Brazil’s vigilante violence

As the world’s seventh wealthiest economy plays host to new forms of ‘vigilante violence’, an increasingly militarised rhetoric seeks salvation in deeper police repression.

Pedro Leal
28 July 2014
Military operation in Favela do Lins, Rio de Janeiro

Military operation in Favela do Lins, Rio de Janeiro. Demotix/Gustavo Oliveira. All rights reserved.

In May of this year, the Morrinhos community in the city of Guarujá was taken by violence. Incensed by online rumours of kidnappings and black magic rituals, locals confronted what they saw as their nemesis. They dealt with her swiftly and brutally. The victim was Fabiane Maria de Jesus, a 33-year-old housewife, heading back to church to recover a misplaced bible. She was tortured for two hours before dying in hospital. “I also have kids. I thought it was true”, claimed Valmir Dias Barbosa, a local resident and participant in the lynching. They were yelling 'beat her, get her, get her!”, he told police authorities.

This is yet another statistic in Brazil’s wave of vigilante justice cases. While not unheard of in previous years - the period between 1980 and 2006 witnessed a total of 1179 lynchings – ‘mob justice’ has surged this year. Between  February and the first week of May  alone, there have been 37 lynchings in Brazil, according to the Order of Attorneys of Brazil. In the last three years the number of attempted lynchings have gone from three per week to almost two per day. De Jesus’ death exposes a paradox in the rising power. How can an ambitious nation such as Brazil – host to two major sporting events, in 2014 and 2016 – aim for global recognition when it also stages such savage displays of violence?

For University of São Paulo researcher Ariadne Natal, the very practice of lynching - so associated with vigilante violence – goes beyond the mere punishment. The intention is to stretch violence to an extreme position such that it demonstrates severe discontent with the state. “So it is not enough to kill. You must expose the body,” she observes.

Police pacification

The rash of vigilante violence has been related to a sentiment of failing justice. And the logical corollary to this is a solution via ‘stronger’ law: the reduction of penal maturity, application of the death penalty and endorsement of police force. The rhetoric of right-wing congressman Jair Messias Bolsonaro falls into this camp. In statements to the Brasil Post, Bolsonaro has gone as far as describing the favelas – concentrated spaces of violence – as sites immune from criminality, “because there you get the death penalty.”

Strengthening the arm of the police seems contradictory when, in the city of  São Paulo alone, the authorities kill an average of three suspects each day. ‘Pacification’ operations in the favelas are marked by violent repression, abuse of authority and legal anomalies such as collective search warrants. Meanwhile the country maintains the world's third largest prison population of around 715,000. According to Cynthia Pinto da Luz, who heads up the Human Rights Commission of the Joinville Bar Association, the law enforcement mechanisms in Brazil do not serve the population: “We see a public safety policy, in all levels of the Federation, based solely in repression and acquisition of patrol vehicles and weaponry, neglecting the real causes of violence”. In 2012 the UN Human Rights Council recommended that Brazil disband its military police, raising concerns over “extra-judicial executions” and police “death squads”.

Da Luz links this behaviour back to the repressive mentality of the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 – a period in which torture and executions became commonplace: “The same mechanisms that oppressed us in the past are seen as a reference for some of those who make ‘justice with their own hands’ as a means to solve their problems.”

Naturalizing a discourse of banditry

The naturalization of Brazil’s brand of vigilante violence is rooted in the particular stigmas that abound in the discourse of crime, much as Victor Hugo’s tragic protagonist Jean Valjean in Les Miserábles is persecuted as a dangerous criminal for stealing a loaf of bread. Racial and social prejudice freely mingle, and both are all that are needed for ‘proof’ of ‘banditry’.

The ‘bandit’ label swiftly transforms the small-time thief into the serial criminal. Earlier this year, a vigilante group seized a 15-year-old boy, suspected of theft, stripped him naked and tied him to a lamppost in Rio de Janeiro. Sistema Brasileiro de Televisão news anchor Rachel Scheherazade characterised their actions as a form of legitimate self-defence.

Brazilian news outlets are far from innocent in the rise of vigilantism. They inculcate a simplistic and binary mode of categorising crime as inborn which veils the ways in which low-income communities are neglected. With little in terms of healthcare, public education, sanitation services and even basic infrastructure, the sole presense of the state in many a favela, occupation area or poor neighbourhood often resides in police brutality. This is fertile ground for parallel states and vigilante militias.

Brazil remains torn on how to deal with lynchings just as it is torn on how to deal with crime in general. Either it strengthens the same crime-fighting policies that led to this current state – policies that do little to fight the causes of violence – in order to beat crime into submission, or it needs to undergo severe changes in policy and culture to curtail the escalation of violence.  

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