A Review of Dano Colateral

The Brazilian Military’s Role in Public Security

by | Nov 9, 2021

Dano Colateral: A intervenção dos militares na segurança pública by Natalia Viana (Objetiva, 2021, 348 pages)

On Sunday April 7, 2019, a 46-year-old private security guard and musician by the name of Evaldo Rosa dos Santos was driving his wife Luciana, seven-year-old son Davi Bruno, his wife’s stepfather Sérgio, and his wife’s friend Michele to a friend’s baby shower in the Guadalupe neighborhood in the northern part of Rio de Janeiro. As the Ford Ka sedan passed in front of the barracks of the Brazilian Army’s First Motorized Infantry Battalion, twelve soldiers whose commander thought that Evaldo was a criminal attempting to evade arrest opened fire on the vehicle, showering it with a hail of bullets and hitting the car 62 times. Evaldo was shot nine times and the car slowed to a halt as he lost consciousness and died. Luciano Macedo, a 28-year-old homeless man and waste-picker who witnessed the shooting, rushed to the car to help Evaldo and was also shot. He died eleven days later in hospital (pp. 11-16).

This tragedy was widely reported in the media and on  April 12, President Jair Bolsonaro (2019-present) was asked about it by a journalist, replying “The Army did not kill anyone, no, the Army is the people. We can’t accuse the people of being an assassin. There was an incident and there was a death.” (p. 32) Evaldo and Luciano are examples of the collateral damage—the killing of innocent civilians—that has occurred as a result of the Brazilian military’s increased involvement in public security in Brazil. Their avoidable deaths are described at the beginning of this book.

The author of Collateral Damage, journalist Natalia Viana, notes that state records are a reflection of what state managers value, and it is therefore telling that Brazil’s Ministry of Defense does not keep records of civilians killed in its domestic public security operations, called GLOs for garantia da lei e ordem (guarantee of law and order). GLO is the phrase in article 142 of the 1988 Brazilian constitution that state governors and presidents invoke in order to mobilize the Army in domestic policing, something that has been done more than thirty times under the last three presidents (Dilma Rousseff, Michel Temer, and Jair Bolsonaro). GLO operations have been especially prevalent in Rio de Janeiro, where the rate of violence is high, favelas (informal urban settlements) are situated in close proximity to affluent neighborhoods, and many residents regard the police as untrustworthy and ineffective.

This book is the result of the passion and persistence of Viana, who made use of Brazil’s Law of Access to Information to request data about civilian deaths during the military’s GLO operations. Piecing together information from the various reports she obtained over a two-year period, Viana, currently a fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, compiled a list of 21 incidents involving the killing of 35 civilians in the period 2011-2019. Of these civilians, 32 were killed by Army personnel and three by members of the Navy (these incidents are listed in the appendix on pp. 303-306). The cases included the invasion of private homes, threats, a massacre and torture.

The majority of the victims were under 30, non-white and residents of favelas. In most of the cases investigated by Viana, families, friends and loved ones of the victims received little or no information or support from the military and no legal, financial or psychological help from any state agency. Instead, the victims were labelled “disturbers of public order” (pertubadores da ordem pública) and regarded with suspicion by the authorities. The survivors of these incidents were largely left to fend for themselves, and Viana tracks them down to understand their experiences and points of view and record their voices in the pages of this book.

The killings also usually resulted in impunity for those who pulled the trigger. Under Law 13,491 passed by the administration of President Michel Temer (2016-18) in 2017, the crimes of intentional homicide and manslaughter of civilians committed by armed forces personnel in GLO operations were put under the jurisdiction of federal military courts. These courts, made up of one civilian judge and four active-duty military officers often reflect military understandings of the use of legitimate force. They tend to acquit soldiers accused of homicide on the grounds that the accused acted in self-defense. The military officers who serve in the courts are untrained in the law and spend only a few months as judges before rejoining the regular ranks of the armed forces. The courts, which are particularly attuned to issues internal to the military such as obedience to superiors within the chain of command, are seen by human rights activists as lacking impartiality and independence when it comes to the use of force against civilians.

President Jair Bolsonaro supported an additional proposed law (6,125) in 2019 that makes it even harder to convict soldiers who kill during GLO operations by assuming a priori that in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, such killings are in legitimate self-defense. This “exclusion of illegality” (excludente de illicitude) bill was praised by President Bolsonaro, an advocate of the use of unconstrained state violence against alleged criminals, as a “big step in the combat against violence in Brazil” (p. 283), making it clear that by “violence” he meant violence that was not perpetrated by agents of the state.

