The night of November 4th in Belem, capital of Brazil’s Para state, was terrorizing. After the death of Corporal Figueiredo, from the Tactical Ops (Rotam) of the Military Police of the State of Para, at 7:30 PM, there was a violent retaliation, killing nine people, according to the official numbers, six of whom were undoubtedly executed. The victims appeared concurrent to the Rotam operation intended to arrest those responsible for the death of Corporal Figueiredo. Despite the official number of deaths, most people believe many more were killed during the night.
Rumors, audios, and videos were widely shared though WhatsApp and Facebook while the executions happened, showing what was happening on the outskirts of Belem. There was an unofficial curfew in several places on the periphery, given the expectation that there would be a violent retaliation to the death of the policeman and that the death squads that was wreaking havoc (presumably made up of military policemen) did not intend to take any prisoners. This group supposedly was covered by the official Rotam operation and they intended to kill any suspects.
It is important to highlight here that the deaths did not occur due to gunfights or resisting arrest. They were outright murders. The state government itself recognizes in an official statement that they were homicides, even though it does not conclude that the Military Police took part in them. Luiz Fernandes, Secretary of Public Security of Para, also admits that investigators are working on the hypothesis that death squads were acting there.
However, the sequence of events cannot be understood unless we comprehend their context: The local drug war dynamics.
In Belem, 66% of the population live in irregular buildings, favelas (slums) or the like, which, first, sprouted up near the center of the city (such as neighborhoods Guama, Jurunas, and Terra Firme — the last one being the stage of the murders) and, more recently, in the suburbs. They are very dense areas, with very little space between houses, allowing for the settlement of a large number of migrants from the state’s countryside and from the neighboring state Maranhao.
These areas, however, not unlike many others in Brazil, are marked by precarious access to basic utilities, like sewage disposal, and poor protection of the dwellers’ property rights (despite expropriations and evictions being uncommon in Belem). Moreover, as a result of drug prohibition, they end up under the rule of violent dealers.
Some time ago, it became known that the drug warlords were financing the militias. According to a report from the beginning of the year about the actions of militias in Guama and Terra Firme, these groups were formed by criminals and policemen (generally who are no longer formally affiliated with the Police) for the protection of drug dealers against other dealers and the police. They also regularly extort the local population. According to a Terra Firme dweller, who was quoted on the above report:
They ask people for money and kill whoever gets in their way. It is criminals killing criminals, but there are several honest citizens who are victims as well. When they are bothered by someone, they create a situation for a crime to happen.
The group which acts in the Guama neighborhood, made up mainly by retired police officers, is supposedly involved in the murder of young people, those “who walk around the streets at the wrong time, thieves and drug users,” as a local put it. Out of fear, silence prevails.
The story also tells that the police usually work on the hypothesis that these are hired gunmen, who are paid to enforce debts or murder the borrowers, denying the existence of militias and death squads that are financed by stolen money from the local populations. The events of the 4th seem to have changed that perception, since the government itself has admitted that death squads have been involved.
The general fear after the death of Corporal Figueiredo illustrates how real police, militia, and drug violence is in these areas. This fear has, for the first time, reached the richer areas of Belem, areas unfamiliar with the day to day uneasiness that the poor suffer through. Like never before, the night of November 4th made people, from very different social backgrounds, share the same fear.
Therefore, the murders were not a simple “isolated case,” but a perennial reality for the poor people of Belem, many of whom know or are related to someone who was murdered, were evicted from their homes by drug dealers, or just generally avoid staying out late (always!), afraid of what might happen to them.
These people, who suffer in every imaginable way, are denied the most basic and elementary way to reduce violent crime in Brazil: the end of the war on drugs. There is no reason, at all, that Brazilian cities should top the rankings for “most murders” in the world besides the failure of prohibition. Many cities are even more dangerous than Belem, but the causes of violence are similar. Most murders in Belem and elsewhere are related to drug feuds.
One of the main libertarian causes is the end of this abhorrent policy that takes away individual rights, puts behind bars many thousands of peaceful people and kills more than any substance addiction.
People who live in poor areas (and in other places, naturally) are sold the idea that only more repression will be able to solve the problem of public security. The drug user is the scapegoat and their frequent summary executions by the police are often welcomed.
Due legal process seems to be a burden to the police in Brazil, and its very existence seems to provide them with an even broader license to kill. We lose sight of the deep connections between the police, drug dealers and militias. The poor are the ones most exposed to the resulting police state, and the naive faith in the police as a guardian of order can only worsen their condition.
Belem shows vividly the monstrosity that the war on drugs is and its consequences to the urban dynamics in poor areas, marked by violence everywhere.
The main cause of all these deaths is not the lack of police repression or more executions, but the state itself and its criminalizing impetus, that enriches warlords and makes peripheral communities ever more vulnerable.
Translated by Erick Vasconcelos.