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A vital question for Brazilian democracy: Where were the police?

Agents of the Brazilian police in Brasilia, after the attack on Sunday (New York Times)
Agents of the Brazilian police in Brasilia, after the attack on Sunday (New York Times)

The attack by violent mobs against Brazil’s democratic institutions in the capital, Brasilia, on Sunday, January 8, was a sudden and important test of the country’s resilience. And, at least initially, the conspicuous lack of police security was a crucial factor as supporters of the former president Jair Bolsonaro They accumulated in the National Congress, the Federal Supreme Court and the presidential palace.

The reasons for this delay are not entirely clear, but some senior officials are now accusing the capital security forces to delay their mobilization more by intention than by confusion.

The Minister of Justice of Brazil, Flavio Dino, stated that there were many fewer officers present than agreed in the security plan established days before. In addition, a judge of the Federal Supreme Court has issued an arrest warrant against the highest security authority in the capital. Multiple videos circulating online showed officers who were present apparently escorting protesters to federal buildings and stopping to take selfies with them.

By the end of the day, things had changed. New contingents of officers arrived and regained control of government buildings. More than 1,200 people were arrested, more than 700 of whom were accused of having participated in the violence.. The authorities have now proceeded to arrest those suspected of organizing or financing the riots. Two government security officials are also accused of fomenting the riots through criminal negligence or aiding and abetting.

But by the time the arrests began, the damage had been done. The mobs looted buildings of the three branches of the federal government and vandalized valuable works of art. The police are often the first line of response to these types of mass actions and that gives them tremendous power to influence the consequences. Those first few hours were a perfect demonstration of how police inaction can empower political violence and exacerbate the threats it poses to democracy.

That could be particularly true in Brazil, where one of the vital questions facing the newly elected government is how much to try to reform or restrict the security sector.

Security arrived after the attacks (REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli)
Security arrived after the attacks (REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli)

Judging by the objectives declared by the agitators themselves, the violent attack in Brasilia was a failure.

Indeed, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva remains secure in the presidency while Bolsonaro remains in Florida. In addition, the attack has generated a wide rejection of the population and the condemnation of legislators. On Monday, January 9, the leaders of the three branches of government issued a rare joint statement condemning the violence.

Pushing back on Sunday’s events is likely to discredit Bolsonaro’s supporters and drain the energy of his movement. Yanilda Maria Gonzalez, a political scientist at Harvard University who studies public order and democracy in the Americas, noted that opposition to violence in Brasilia within the government, public opinion, and the opinion matrix of the media has been much more unified than the reaction to the January 6 attacks in the United States two years ago. If that view holds and the protest movement fractures under the pressure of disapproval, the risk of further violence would be quite low.

But that could change, particularly now that the government is beginning to prosecute the hundreds of people arrested for participating in the riots. The new governmentHe has to prosecute these people and he will“, he claimed amy erica smith, a political scientist at the University of Iowa who studies Brazilian politics and democracy. “But prosecuting them could also be destabilizing.”.

It is also important to know that a sudden coup is not the only way that political violence can undermine democracy.

Police in Brazil have a history of using strategic inaction as a political tool, González said. His research found that, for example, in São Paulo in the 1980s, police allowed riots to develop during a time of economic crisis to create a sense of panic in society that would put pressure on politicians. And in 2013, after the mayor of São Paulo postponed overtime payments to the local military police, law enforcement was deliberately lax in policing a major cultural festival, leading to a spike in crime and a series of negative headlines in the press for the mayor.

Today, Smith perceives a risk that pro-Bolsonaro factions within the police or other security services could “stand by and do nothing” rather than stop future political violence.

The damage to the Planalto Palace (REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes)
The damage to the Planalto Palace (REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes)

One reason for that kind of strategic inaction could be support for Bolsonaro, widely believed to be the frontrunner of choice among the police and military forces. But another, perhaps more likely motivation is that many within the security sphere fear that Lula’s policies could threaten the status, privileges or immunities of the security forces.

“The security forces have gotten away with many things in recent years. Police violence has had virtually no control,” he said. Christoph Harig, a researcher at the Technical University Braunschweig in Germany who studies public order and civil-military relations in Brazil. “There are too many cases of innocents killed, mostly by the police, or sometimes by the military in internal missions, where those killers have ended up with very light sentences. This impunity is the one that prevails in many Brazilian police and military”.

Lula does not share that political affinity for the security forces and has shown signs that he wants to limit the role of the military in politics. Many wonder how far his reversal of Bolsonaro-era policies will go or whether he could try to go further, as he did in 2009 when he proposed a truth commission for torture and other crimes in the era of dictatorship and a revision of the law that gave them amnesty. (Lula was forced to drop the proposal after several high-ranking military officials threatened to resign in protest.)

Harig noted that military officials in Brasilia defended the coup protesters, calling them “peaceful protesters,” and allowed them to camp in front of military barracks as their numbers grew in the past 10 weeks. This protected the coup movement, although the military leadership itself refused to support or carry out a coup.

That could be an object lesson for the government, Harig says, about the importance of staying on good terms with the military. He cited the Lula government’s appointment of Defense Minister José Mucio, who is a civilian but widely perceived as a friend of military interests, as a sign that such pressure had been effective.

“I think the people in these protest camps have been sort of ‘useful suckers’ for the military in recent weeks,” Harig said. “They will not accept anything that threatens their institutional privileges.”

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