Is Brazil’s Military Police Training Too Brutal?

Military police officers in Brazil are critical of their training regimen, in which physical, psychological, and disciplinary abuses committed by their superiors are commonplace. 

“Hey, hey, you bug. You’re a donkey, you’re fat!”

Ex-soldier Darlan Menezes Abrantes imitates the voices of the officers that instructed him when he entered the military police academy in the northeastern state of Ceara in February 2001.

“Sometimes, it was lunchtime and my superiors would shout at me that I was a monster, a parasite,” Darlan explains. “It was as if they were training a dog. A soldier is trained to only be afraid of his superiors. The training was just meant to mess with your feelings, so that you leave the barracks as a pit bull, wanting to bite someone.”

“How am I going to serve society being trained like that? It’s ridiculous,” he adds. “Police have to learn quick thinking, the ability to make decisions. But right now they train police as they would a dog for a street fight.”

This article originally appeared in Agencia Publica and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See the original here.

Without a trace of nostalgia, Darlan remembers the last seven months of training in the now-defunct academy for military police in Ceara. “Whenever a professor was absent, we were forced to clean the whole barracks,” he says. “It’s worse: whoever complained could be stuck doing it for the whole weekend. In the military, the hierarchy is placed above all else. It is a feudal system; there are officers that can do anything and there are soldiers who have to just bow their heads. You are only trained to be afraid of the officers, that’s it. A soldier who sees an officer, even from far off, trembles with fear.”

Bullying is the rule rather than the exception when training military police officers. Courses are concerned with imprinting the military culture on the future soldiers, with little theoretical teaching on topics such as criminal law or human rights. These are the conclusions of a recent study“Opinion of Brazilian Police on Reforms and Modernization of Public Security,” published in 2014 by the Center of Applied Judicial Research (CPJA).

Over 21,000 public security personnel from various federal agencies were interviewed, over half of whom were military police, and most of these officers were “praças” (low-ranking officers).


“Imagine a professor that can’t talk about education or a doctor who can’t talk about health. In many states, a police officer can’t talk about public security.”


Of these officers, 83 percent said they received a full year of training before beginning work; 39 percent said they were victims of physical or psychological torture during training; 64.4 percent stated they had been humiliated or disrespected by superiors.

Despite these alarming figures, the topic of fear is rarely discussed either within or outside of the barracks. In various Brazilian states, the internal rules of the military police expressly prohibit offcers from talking about their profession. Officers also say they have little opportunity to report violations — the closed-off nature of the military hierarchy provides little space for complaints or criticism on training practices. This is despite the fact that these complaints are based on human rights violations.

Lessons From Torture

The institutionalization of human rights violations within the military police during training has a direct impact on how police interact with the general population. An account by the State of Sao Paulo Truth Commission offers a telling example. During testimony before the commission in November 2013, sociologist and ex-secretary of public security in Rio de Janeiro state, Luiz Eduardo Soares, said: “The military police elite squad in Rio [known as BOPE] offered classes in torture until 2006, 2006! Classes in torture! I am not just referring to ideological whims… we are talking about institutional procedures.”

It was within this context that Rodrigo Nogueira Batista — a Navy graduate who is currently serving a 30-year prison sentence for several crimes, including attempted homicide — was chosen to participate in the so-called “summar operations,” two months after joining the military police. Batista explained recruits complete this stage with veteran police officers on Rio’s beaches: Ipanema, Copacabana, Barra da Tijuca, Botafogo, and Recreio.

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Rodrigo Nogueira Batista. Photo c/o Agencia Publica

 

“We went with a baton in hand and wearing shorts and a military police shirt, so that we could give the population a “sense of security,” Batista remembers. “They put together veteran police officers with two or three ‘iron-balls,’ as they call recruits.” 

But on the street, “barbarism prevailed: petty theft, weed-smoking, everything you can imagine. When we got hold of [the suspects], it was only beating, beating, beating and pepper spray, a lot of pepper spray. That was the first time I came into contact with the torture techniques used by the military police on several occasions,” Batista says.

