With crime and violence on the rise across Brazil, security has become a major theme in the run-up to the October presidential election. But do any of the candidates have a solid plan to handle the issue?
The short answer is no. The presidential hopefuls have studiously avoided talking about the country’s most potent criminal threat, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). And most of their proposals for reducing violence and crime are either vague, infeasible or wrongheaded.
Below, InSight Crime breaks down the security platforms of the three most viable candidates.
The Firebrand: Jair Bolsonaro
Polls have consistently shown that former army paratrooper and current congressman Jair Bolsonaro is one of the top contenders for the presidency, despite his record of making racist, sexist and homophobic remarks, and defending the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the 1960s to the 1980s, in part because of what he claims were its successes in fighting crime.
Bolsonaro’s published platform advocates for “redirecting the policy of human rights, prioritizing the defense of victims of violence.”
In February, Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo, who also serves in Congress, presented a bill that would strengthen protections for members of the security forces accused of unlawful use of force. But as demonstrated in countries like El Salvador, giving virtually free reign to police to kill suspected criminals has a negative, rather than positive impact on security.
The candidate also supports lowering the age at which people can be criminally charged as an adult from 18 to 16, and favors increasing criminal penalties more broadly.
His platform uses the catchphrase, “Prender e deixar preso,” which loosely translated means, “Detain them and leave them in prison.” However, cramming more people into Brazil’s overcrowded penitentiary system will only provide more recruits for the gangs that dominate the prisons.
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In addition, Bolsonaro has long advocated reforming Brazil’s gun laws, which place tight restrictions on the private ownership of weapons.
“We have to give the right to own guns to everyone,” he told news outlet O Globo earlier this year. “There’s already a bang-bang in Brazil, but only one side can shoot.”
Contrary to Bolsonaro’s claims, there is no credible evidence that increased gun ownership rates improve security. In fact, firearms are used to commit the majority of deadly violence in Latin America. Putting more guns into the hands of citizens is likely to worsen the situation.
Perhaps Bolsonaro’s only proposal that could generate positive results is his call to “invest strongly in equipment, technology, intelligence and the investigative capacity of the police.” Still, Brazil has been suffering serious economic problems that have hindered the country’s ability to “invest strongly” in anything, and it’s not clear that prioritizing security over other sectors would be the best use of limited resources.
The Idealists: Lula/Fernando Haddad
The highly popular former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is technically the candidate of the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT), but he is likely to be kicked out of the race due to a corruption conviction. He is expected to throw his support behind his current running mate, former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad.
The security proposals in the platform published under Lula’s name, which Haddad also backs, are essentially the exact opposite of those advocated by Bolsonaro.
The platform urges prioritizing human rights and cautions against militarized security policies. It also advocates for improving controls on firearms.
In addition, the plan suggests decriminalizing drugs and bolstering programs to prevent drug use.
In a recent interview with El País, Haddad criticized the so-called war on drugs.
“We’re deluding people that we’re fighting something. We’re not fighting anything. We’re losing the war,” he said.
Still, the PT platform does promote continued efforts to address organized crime and the international drug trade, noting that drug trafficking money “fuels various spheres of the economy, provides access to weapons in large numbers that encourage lethal violence, and finances corruption and other criminal activities.”
The platform also points to the role that mass incarceration plays in aiding the activities of criminal organizations, and discusses the possibility of implementing alternatives to incarceration.
In addition, the plan advocates a greater degree of integration and coordination among federal, state and local authorities working on security issues. However, it is critical of a law passed earlier this year that set up an information-sharing and coordination system for various law enforcement agencies. The PT pledged to try to modify that legislation and also seek constitutional reforms along those lines.
While these proposals could hold some promise for addressing problems of crime and violence in Brazil, politics will likely prevent them from moving forward.
The once-powerful PT has been weakened by revelations of extensive corruption in the party, and a powerful conservative coalition known as the “beef, bullets and bible caucus” is sure to strongly resist these measures.
Even if a hypothetical PT government could scrape together the political support, the initiatives discussed above would require a large financial investment, which would be complicated by the previously mentioned economic problems.
The Establishment: Geraldo Alckmin
This is probably due to the fact that his platform, especially the security plank, consists largely of vague platitudes and policy proposals that appeal mainly to Brazil’s established political and economic elites.
One of Alckmin’s blandest ideas is “increasing judicial and police cooperation with neighboring countries,” a perennial favorite talking point for leaders across the region.
Alckmin also proposes to build more prisons in order to reduce severe overcrowding. However, he simultaneously vows to increase prison terms for minor crimes, which could counteract gains from building more facilities, since more inmates would be staying in the system for longer periods of time.
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There are further contradictions in Alckmin’s security plan. For example, he has claimed to be against Bolsonaro’s proposal to loosen gun laws.
“The way out isn’t to arm the population,” he told O Globo in April. “That only increases the general sense of insecurity.”
But earlier this month, Alckmin’s running mate told Bloomberg that the former São Paulo governor, if elected president, would seek to make it easier for rural workers to obtain firearms.
In addition, Alckmin has said that he wants to improve and standardize police training, including by creating a national police academy to train instructors.
At first glance, this sounds like a reasonable idea. But his preferred law enforcement strategy is slightly schizophrenic.
On one hand, Alckmin has voiced support for a type of “hot spot” policing, which involves targeting law enforcement resources on high-crime areas. This type of policy has proven effective in certain cases in the past.
However, the candidate has also promoted a “broken windows” approach, based on the dubious theory that cracking down on minor crimes will discourage individuals from committing more serious offenses. This strategy has shown little long-term success in Latin America, and has come with plenty of drawbacks, particularly when it comes to human rights.
Perhaps more unsettling is Alckmin’s call for a back-door militarization of citizen security efforts via the creation of a “national guard” staffed by ex-soldiers working out of military barracks in coordination with civilian police.
Calling on the military when the security situation takes a downturn has been a popular move in the past — not just in Brazil, but across Latin America. However, history has shown that the strategy holds little promise for generating sustainable improvements, and in fact, can often exacerbate problems with crime and violence in the long run.