SÃO PAULO—On the night of June 13, supporters of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro staged a mock attack on the country’s supreme court. They gathered in the heart of the capital amid its forbidding 1950s-era modern architecture, with Congress behind them and the president’s Planalto Palace on one side. The Three Powers Plaza, as it’s called for the three branches of government represented there, is supposed to be one of the most secure places in the country.
Yet the group of militant Bolsonaro supporters had no problem setting off high-powered fireworks, every bit as explosive as those seen in many U.S. cities on the 4th of July, in a four-minute display directed just above the court building.
“Take a look at the angle of fireworks [trajectories], you bandits, you communists!” shouted a man recording the action. “Do you get the message?”
The security forces known as the Polícia Militar, or simply the PM, are responsible for securing the area but did nothing to stop the show, and their refusal to act sent a clear message of its own, says Renato Sérgio de Lima, director of The Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, which is the most important institution dedicated to studying security in the country. The Military Police agree with Bolsonaro that “the Supreme Court is an enemy.”
At a time of global crisis and in an era of democratically elected demagogues unwilling to countenance challenges to their power, whether by legislatures or courts, Brazil’s situation is one to watch closely.
The country is in trouble. Bolsonaro cast himself in a Trumpian mold and has been warmly received by the White House since he took office at the beginning of last year. But his promises of economic prosperity have foundered, his polls have been dropping, and his response to the COVID-19 epidemic has been even more willfully ignorant, and a worse example to the public, than Donald J. Trump in the U.S.
Earlier this week a judge ordered Bolsonaro to wear a mask while in Brasilia, something he has steadfastly refused to do while he has been seen to cough at rallies and once sneezed into his hand just before shaking the hand of an elderly woman.
Several state governments in Brazil, which have autonomy similar to state governments in the United States, have tried to push testing and impose lockdowns despite directives from the Bolsonaro government. But the state efforts have not been able to keep Brazil from becoming the country with the second highest number of COVID related fatalities in the world: almost 53,000 people so far. The U.S., which is first on that list, has seen the disease kill more than 121,000.
As pressure mounts on Bolsonaro from many directions, some analysts have asked just how far he would go to hold on to his office. Might he engineer a coup against the other branches of government? “Threat of Military Action Rattles Brazil as Virus Deaths Surge,” the New York Times headlined on June 10. “As Brazil reels from its worst crisis in decades, President Bolsonaro and his allies are using the prospect of military intervention to protect his grip on power.” And that was before the fireworks in Brasilia.
In any such top-down coup scenario the Polícia Militar are believed to be critical to Bolsonaro’s support. The organization is roughly analogous to the National Guard in the United States, officially attached to the Brazilian army but answerable to state governors. Unlike the U.S. National Guard, however, Brazil’s Military Police have an active and ongoing law enforcement role similar to French gendarmes or Spain’s Guardia Civil.
Bolsonaro has long shown his low esteem for the Brazilian Supreme Court, and recently increased hostility by taking part in rallies that called for the court’s closure and even for military intervention. In one of them, he rode a horse provided by the Polícia Militar.
Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, is well known for praising the Brazilian military dictatorship that ended in 1985. In 2016, when he was a congressman, Bolsonaro dedicated the vote he cast to impeach then-President Dilma Rousseff to the army colonel who tortured her in the 1970s. Since Bolsonaro became president himself on Jan. 1, 2019, more than a thousand military figures have joined his government at various levels.
But Bolsonaro’s flirtations with the military may be misunderstood. His strongest backing appears to be among the Polícia Militar, which employ more than 400,000 people. But they are not monolithic, they are not the powerful mainstream army, and talk of a coup may distract from the other ways the PM can undermine democracy.
“Despite agreeing with Bolsonaro, most military policemen wouldn’t get involved directly,” says Renato Sérgio de Lima.
“Bolsonaro has strong support among cops, especially those from the Polícia Militar. It is one of his biggest support groups,” says Arthur Trindade, a sociology professor at the National University of Brasilia and a former State Security Secretary in charge of the military police in Brasilia area from 2014 to 2015. He quit because the Military Police, acting autonomously, violently repressed a demonstration by professors.