Yes Sir, No Sir

The culture of violence is born through the dehumanization of the military police during training, interviewees say.

“A soldier within the military police has no rights,” Darlan says. “We had to sleep in dirty, crumbling quarters. Everyone had to bring their own sleeping bag to the dorms. Married recruits had a very difficult time, since they went three months without pay. The soldiers must only say, ‘Yes sir,’ or ‘No sir,’ and march all the time. How can an anti-democratic police protect a democratic society?”

Author of the book, “Militarism: An Archaic Public Security System,” Darlan was expelled from the police force in January 2014, after serving 13 years in the military police. The reason he was expelled, he says, was because of the book.

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Darlan Menezes Abrantes. Photo c/o Agencia Publica

 

However, the military police in Ceara allege Darlan was released because he broke rules on modesty and decency within the military’s disciplinary code. In Sao Paulo and Caera, it is prohibited for police to “publish or divulge… documents on administrative or technical subjects pertaining to the police… that can threaten the military establishment.”

Darlan reported his expulsion to the Ceara Public Ministry and filed a reinstatement request in court, which has not reached a verdict. When asked by Publica, the Caera military police did not want to explain the motive behind Darlan’ expulsion or comment on his case.

“Antiquated and Anti-Democratic” Rules

“Imagine a professor that can’t talk about education or a doctor who can’t talk about health,” says Ignacio Cano, a sociologist at the Laboratory for Violence Analysis at the State of Rio de Janeiro University (UERJ). “In many states, a police officer can’t talk about public security.” Cano is author of a study (pdf) that analyzes military police “conduct manuals,” with the objective of comparing regulatory codes and disciplinary legislation of public security forces in Brazil.

“The disciplinary rules of the military police are antiquated and anti-democratic, many of them are even pre-constitutional,” Cano says. “They were created in order to guarantee a hierarchy and discipline within the force and to create a certain image of the force. They were not made to protect neither police nor the population.”

According to Cano’s study, at least 10 federal units have regulations that pre-date Brazil’s Constitution,which was promulgated in 1988. Some states directly adopted the Army’s disciplinary rules, known ast the RDE, as the same rules for the military police, which was created with the dictatorial decree 667 (pdf), on July 2, 1969.

“In the regulations that we analyzed, we found rules that stipulate that it is acceptable for a superior police officer to hit a lower-ranking officer in order for them to follow orders,” Cano says. “This is one of the most extreme cases [of abuse that we found].”

 

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Police training in Rio de Janeiro. Photo c/o Agencia Publica

 

The sociologist also cites examples of excessive regulations. “There is a special morality that police officers must follow even in their private lives,” he says. “An officer can’t do things that most humans do: drink alcohol, tell a lie, fall into debt. An officer can actually be punished for these things. This creates the image of a super-human that doesn’t exist.”

There are various other examples of these rules dictating the personal lives of police. In the Amazon, police are forbidden “to speak in a foreign language in a police or military parking lot, except when it is required as a function of their role as an officer.”

A Culture Left Over from the Dictatorship

Hierarchy is the supreme value in military police conduct manuals. However, instilling discipline via this system comes at a high price. “The human rights of police officers are frequently violated with these rules,” Cano says. “Yet we want them to respect the rights of the citizens when they do not have their own rights respected.”

First Sergeant of the Federal District Military Police, Roner Gama, is one example of the lack of free expression afforded to police.

“Police can’t publish things on social media about the internal workings of the organization without having to respond to them,” Gama says. “Right now I’m responding to various inquiries and investigations for having expressed myself on social media. Even today I am going to Internal Affairs because of a comment that someone made on a website. It’s boring and embarrassing.”


“The military police is the only institution in the country where an officer cannot question a superior… It is totally absurd.”


“The military police is the only institution in the country where an officer cannot question a superior […] It is totally absurd,” Gama concludes.

Jacqueline Muriz, an anthroplogist and a professor at the Public Security Department of the Federal Fluminense University (UFF) — who has over 20 years of experience in police academies in Brazil and other parts of Latin America — drew similar conclusions. “In Brazil, we have an aristocratic logic guided by privileges that perverts the sense of hierarchy and discipline,” Muriz says. “It is an ongoing abuse of power, supported by antiquated and unconstitutional disciplinary regulations.” 