The killings of civilians by the military are only a small fraction of the number of civilians killed by state police forces in Brazil. The Brazilian Forum for Public Security, an NGO that brings together academics and police officers and is dedicated to humane and effective public security and criminal justice policies, reports that from 2012 to 2019, a period roughly equivalent to the period of Viana’s research, state police forces killed 29,677 people in Brazil. This problem of violent policing is common not just in Brazil but in many other countries in Latin America, as Diane Davis’ review of Yanilda Gonzalez’ book Authoritarian Police in Democracy in ReVista on October 19, 2021, reminds us.

Nevertheless, Viana sees the “collateral damage” of the Brazilian military—the phrase comes from a pronouncement by then-Commander of the Army General Eduardo Villas Bôas in 2017—as more important than the number of victims itself. These cases result in a “gradual and constant loss of confidence in the justice system” (p. 299) on the part of citizens and reflect the enormous power and privilege of the armed forces in Brazilian politics and society despite the fact that the military regime of 1964-85 ended 36 years ago.

In the last part of the book Viana reflects on the origins of this power and privilege. She criticizes as misleading military officers’ perception of the armed forces as existing prior to and being foundational for the creation of both the Brazilian nation and its republic. She describes officers’ claims that the military represents the authentic moral values of the people and should have a moderating power over other actors in the political system as being profoundly authoritarian. And she laments the fact that the Bolsonaro administration has brought in 6,157 active-duty and retired military officers, nine of them in the cabinet, to staff the federal bureaucracy (p. 280). This has led some military officers to take overtly political positions, often to the benefit of their careers.

For Viana, the armed forces have accepted an increased role in public security in Brazil as a way to ensure their importance and garner favourable treatment (in terms of budgets, salaries, arms acquisitions, and the like). She reports that while some advisors in the administration of President Lula believed that deploying the military in UN peacekeeping in Haiti, where the Brazilian Army commanded the military side of the MINUSTAH peacekeeping operation from 2004 to 2017, would keep the military out of domestic politics in Brazil, the opposite occurred. Instead, the military gained increasing confidence that its capacity and expertise could be deployed domestically, not just in public security but in many other areas of civilian administration as well. When it comes to public security, Viana tries to show the human consequences of deploying in police operations troops trained to engage in military combat. She agrees with the authors of the Brazilian Truth Commission report, published in December 2014, that the civilianization of policing should be an urgent priority.

This section sits uneasily with the main focus of the book. This is not because the criticisms are not well founded, but because they are not sufficiently linked to the issue of the military’s deployment in public security operations. For example, the lethality of the state police forces, especially the military police, is not mentioned in the book. The possibility that removing the armed forces from domestic public security might not make policing less violent (but could even make it more violent) is not considered.

The same possibility exists when it comes to demilitarizing the state police forces by ending the military police forces’ status as Army reservists and severing their connection to the Army in matters of intelligence, arms and training. The latter are all promising ideas in that they aim to make policing more civilian, more community-oriented and more firmly based on consent. However, the hope that they would lead to less violent policing is just that, a hope, until such reforms are enacted. A survey carried out by the Brazilian Forum for Public Security and Datafolha found that more than half of those surveyed agreed with the statement that “a good criminal is a dead criminal” (bandido bom é bandido morto), indicating some degree of public support for violent policing. Because it does not discuss these issues, the book is stronger as testimony than it is as explanation.

On October 14, 2021, after the publication of Dano Colateral, a military court in Rio de Janeiro found eight of the soldiers who shot Evaldo Rosas dos Santos and Luciano Macedo guilty of homicide and sentenced them to long prison sentences. It is not clear whether this judgment is an exception to the rule of impunity uncovered by Natalia Viana in the other cases described in the book, or whether it will be reversed upon appeal when it reaches the highest level of military justice, the Superior Military Court. At present the convicted soldiers face expulsion from the Army, although they will await the hearing of the appeal in liberty, and it might take two years for the Superior Military Court to decide on the case.

Regardless of the final outcome of this particular case, Dano Colateral is a moving and disturbing analysis of a key element of Brazil’s public security policies, and an important exploration and questioning of the role of the armed forces in Brazil’s politics.

Anthony W. Pereira is a Professor in the Brazil Institute and the Department of International Development at King’s College London. His most recent books are Understanding Contemporary Brazil (Routledge, 2018) and Modern Brazil: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2020).

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