The Historical Public Security Debate in Rio de Janeiro: Hunted Humans Vs. Security of Rights [OPINION]

A New Narrative, the Same Politics: Brazil's Colonial Order Maintained Through 'Killable' Black Youth

In Rio de Janeiro, the most "effective public policy" has always been the production of shootings, panic, illness, and deaths in peripheral territories. Photo: Lucas Martins
In Rio de Janeiro, the most “effective public policy” has always been the production of shootings, panic, illness, and deaths in peripheral territories. Photo: Lucas Martins

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For the original opinion piece written by Guilherme Pimentel and published in Brasil de Fato on April 18, 2024, click here.

On the day I write this article, there are police operations unfolding in several favelas in Rio de Janeiro. In Complexo da Maré, families are trapped at home, people are being shot and killed, children are out of school, adults are out of work, the elderly are left without medical appointments, homes are invaded, and property is stolen and destroyed. The worst part is knowing that the city won’t be safer after these operations. On the contrary, as we’ve seen in recent decades, we can be sure there will be new police operations like these tomorrow, making it even riskier to live in Rio de Janeiro.

They call this ‘public security,’ but it’s actually simply the historical continuity of the slave-holding, colonial project. Take a closer look: prisons are like the old slave quarters. The [police] operations are nothing other than human hunts. The morgues are no different from those during the colonial period, nor are the spaces of power.”

Tomorrow, crime in the favelas where the police are currently operating will go on as usual, lining the pockets of public officials and members of the colonial elite. In Rio de Janeiro, the most effective “public policy” has always been the production of shootings, panic, illness, and deaths in peripheral territories. It’s part of domination in an extremely unequal society.

In a colonized country like ours, violence has been produced by the State to generate wealth since 1500, across various layers. In recent decades, this production has been modernized, reaching unprecedented scales. There is an unfailing logistics of distribution of weapons and ammunition, recruitment of youth, and ideological indoctrination of a “killable” labor force to maintain the enrichment of those who profit from violence.

“Lucrative economic activities are kept under the guise of illegality so that their profits can be used to buy military equipment and pay bribes, the so-called ‘arregos.’ Thus, the wealth produced at the cost of the bloodshed of the Brazilian people remains increasingly concentrated with the colonial elites and their State operators.”

Produced by this logistics, heavily armed gangs in the favelas create the “perfect” image of “society’s public enemies,” the culprits for violence. They are mostly Black youth with little schooling—now labeled as drug lords and crime faction leaders, but who in other periods in the country’s history were the vagrants, capoeiristas and tricksters… Their attire may change throughout history, but their profiles do not.

“The narrative modernizes itself, but the politics remain the same: killing in the peripheries to maintain colonial order under social and economic control, placing the people under the sway of guilt, fear, and punishment.”

Police operations to kill in favelas are not a mere “mistake” on the part of State leaders. On the contrary, they have been an efficient way to concretize this domination. Their goal is not to end gangs and violence, but rather to maintain the legitimizing scenario of ongoing killing, continue sabotaging the social and economic development of poor Brazilians, and most importantly: to continue profiting from the sale of weapons and ammunition, as well as from the payment of bribes and kickbacks to politicians and public officials.

In order to advance in the liberation of the Brazilian people, we must put an end to this type of police operation. It is not acceptable under any circumstances to put entire populations at risk, to kill people, to torture prisoners, to make survivors sick, to interrupt public services, to violate social rights, and to sabotage the daily lives of poor families. The right to security is only of interest to us if it guarantees the security of rights. Anything different from that is a violation, colonization, and enslavement of a people who no longer want to bow their heads to this archaic elite and its vassals.

About the Author: Guilherme Pimentel is an attorney and human rights defender. He served as Ombudsman of Rio de Janeiro’s Public Defender’s Office from 2020-2023, National Coordinator of Criminal Policy of Ombudsman Offices, and President of the National Council of Ombudsman Offices of the Public Defenders of Brazil.

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