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This antiquated training process comes at a great cost to society. “Police cannot be improvised,” Muniz says. “An experienced officer is highly valuable to society. An officer cannot be substituted just because they die or have an accident.”

Some believe this disciplanry system is a relic from the era of Brazil’s military dictatorship.  “Much of our public security institutions are left over from the dictatorship era, including the training process,” says Elisandro Lotin, head of the military police in Santa Catarina and President of the National Association for Military Police Officers (ANASPRA). “We have already made innumerable complaints [about the training courses]. Recently, a police academy here in Santa Catarina had 200 women who were forced to do push-ups on asphalt at 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon, and several were left with burns on their hands. That’s how you expect to motivate them to go protect society?”

For Sargeant Leonel Lucas, member of the Southern Rio Grande Military Brigade and President of the Antonio Mendes Filho Association, it is not just the training of officers that needs to improve. “I think the first thing that has to be changed is the academic training of the high-ranking officers,” Lucas says. “When we change the minds of the instructors, this will be reflected in the lower-ranking officers they are teaching.”

Is Demilitarization Necessary?

One question leads to divided answers among police and experts in public security: is it possible to offer a more humane and effective training course without removing the military nature of the military police? 

Anthopologist Jacqueline Muniz believes it is possible.

“The military structure in itself does not limit the effectiveness of training courses for police,” she argues. “What impedes them is how they apply what they’ve learned — how they end up abusing their power.”

Muniz cited other examples of military police in other countries — including the Gendarmarie in France, the Carabinieri in Italy, and the Spanish Civil Guard — that have been more successful in implementing citizen security. 

“In these institutions, police have the same rights and obligations as other citizens,” she says. “And these police forces have a very high approval rating in their society and even have low levels of violence, corruption, and rape.”

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Elisandro Lotin, President of ANASPRA, had a similiar response.

“You can have a military police as long as it is focused on human dignity and respect for citizens, and provided that you break away from this notion that the army must retain control over them — over everything from weapons, to training, to the number of officers,” he says.  “Once this break [from the army] occurs, that does not necessarily mean demilitarization. We can have military police in Brazil focused on human dignity and workers’ rights, as well as adequate codes of conduct.” 

 

“What is the duty of a solider? To kill enemies. A solider is trained to eliminate enemies and a police officer is not. Or at least he shouldn’t be.”

But Vanderlei Ribeiro, President of the Association for Military Police and Firefighters in Rio de Janeiro (ASPRA), disagrees. “The military structure is incompatible with policing,” Ribeiro says. “Militarism is for the army. First you have to change the structure before you can alter the training. There is no other way.”

Former soldier Darlan Menezes Abrantes takes a similar view. “There is no use in giving courses on human rights if the police are military. When you go out on the street, what dominates is the military logic,” he says.

Former military police office Rodrigo Nogueira Batista draws a similar conclusion. “When you see a soldier policing, there is already something wrong,” says Batista. “What is the duty of a soldier? To kill enemies. A soldier is trained to eliminate enemies and a police officer is not. Or at least he shouldn’t be.”

“This confusion between a police officer and a soldier is not easily resolved,” he adds. “Abuses keep happening right in front of everyone’s face, and nobody does anything. Look at the people who were coming back from a party and were chased by a patrol, and their car was hit by 15 bullets. This can happen with a military mentality, but this would never happen in the mind of a police officer. A police officer would follow the car, and get closer. But an officer would not shoot if they are not being shot at. This only happens in the mind of a soldier, who believes he is at war.”

“There are a million things [that could explain the situation],” Batista says. “But the soldier [who fired the shots at the civilian car] did not stop to analyze these options because he was not conditioned to think, to contextualize the type of public service he is providing. He did what he was trained to do. He got closer, he took aim, and he fired shots!” 

*This article originally appeared in Agencia Publica and was translated, edited, and reprinted with permission. See original here.