the reason, because I think there are many other reasons, but I think this ethos of having to fight an enemy, not protecting the population, is still present in the unwritten rules and in the culture of several military police forces. Of course, this affects recruitment. This affects the way they see their own role in society. This affects the relationship between citizens and police and the police’s acceptance of excessive use of force.

You mentioned in your first answer that there are a lot of racial legacies from the past in Brazil's policing system. How do those play out in today's world?

I think it's important to say that the issue of race in Brazil is different than in the United States. Until very recently, we always dealt with inequalities within the social level, as if racism was not there. I never agreed with that, but I'm just saying that many people don't see that attitudes, behaviors, or prejudices are even there. There's much more of a day-to-day conversation in Brazil about police violence, but I think the case in the West also allowed for a much more open and honest conversation to say, “We have to be much more intentional about the race issue here in terms of inclusion and to admit that there is a big problem.”

In that sense, I wouldn't say that race is only a problem for the police. I think it's a problem for the whole society, and for many policemen, it's also part of this structural condition. You're not using more force or conducting more arrests on purpose, but because the whole society has a stereotype about the role of the black population vis-a-vis the criminal system, we actually end up tolerating that there are more black people killed, more black people in prison, more black people unemployed, and less black people in leadership positions. Just to be fair to the police, most of them also come from poor backgrounds, and if society did not support the way they operate, I think it would be different. If you think about leadership today, many governors and even the president were elected with a discourse that criminals should be killed, in horrific language. I'm just summarizing this broadly here, but they were using the worst metaphors.

If we want the police to change, society has to change, I guarantee. From my experience working with the police for a long time, if you have good leadership, if you have role models that don't condone abuses, the corporation responds much better. But when you have leadership that promotes this kind of prejudicial and nondemocratic behavior, totally out of the rule of law, that condones the abuse of force, we are in trouble because this unleashes the worst that we have as a society to deal with.

On that point, I remember reading about a manifesto saying that there is no democracy in Brazil unless we have racial justice. Was there anything in that manifesto that included changes in the criminal justice system?

At the moment, these manifestos are important, but I think we need to gather with a united agenda. Many times, we end up asking for things that may not solve the issues. For example, in the discussion around demilitarizing the police, things like having the appropriate kind of guns or the appropriate training are absolutely necessary. However, demilitarizing the military police will not solve the issue, because the civil police and the judiciary may still be biased on the issues of race and social class. The conversation has to be much broader.

At the same time, the moment is ripe for the union of efforts between the people that are arguing for criminal justice reform with the movements demanding race equality. I think there's a lot to be gained from this if we can unite, especially in advocating for reform that will profoundly change the status quo, not just solving the most visible problems. These manifestos are demanding police accountability, which is absolutely necessary and something we have to fight for, but for that to be able to happen, we need to start from recruitment, training, and talking to society about how important these things are.

I think the Floyd protests really brought the possibility of discussing these issues. There are people killed every day, including kids killed by stray bullets in the middle of fights between police and drug traffickers, but we don't see the same outrage every day. Unless we can really stop having a justice system that sees people through different lenses or different classifications for different rights, we will not be a country that we want to be. In my view, the democratic transition of Brazil is yet to be consolidated in this issue of race or the roles that the criminal justice system will play, if it's for everybody or if it continues to be like us against them. These questions will determine the pathway of Brazil's democracy.

protester holding megaphone
Photo by Rogério S. / Unsplash

It’s a negative feedback loop. Today, we are a society with excessive criminality and very violent crime. Many people are victimized, which exposes the inability or the unwillingness of state institutions to provide security. This is a big rupture in our most basic social contract, that the state is supposed to protect us. In turn, this leads to a very negative political culture, where people wind up accepting extra judicial solutions or mano dura solutions. People want to be protected, so the end sometimes justifies the means, which is always too dangerous to be tolerated. We need to understand that the issue of security and criminal justice is crucial for the consolidation of democracy. To do that, we need to all agree that there are no shortcuts. If you condone excess violence, that violence could be used against anyone. It could be against you the next day. That really undermines the democratic state.

I don't think that this is something that everyone understands in Brazil because the elite has a mythology of security. “I have my armored cars, I have my gated community. My kids are very safe in this neighborhood.” In several senses, they prefer to live in bubbles than to fight for a safer country as a whole. The more we do this, the more we end up isolated, and the more that we build walls that will not end up protecting any of us. We have to include the people that are living in the most violent places because they're afraid. They’re actually hostages of this whole dynamic, and the next generations are caught in the legacies of violence.

Earlier, you brought up the question of politicians’ rhetoric and Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. Just from a cursory reading of the news regarding criminal justice in Brazil, he attempted to appoint a federal police chief who's in his family. He has attempted to influence police investigations at the state level to protect his family. What are the implications of this for the criminal justice system?

First, three of the president’s sons are under several kinds of investigations, from the electoral justice system for the abuse of economic power during the election to common crimes that include accusations of political interference in the federal police to crimes of responsibility. There are also dozens of different processes that could go through in these three different spheres against Bolsonaro, plus the processes against his sons. The major breach I saw in terms of trying to undermine democracy in Brazil was the accusation of political interference in the federal police because it's specifically the body that takes care of all affairs related to the crimes that he or his family could have committed. This is, of course, unacceptable. Thankfully, we are seeing a much stronger reaction in the last two months from the Supreme Court, from several state prosecutor's offices around the country, and also within the federal police.

We knew the government would be very challenging given the proposals that Bolsonaro was bringing since even before the campaign, as a group working on violence reduction and citizen security, but the speed and legislative dismantling of institutions surprised us, as well as the overwhelming amount of attacks you know the press, civil society, scientists. I'm just talking about a few issues here because it's quite widespread. Of course, it took time to understand what was rhetoric and what was actually being done in practice, but we had to organize themselves before being able to react. At this moment, I see a much more organized reaction in civil society, in the press, and in several institutions of the republic, but of course I'm not saying that we should relax because of that. I think it's more than time to advance, to make sure all these crimes are prosecuted. If they prove that they committed these crimes, they have to have consequences prescribed in the law, which are pretty serious.

I want to end the interview on a more positive note. I know that the Igarapé Institute has been working on a lot of pretty innovative solutions to solving these problems of police violence. What are some of those solutions, and what gives you the most hope out of those solutions?

The Igarapé Institute is a think and do tank. We develop new technologies to try to solve some of the problems that we detect, but we're also conveners of difficult discussions. When we talk about the criminal justice system, we really need to look for responsible leadership that can bring the country to a conversation. In this current moment, we have a very positive opportunity to advance policies for basic human rights that are based in equality for all.

The Igarapé Institute seeks to help with our data and our technology. For example, we’ve tested open source body cameras on mobile phones in the inner cities to try to diminish police violence, and to improve the relationship between citizens and police. We’re using crime prediction tools to try to avoid the generalized repression in Latin America and increase the effectiveness of police deployment, training, and protocols. In the end, we want our research and our convening power to help advance societies. I hope that what we’re going through now will open a new chapter in fostering democratic dialogue and awakening democratic leadership.

Cover image: Brazilian police at a roadblock. Credit Marilia Santos // Unsplash.