The PM have a long history of acting autonomously, even joining police strikes, which are illegal. In the most recent one, in January, in Northeast Brazil, cops wearing balaclavas threatened the population and a senator ended up being shot.
The difference now is that the PM troops are willing to break the rules and disrespect hierarchy for a political cause, as the fireworks at the Supreme Court made plain. The PM officer in charge of Brasilia troops “knew this was about to happen,” said Ibaneis Rocha, the governor of the state where the capital is located. But the officer didn’t stop it. The following day, the officers was fired.
Throughout Bolsonaro’s political career he has championed the Polícia Militar, mainly by opposing human rights defenders who criticize the troops’ brutal actions. Between 2017 and 2019, the PM were responsible for more than 15,000 deaths in Brazil. Last year, all the U.S. police forces combined killed 45 percent fewer people than the Polícia Militar in Rio de Janeiro state alone. Most of the victims are black Brazilians.
“In Brazil, there’s an adage that ‘a good thug is a dead thug,’ that is, the enemy needs to be eliminated, which has reinforced police violence,” says Sérgio de Lima.
“Besides, in the past couple of years, a false dilemma has emerged between crime control and human rights. Human rights defenders are seen as thug defenders. These beliefs are shared by Bolsonaro and most of the Military Police.”
“Some ask me,” prospective candidate Bolsonaro proclaimed in 2017, “do you want to give the police permission to kill? Yes, I do.”
Last year, he tried to pass a law to shield policemen from punishment when they kill someone while on duty—but the Congress rejected it. More recently, in early June, his government left police violence data out of Brazil’s annual human rights report.
According to sociologist Arthur Trindade, military policemen tend to pay back Bolsonaro’s support in four different ways:
First, they may refrain from stopping violent actions by Bolsonaro’s radical supporters, like the fireworks attack on the Supreme Court.
Second, they may provide inside information to the president—which comes in handy, especially because of ongoing investigations of the president’s sons concerning corruption and disinformation campaigns.
Third, they may refuse to follow the state governor’s orders. That recently happened in São Paulo state, which has the worst coronavirus death toll in the country.
In April, Governor Joao Doria said São Paulo would adopt stricter isolation measures and imprison those who disobeyed. The PM would be responsible for enforcing the rules. But the cops’ association Defenda PM opposed the proposal, saying citizens would be “deprived of their rights by illegal and arbitrary measures.” The group had chosen Bolsonaro’s side.
At that moment, most of the Brazilian governors were trying to implement isolation measures, like the widespread closing of nonessential businesses, while Bolsonaro was advocating that business remain open in the name of freedom.
“In São Paulo, the cops were reluctant to follow a rule they thought was illegal because Bolsonaro said it was illegal,” says Renato Sérgio de Lima. “If a lockdown was declared, its enforcement would have been difficult.” In the aftermath, Governor Doria didn’t declare the lockdown—and the number of deaths continued to grow by the day.
The fourth way military policemen can show their support to the president is by crushing protests against him. In mid-April, when hospitals in São Paulo were getting crowded with COVID-19 patients, Bolsonaro’s supporters started a weekly gathering in the town’s streets to back the president and his calls for easing restrictions.
During these demonstrations, which continued throughout May, there was never an episode of police violence. However, on May 31 during the first big demonstration against the president after the pandemic hit the country, São Paulo’s Military Police used tear gas to disperse the protesters, most of them football fan groups that were calling for “democracy” in the country.
“Because military policemen have sympathy for Bolsonaro, they can show their support to the president in all these different ways,” says Arthur Trindade. But the professor does not believe this will lead to concerted action.
Trindade puts his faith in Brazil’s regular army to resist any attempt by Bolsonaro to heighten his power and perpetuate his rule by shutting down Brazil’s congress and supreme court. “A coup can only happen if the Armed Forces want it,” says Trindad. “The reason is simple: the Military Police use pistols, while the Armed Forces use tanks. And I don’t think the Armed Forces will step away from the constitution.”