Police Brutality: Brazilian Style

by Dan Aspan*
Special to iVoryTowerz

This week, police killed ten people suspected to be part of a drug trafficking operation in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. This Brazilian violence, which may come as a surprise to outsiders, is not considered abnormal. After all, most slum invasions by Brazilian police result in bloodshed and death. It is interesting to consider the differences of street gang-police relations in Brazil and the United States. Anyone who is a fan of the American television show The Wire (from HBO) has a general idea of how street life exists in the U.S. That show is quite effective in its depiction of the street mentality: don’t snitch on your people, keep a low profile, and act cool when the police show up. The code which exhibits the biggest difference between U.S. culture and Brazilian culture is the last one, the relationship between people on the street and the police.

In America, street people (gang members, drug dealers, etc.) treat the police with caution. They understand that the police will usually only come after them with probable cause. Although police may want to arrest every street person they see whom they believe to be a criminal, police officers are prevented under American law from doing so. As a result, the street mentality is to manipulate the law and keep police from using (or abusing) their power. Along with this idea is the cardinal rule for dealing with police: do not use violence unless there is absolutely no other alternative. Many times, if a street person attacks, wounds, or kills a cop, that person is expendable to his/her gang or street group. Street people have developed this attitude toward the police for the major reason that engaging in a direct attack against police will give the police a reason to go on the offensive. American police have developed a reputation for working restlessly until they find the culprit who has harmed or killed one of their own. Attacking a cop also connects the guilty party with their respective street group. It’s bad for street business, and it causes all sorts of problems for making a profitable street living. This relationship is very well depicted and explained in greater detail in the HBO series (particularly Season 1 of The Wire).

In Brazil, it’s a different story. If you want cultural evidence, watch a few episodes of The Wire, and then watch the movie City of God (Cidade de Deus in Portuguese). This Brazilian film (subtitles in English) chronicles the life of a crime boss living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. (In addition to shedding light on the difference between Brazilian street culture and American street culture, it will leave you with a good idea of how the real events of this week's police shootout might have gone down in Rio.) The movie is incredibly intense and it gives you an idea of the no-holds-barred nature of police-street relations in Brazil. Police only enter the slums when they have strength in numbers and a concrete plan of action. The reason for this is the fundamental difference between American street culture and Brazilian street culture. In Brazil, the only protection the street people have against police is firepower. If the police come into a Brazilian slum, they are looking for a specific target or group of targets, and they are most likely going to fight with that group to the death, or until enough people have died to arrest the remaining suspects.

Police in Brazil kill an average of three people per day in Rio de Janeiro alone, according to the United Nations. That is an astounding figure that speaks volumes about the violent relationship that exists between street people and police in Brazil. Unfortunately, this week's shooting in Rio serves as the rule, not an exception. Although violence by and against police is not unheard of in America, citizens of the United States should be grateful for the nature of conflict between police and the street here. Even the most violent neighborhoods in the U.S. do not compare to the type of mayhem that slum neighborhoods in other parts of the world experience every day.

*Dan Aspan is the producer of Latinocast, a weekly podcast about Latin America.

(The graphic is from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)

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Rick Rockwell said...

Extrajudicial killings by members of the police and military remain an important issue, especially in Latin America. I feel obligated to reframe this a bit, because unfortunately this comes off as a glib cultural explanation to this problem. It is not simply a matter of firepower or the culture of using snitches. And although The Wire was a fine series, it doesn’t give the full reality of the problem, especially when considering the Latin American context. Sanctioning such killings of drug dealers is partially how countries view the easy solution to such violent problems. In a democracy, we have framed the state response as one of raising the level of justice to consider human rights and delivering a penalty that does not always mean an eye for an eye. This means that when the citizenry is terrified by groups such as drug cartels and terrorists that the mechanisms of democracy should not yield to the base instincts of sanctioning the murders of those who society may see as obviously guilty. Street justice is not part of the democratic system. Sure, it is quick and easy. And rather fascist.

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