Why has Brazil’s 1988 democratic constitution advanced in promoting broad civil and economic rights while leaving (almost) unchanged the regulation of the police and armed forces? What’s the impact of Brazil’s Human Rights National Program in recent efforts of democratizing Brazilian society and building up an alternative to a minimal neoliberal state? Why have some types of public security policies been defined without much clarity, especially those that target the non-white-elites? These are some of the questions that Paulo de Mesquita Neto – a Brazilian scholar in political science who prematurely died in 2008 – asks in this collection of essays that he gathered under the rubric of Essays on citizen security. The book as a whole bears the imprint of an author striving to combine the vocabulary and syntax of democratic rule with a scrutiny of public security in Latin America – a grammar not too simple to practice in a continent that during the 1960s and 1970s surrendered to several authoritarian regimes whose marks are still noticeable, if not overly prominent, in current political culture and public debates.
The book as a whole bears the imprint of an author striving to combine the vocabulary and syntax of democratic rule with a scrutiny of public security in Latin America
One of the first aspects of Mesquita Neto’s effort on drawing from the grammar of democracy in discussing issues of violence, security and policing in Brazil and Latin America is his meticulous investigation of definitions of police forces in Brazil’s authoritarian constitution of 1967 (issued three years after the 1964 military coup that lasted until 1985) and in the democratic constitution of 1988. He argues that the federal constitution of 1988, also known as the “Citizen’s Constitution,” has made minor or no changes with regard to the role of the armed forces and the police in security. In spite of the elimination of articles related to “National Security,” the 1988 constitution maintained the status of the armed forces as main actors in the defense of the State and its institutions, thus keeping the main institution for ostensible policing – the Polícia Militar or Military Police – under the aegis of military rule. Instead of the military notions of “national” or “internal” security, the 1988 legal text adopted the concept of public security, but did so “in an ambiguous and imprecise way” (p.34). As Mesquita Neto aptly observes, it is not clear in the Citizen’s Constitution whether “public security primarily concerns the protection of the State, the government, or the citizens” (p.35). Legally as well as practically, it is like the democratic transition hasn’t been fully accomplished inasmuch as the textual ambiguity is instantiated in the police’s military approach and commitment to the citizen. Thus, in Latin America, the idea of “citizen security” (segurança cidadã) has emerged as the understanding of security in democratic rather than authoritarian terms. Mesquita Neto ties together the book’s 17 chapters by building on the Latin American notion of citizen security and connecting it to the United Nation’s definition of “human security” as that which protects human freedoms – “freedoms that are the essence of life” (UN Commission on Human Rights 2003: Chapter 1). In this sense, this book is at once an emic description and intervention on security and the (need for) police reform in Brazil and an etic incursion into the much neglected “human” of police regulations, public security discourses, and policing practices.
Many of the essays in the book deal with the ambiguities of a military control of the police inside a democratically ruled society.
Many of the essays in the book deal with the ambiguities of a military control of the police inside a democratically ruled society. Brazil is a federation of 27 States and has three main police forces. The Polícia Federal or Federal Police are a border-control and criminal investigation police, assigned to cooperate with Interpol and other international agencies and to prevent drug trafficking, money laundering, cyber-crime and terrorism. The Polícia Civil or Civil Police are a non-uniformed force responsible for local criminal investigations. The uniformed Military Police form the largest corporation and are in charge of preventing crime by means of ostensible policing. Created in 1970 during the authoritarian regime, the Military Police are considered an auxiliary force of the Army “and have a very centralized organization, similar to the Army’s organization” (p.249). Mesquita Neto argues that the military status of the police mirrors authoritarian practices widely held in the Army and in Brazilian society. Police officers have been trained according to strict military codes of hierarchy and rituals of humiliation, under the view that their practice aims at “internal security.” The rationale behind “internal security” is that “the armed forces and the police are organized to protect the State against political enemies and social movements, and to repress social and political conflicts rather than (…) maintaining the law and public order or protecting the citizens” (p.250). In pursuing the authoritarian principles of internal defense and protection of the State, the police have historically “resorted to the use or threat of violence, particularly against underprivileged citizens and groups of Afro-Brazilians or mestizos” (p. 253).
