Notes From the Margins…

Jair Bolsonaro: Robocop in the Tropics

  • January 02, 2019
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Not many people outside Brazil will be familiar with the name Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra.   As commander at the Brazilian army’s Department of Information Operations, known as DOI-CODI, in São Paulo, from 1970 to 1974, the man known as ‘Colonel Ustra’ was one of the most notorious torturers under Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985.

Ustra introduced and oversaw a range of procedures against leftwing militants that included inserting rats in women’s vaginas and forcing young children to watch their parents being tortured.  One of the thousands of people tortured by the regime was the future president of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, then a member of an obscure urban guerrilla organization known as the National Liberation Command.

In 2015 Ustra died of cancer.  The following year Jair Bolsonaro, then a congressman, voted in favour of Rousseff’s impeachment, declaring  ‘In memory of Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Dilma Rousseff … I vote YES.’

Such crass viciousness is characteristic of a former army officer who has consistently praised the dictatorship, who revels in talk of blood and violence, and who once declared ‘I am in favor of torture — you know that. And the people are in favor of it, too.’

Bolsonaro is not just in favour of torture.   In a 1999 interview he claimed that elections were incapable of solving Brazil’s problems and that it was necessary for a future government to

do the job that the military regime didn’t do: killing 30,000. If some innocent people die, that’s fine. In every war, innocent people die. I will even be happy if I die as long as 30,000 others go with me.

There was a time when such views confined Bolsonaro to the political margins in a democratizing continent that seemed to be shifting leftwards,  and turning away from the murderous dictatorships that dominated Latin America during the Cold War.

As we have all learned to our cost these last few years, such shifts are not necessarily permanent, and the margins have now become mainstream.

Yesterday Bolsonaro was inaugurated president of the fourth largest democracy in the world, becoming yet another of the new breed of authoritarian ‘populist’ leaders who have come to power across the world in Europe, Turkey, the Philippines and the United States.

All these leaders share certain things in common, but each of them have emerged in a very specific national context.  Though Bolsonaro prattled on about Brazil’s ‘Judeo-Christian’ identity yesterday, it is clear that Brazilians voted for him out of more pressing concerns over corruption, economic stagnation and rampant criminality and insecurity, with 63,880 homicides in 2017 alone.

Bolsonaro’s solutions to these problems include the use of torture, allowing cops to kill with impunity, reinstating the death penalty and establishing vigilante groups.   This quasi-military response to Brazil’s drug problem places him closer to Rodrigo Duterte than Victor Orbán, but it also has grim precedents in the history of Brazil and Latin America.

It was in 1964 – the same year that the Brazilian military, with political support from the US, overthrew the left-leaning government of Joao Goulart – the first Latin American ‘death squads’ emerged in Sao Paulo, when the city’s militarized police began killing criminals who they believed had escaped justice.

By the time these groups became the ‘rogue cop’ model for  Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force in 1973, some of their leading members, such as the Sao Paulo policeman Sergio Fleury, had already begun to export their methods to neighbouring countries, providing expertise in extra-judicial killings and torture to military regimes in Argentina, Uruguay and other countries.

Bolsonaro was correct that the Brazilian dictatorship tortured more people than it killed, but Brazil was the seedbed for far more murderous regimes on the continent.  Even following Brazil’s democratic transition, Brazil’s police have tended to act like a paramilitary force in their confrontations with the country’s powerful drug gangs.

The Brazilian police already kill an incredible six people per day, most of whom are young black males from the favelas.  As the Brookings Foundation notes:

Brazil’s police are already notorious for being one of the world’s deadliest in the use of force. In many favelas, Brazil’s retired and current police officers operate illegal militias that extort and control local communities, murdering those who oppose them and engaging in warfare with Brazil’s highly-violent gangs and in social cleansing. Bolsonaro is simply threatening to turn the rest of the police into state-sanctioned thugs.

In effect Bolsonaro is embracing the methods celebrated in José Padilha’s film Elite Squad, whose fascistic glorification of the  Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE) or Special Police, made it the biggest earner in Brazilian cinema.

Now, it seems, the Brazilian electorate, has endorsed these methods.  If Bolsonaro stays true to his word, an-already violent police force will be given carte blanche to ‘solve’ Brazil’s problems by intensifying a drugs war that has already failed in country after country.

As in the Philippines, many people will die.  In Brazil most of them will be poor and black.

Brazilian society may draw some comfort from that for a while.  But problems rooted in structural inequalities, racism, and political and economic dysfunction cannot usually be solved with bullets and the torture chamber.

Societies that bring embrace such methods often find themselves suffocated and contaminated by them, as Brazil was in the 1960s,  and many Brazilians may find that it was easier to bring Robocop into power than it is to get rid of him.[amazon_link asins=’0226893944′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’mattc55-20′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=”][amazon_link asins=’B07CYRGM9H’ template=’ProductAd’ store=’mattc55-20′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’edd1a6c2-0e90-11e9-8a2b-478d7de98937′]

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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