Police violence is a constant in Latin America, as a vestige of authoritarian regimes and the militarization of the police. According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), Brazil has the second highest homicide rate per 100,000 population, behind only Venezuela. In this scenario, the recent operation in the Jacarezinho favela, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, is an emblematic example of the brutality of the security forces.
In April 2020, deaths due to police actions in the state of Rio de Janeiro increased by 43% from the previous year, according to data from the Institute of Public Security (ISP). Under Governor Wilson Witzel, civilian and military police killed 117 people, nearly 6 a day, making this month the deadliest month in law enforcement action since the historic series began in 1998, only second after July 2019.
Less than a year later, on March 6, 2021, 27 young people were killed in a civilian police operation in the Jacarezinho favela, in what became the deadliest operation in Rio’s history. from Janeiro. This time management is ensured by Governor Cláudio Castro, who had taken office less than two weeks earlier due to Witzel’s dismissal for corruption.
The two episodes, although a year apart, come together when they occur in the middle of a pandemic which, on the day of the Operation in Jacarezinho, had already killed more than 400,000 Brazilians.
Action of security forces during the pandemic
The pandemic has authorized the suspension of a series of daily activities in the name of preserving life. A Supreme Court injunction in June 2020 limited police operations in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro during the pandemic to “absolutely exceptional” cases. So why instead of taking a break, the police violence, on the contrary, has intensified, killing nearly 800 to date?
The answer is certainly not in the “war on drugs”, which so far has had enough of showing its failure to reduce trafficking and consumption by dismantling criminal networks and seizing illicit substances. Much less on the moralistic justification of investigating the seduction of children and adolescents for drug trafficking, offered by the police for the massacre of Jacarezinho.
At the end of the day, what kills, whether it’s April 2020 or May 6, 2021, is racism. Racism is the engine of the “war on drugs”, the aim of which has nothing to do with stated objectives, but with social markers of race, sex, class and territory built on the marks of a society forged by slavery.
The murderous power of the police was not suspended during the pandemic precisely because that power is produced daily as an essential activity of the state. And just as the state has defined the opening of markets and pharmacies as its core activities, it has also continued to define the “war on drugs” as its core business. For it is through it that the State continues to fulfill its most essential function, that of distinguishing who should live and who should die and to delimit in a performative, noisy and bloody manner the unequal distribution of the value of lives.
It is through the “war on drugs” that the State continues to define what is the “cheapest meat on the market” as denounced by the song “A Carne” in the voice of Elza Soares.
If, on the one hand, the Witzel government called on the people of Rio to unite around the war against the Covid-19 virus, on the other hand, this same state has divided society into fighters and enemies of a another war, that against drugs. . In the latter, the state was authorized by the governor to target the “leader” of a specific segment of the population who inhabit the slums and outskirts of the city.
This segment was caught in the crossfire, the victim of two wars, one in which it was called upon to fight and cooperate with the state to flatten the curve of the virus and another that was much more familiar to it, where he has always been the target of murderous state actions.
The structural necropolitics of the Brazilian state
What we saw on May 6 was yet another, the deadliest chapter of this state necropolitan project which, as Cameroonian author Achille Mbembe shows, aims to kill people. The production of deaths is not caused by deviant police officers, traffic accidents or unforeseen outcomes, but by systematic and routine actions of the state that cannot be suspended even in the midst of a pandemic.
Witzel and Castro have made the choice not to outsource death to a virus which, while disproportionately affecting vulnerable segments of the population, kills too widely and is too decentralized for their tastes.
For racialized segments of the Brazilian population, normalcy has always lived with police brutality and the logic of war against their territories. The deaths resulting from the police action in Jacarezinho show that the most essential pact for the state is this asymmetrical pact which dehumanizes a significant part of its population and which authorizes the “war on drugs”.
This pact is so anchored in the Brazilian state that any initiative to suspend it, as was the case with the injunction granted by the Supreme Court, is bypassed and becomes the object of debauchery. In fact, the name given to the operation in Jacarezinho, “Exceptis” or Exceção, has been classified by a series of entities, including the Public Defender of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the Papo Reto Collective, Redes da Maré and Global Justice, like a debauchery in the face of the restriction of police operations during the pandemic, “except in situations of absolute exceptionality”, posed by the STF.
The message given through the operation considered legitimate by the agents of the State, the police, the governor and the president, was that it is not the law which defines the normality and the exception in relation to the peripheral territories. , but brute force.
By the use of excessive force and disproportionate to the violation of the rule of law, the agents of the State, while mocking the law, said in a strong and perverse tone that there, in space favela, the state of exception is permanent, that there, it is normal. That is to say that there is for the State a normality which cannot be quarantined, which cannot be stopped: that of the genocide of young blacks, the poor and the slums.
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