How Brazil’s Military Police became a key supporter of Jair Bolsonaro

. Jun 04, 2020
brazilian police bolsonaro Bolsonaro attends 2019 graduation of São Paulo police cadets. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR

This past Sunday, in one of his now weekly public appearances, President Jair Bolsonaro rode out to meet his supporters in Brasilia on horseback, borrowing a trusty steed from the military police department of the Federal District. Around the same time, military police counterparts in São Paulo were launching tear gas canisters and flash bombs at a group of anti-fascist demonstrators on Avenida Paulista, in the city center.

Since March, with the implementation of Covid-19 isolation measures across the country, the president and his supporters have held public street protests every Sunday to urge people to get back to work and call for the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. Last weekend’s anti-Bolsonaro demonstration, however, was the first to be repressed by the police.

</p> <p>This is no coincidence, as President Bolsonaro has built up a faithful following within Brazil&#8217;s law enforcement ranks after years of representing police officers&#8217; agenda in Congress. During the 2018 campaign, he was regularly seen visiting Military Police barracks, taking photos with officers, and claiming their support.</p> <p>The sitting administration is already <a href="">heavily militarized</a>. The number of non-civilian government officials currently hovers around 3,000 — even military dictatorship administrations included fewer representatives of the Armed Forces.</p> <p>The military&#8217;s proximity to power under President Jair Bolsonaro has raised a number of concerns in a region where the Armed Forces remain major power brokers. Now, these same questions can be asked of the police&#8217;s role in the Bolsonaro administration.</p> <h2>Who polices the Military Police?</h2> <p>Brazil has four main institutions of law enforcement: first, there is the Federal Police and Federal Highway Police, which are subordinate to the Justice Ministry. Then, at the state level, there is the Military Police and the Civil Police. The latter work as state bureaus of investigation, being in charge of detective work and forensics, while the Military Police is a heavily armed gendarmerie whose members act as &#8220;beat cops,&#8221; focused on preventive policing.</p> <p>Each state administration has its own military police force, and the individual corporations answer to the state governor. However, this is not to say that local administrations wield a great deal of power over their law enforcement divisions, as the relationship between governors and police troops is often fraught due to wage disputes.&nbsp;</p> <p>State administrations are often held hostage by military police lobbies, demanding higher wages while other public servants, such as teachers, are left waiting. In February, Minas Gerais Governor Romeu Zema caved under pressure and <a href="">gave raises</a> to the military police, delaying the salary payments of public school teachers.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="660" height="400" src="" alt="President Bolsonaro has engaged in a number of Military Police photo ops since taking office. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR" class="wp-image-41573" srcset=" 660w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 660px) 100vw, 660px" /><figcaption>President Bolsonaro has engaged in a number of Military Police photo ops since taking office. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR</figcaption></figure> <p>Rafael Alcadipani, a member of the Brazilian Public Security Forum and a professor at think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas, emphasizes that, combined, Brazil&#8217;s 27 military police forces have more troops than the Army and more than any armed group in South America.&nbsp;</p> <p>“In Brazil, governors have always had great difficulty in exercising command over their police. The military police staff is immense, powerful; they have a monopoly on street control in Brazil. And that makes controlling the police a tough task. The police are also reluctant to external control.”</p> <p>Not only are they a strong force, but they are also largely aligned with President Jair Bolsonaro — a proximity that is looked upon with distrust by state governors. According to newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, governors and state security chiefs are concerned the military police may turn into a parallel power in the states if the current crisis worsens.&nbsp;</p> <p>On Sunday, far-right Congressman Daniel Silveira shared a video on social media in which a military police officer asks a colleague to open fire on a pro-democracy banner. Later, Mr. Silveira — who is a close ally of President Bolsonaro&#8217;s — warned protesters that there are &#8220;many armed policemen at these demonstrations,” implying that they would be inclined to use violence against anti-fascist movements.</p> <p>“The big question is: if [Mr.] Bolsonaro tries to launch a coup, how will the military police react?&#8221; says Mr. Alcadipani. &#8220;I think it will depend a lot on the occasion and the situation, and I don’t think the response will be unanimous. But my impression is that the police will tend to remain within constitutional laws.”</p> <p>He adds that “more radical people” may try to use the military structure to support a potential coup d&#8217;etat, “but, I believe that would be quickly dealt with by the police themselves.”</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-4027238"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Bolsonaro&#8217;s popularity in the barracks</h2> <p>Regardless, Mr. Alcadipani thinks it is possible to say police officers — or at least a section of them — are one of the pillars holding up the Jair Bolsonaro government.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The signs can be seen on social media. Several important Bolsonaro supporters are former policemen, and many of the government&#8217;s congressional allies have close ties to the military police. Many police officers still post their support of the president. And before the election, he held a lot of campaign acts inside military police barracks,” he argues.</p> <p>Roxana Cavalcanti, a lecturer at the University of Brighton who works on projects related to issues of legitimacy and police violence in Brazil, says that there are dissonant voices within the police force.&nbsp;</p> <p>“When I did my research in Pernambuco [state], I identified military police officers who did not want to be in a militarized institution. There are groups of anti-fascist police. This diversity of opinion about militarization is likely to be replicated with regard to the Jair Bolsonaro government.”</p> <p>Furthermore, the Military Police does not exist as a single entity — these are 27 different institutions with different police chiefs, making it virtually impossible to refer to them as a homogeneous force. Even inside the same corporation, there are differences.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="660" height="400" src="" alt="The growing role of the Military Police in Bolsonaro's government" class="wp-image-41572" srcset=" 660w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 660px) 100vw, 660px" /><figcaption>Jair Bolsonaro is popular among police officers. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR</figcaption></figure> <h2>Why support Bolsonaro?</h2> <p>Looking at Brazil, Ms. Cavalcanti sees the country&#8217;s police forces following global patterns. According to her, the police have “conservative tendencies” in many countries, which matches Mr. Bolsonaro’s government. At the same time, there is also much appeal for zero-tolerance crime policies within law enforcement ranks.</p> <p>“Brazil is a country that suffers violence in many ways, with more than 60 thousand murders each year. The permanent fear tends to a punitive feeling. And this society of fear favors politicians with a hard-line message. Inside the police, I didn&#8217;t identify any generalized critical awareness concerning this punitory discourse,” she says.</p> <p>Besides advocating for the police&#8217;s agenda, Jair Bolsonaro is also a consistent supporter of police activity. In a country with dangerously <a href="">high levels of police violence</a>, the president has proposed that police officers who kill people on duty should not be held liable for their actions.</p> <p>“Police officers support Jair Bolsonaro for several reasons. The president defends the idea of tough policemen who kill criminals, and he has regularly defended police actions, which you rarely see any left-wing politicians doing,&#8221; says Mr. Alcadipani.

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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