Mesquita Neto’s thorough insistence on marking Brazil’s transition into a democratic regime is… not trivial.
Mesquita Neto’s thorough insistence on marking Brazil’s transition into a democratic regime is therefore not trivial. He begins almost every chapter by describing Brazil’s embrace of democracy after a harsh military rule and by expounding the legal and political reforms that have been made in the fields of human, civil, economic and political rights. His spelling out of the grammar of democracy entails a theoretical understanding as well as a practical delineation of the contradictions, impasses and gradual advances toward a democratic control of the police and a demilitarization of the public sphere. Whereas conservative sectors have continuously supported the use of force by the police and understood that the police are the most important, if not the only, means for curbing violence, Mesquita Neto demonstrates that violence has grown since the re-democratization started in the 1980s, and that police violence stands as one of the main forms of crime that have spread ever since. For instance, in the 1990s the military and civil polices in São Paulo killed 6.218 civilians and injured 8.711 (from 1990 to 1998) – which amounts to a medium rate of 691 deaths per year. In the same period, 1.655 police officers died and 19.657 were injured – a medium of 184 police officers killed per year (p.56). Compare this to the rates in the US and you’ll notice that these numbers are “excessively high if compared to the records in democratic countries without civil war.” From 1990 to 1997, the police killed a medium rate of 29 civilians per year in New York, 20 in Los Angeles, 12 in Chicago and 10 in Washington, DC (p.57).
Mesquita Neto refuses to accept the easy equation according to which more policing and repression equals less crime (and indeed his reading of statistical data on opinion polls, crime, violent deaths, police personnel and the like add a quantitative punch to his critical analyses). To repeat an argument that is pervasive in the book: Brazil’s democratic transition has been accompanied by the growth of violence. According to data by the World’s Health Organization, in a list of 60 countries across different continents Brazil had in 2000 the 2nd highest rate of violent deaths (27 people per 100,000 inhabitants, p.189). From an economic perspective, violence costs 10.5% of Brazil’s GDP (p. 327). Opinion polls indicate that violence is one of the country’s worst problems (p.197). For Mesquita Neto, violence is always situated violence. Thus his narration gives expression to crucial indexes of violence such as race (racial discrimination is entangled with several cases of violent crime, p.233), gender and age (in Brazilian cities with the highest rates of homicide, violence “concentrates on the male young population,” p.190), and space (violence is more prevalent in “specific spaces”, p.193). The spatiality of violence is all the more crucial in Mesquita Neto’s explanation of the rise of crime in Brazil as the homicide rates may drastically vary in Brazilian cities, betraying not only the country’s notorious inequalities but also how inequality itself is an obstacle in the pursuit of a less disjunctive rule of law and a democratic control of the police. In Rio de Janeiro, homicides may vary from 0.0 to 251.1/100,00 across neighborhoods (data from 1996, p.341). In São Paulo, data from 1999 indicate that the number of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants jumped from 4.11 in Moema (a central upper-middle class neighborhood) to 116.23 in Jardim Angela (a neighborhood in the south periphery, p.231).
From Mesquita Neto’s inquiries into citizen security to community policing, from human rights to Brazil’s and Latin America’s justice and political systems, from violence to demilitarization of the public and police reform, a map of criminality surfaces. Much beyond academia, this cartography circumscribed his political attempt to intervene in society as a scholar from the Núcleo de Estudos da Violência or Institute for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo, an institution that, together with other research institutes, human rights agencies and the federal Secretary of Human Rights, has influenced political debates and policy making across the recent democratic elected governments. His mapping indicates that “the highest homicide rates are located in the peripheries of large cities and metropolitan regions, where the problems of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and lack of basic services such as healthcare, education, transport, communications, security and justice are particularly acute” (p.224). These locations are also those where serious violations of human rights have been reported – “including summary executions, torture and arbitrary arrests by the police and by private security and organized crime groups.”
The oeuvre’s democratic grammar therefore conjugates the language of democracy with spatiotemporal maps of criminality and (alleged) political viability in Brazilian cities
The oeuvre’s democratic grammar therefore conjugates the language of democracy with spatiotemporal maps of criminality and (alleged) political viability in Brazilian cities. Human rights are for him the only possible common ground for a democratic police (no longer the ambiguous “internal” policing aimed at the state and its institutions) and for non-violent democratic forms of inhabiting the social space. But the way to be paved is a long one. In drawing from scholarship on the anthropology of crime and policing such as Caldeira’s City of Walls, he elaborates on the lack of credibility of human rights in public discourses on violence. During the dictatorship, the notion of ‘human rights’ occupied most discourses demanding the release of political prisoners and claiming for civil forms of liberty such as freedom of expression and freedom of press. However, after the political transition, human rights more and more came to be referred to as “privilege for bandits.” When the scope of human rights was no longer the upper and middle classes who were persecuted during the dictatorship but common prisoners coming from “the major poor, miserable, non-white Brazilian population” (p.276), Brazil witnessed a racialization of discussions of crime, insecurity and human rights. Violent crime became a trope deployed by conservative groups, segments of the media and religious fundamentalists to proclaim human rights as malefic to public security.
Mesquita Neto contradicts the perception of human rights as “privilege for bandits” by arguing that constant violations of these fundamental rights have instead been a factor in the increase of violence in Brazilian cities.
Mesquita Neto contradicts the perception of human rights as “privilege for bandits” by arguing that constant violations of these fundamental rights have instead been a factor in the increase of violence in Brazilian cities. “Violations of human rights,” says he, “have the effect of triggering fear and distrust of the police in particular and of justice in general, thus hampering the integration between these institutions and the public” (p.132). In engaging with conceptions of human rights embraced by Brazil’s Human Rights National Program (started in Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first government 1994-1998 and improved in Lula’s and Dilma’s mandates), he points that human rights are “not only civil and politic rights, but also economic, social, and cultural rights” (p.278). His pervasive attachment to human rights has to do with an understanding that, in Brazil, street violence is entangled with “structural violence”, that is, the violence of poverty, hunger, unemployment and precarious life conditions. Hence, crime and violence are not exactly “lucrative activities” but sometimes the last means left for impoverished groups. The author adds that, “in this scenario violations of human rights tend to lower the alternatives of actions for these peoples and groups, and may increase rather than curb their motivation for practicing crime and violence” (p.133).
One last aspect that I would like to highlight – and which is intertwined with this view of human rights – is Mesquita Neto’s effort on theorizing the democratization of the police in Brazil. Several attempts of police reform (including the demilitarization of the police and civil accountability of police agents) have been blocked by lobbies of the armed forces and the military police in the national congress. Yet, even though he deems “democratic policing [as] a distant reality in Brazil” (p.374), Mesquita Neto did not hesitate to time and again contribute to a perspective on democratic policing and on a democratic field of public security more generally. He is crystal clear in what he means with ‘democratic policing.’ First, the police are democratic when they prioritize the protection and wellbeing of citizens rather than safeguarding governments or governors. Second, democracy in the police means that the institution will be accountable to the law, not to the government. Third, a democratic police protect human rights. Fourth, the police are democratic when they are more transparent, “open to participation and control by the civil society” (p.398).
To bring this review to a close, I should recall that when Wittgenstein devised his conception of grammar, he meant that in addition to governing and regulating moves of items in a social usage of language, a grammar constitutes the very identities of these items . Rules in a game such as chess do not only govern the movement of pieces but also determine their very identity. Therefore, Mesquita Neto’s resolute effort in making clear that he was not grappling with an old grammar of authoritarianism and militarization in public security but with a new grammar of democracy (and with all the difficulties, contradictions and disputes in between) is ultimately a tenacious attempt of defining the very conditions on the possibility (hence the identity) of the moves within the game of democratic policing in Brazil.
Daniel Silva teaches linguistic anthropology and pragmatic theory at the University of Rio de Janeiro (Unirio). He received his Doctorate in Linguistics from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in 2010. During 2007 and 2008, he did part of his doctorate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now completing an edited book on the relationships between language and violence.
 See, for instance, Foster, Michael, Wittgenstein on the Arbitrariness of Grammar. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.