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Brazil’s President Bolsonaro’s comment that criminals should “die like cockroaches” is not only reminiscent of Philippine president Duterte, but also seeks to persecute social movements, says Mike Fox

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GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Earlier this week, Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, said that he wants to pass legislation that would allow the police to shoot and kill criminals so that they “die in the streets like cockroaches.” Here’s a clip of the interview where he said this and that was published on YouTube last week.

JAIR BOLSONARO, PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL: Someone breaks into your house with a gun and if you stop to think whether to shoot them or not, you’re dead. You have to shoot him. That guy, the criminal, needs to understand, if you invaded a private property, he’s going to suffer the consequences. We are sending this bill to the Senate for approval. From the moment I am protected by the protection in case of legitimate defense, defending my life and the life of others, my property, and other people’s property, and patrimony. Violence will drop drastically. These guys, the criminals, will die in the streets like cockroaches.

GREG WILPERT: Bolsonaro’s call for more police violence is part of new legislation he is pushing called “Excludente de ilicitude.” It would give police officers legal cover to use lethal force against civilians. Human rights groups reacted with outrage to Bolsonaro’s call. They point out that police violence in Brazil is already very high. For example, in Sao Paulo, the police killed 414 people during the first half of 2019 alone, the highest number since 2003.

Joining me now to discuss this latest effort of the Bolsonaro government to implement his far-right agenda in Brazil is Mike Fox. Mike is a freelance reporter and regular contributor to The Real News Network and many other media outlets. Thanks for joining us again, Mike.

MIKE FOX: Thanks, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So how does Bolsonaro’s so-called “tough on crime” policy fit in the larger framework of Bolsonaro as president? And what effect is this policy having on the most vulnerable sectors of Brazilian society?

MIKE FOX: Well like you’ve said, it’s already had a massive increase in the number of police killings around the country. Sao Paulo, more than 400 people within the first six months. Rio de Janeiro was roughly double that, which was the highest figure in roughly two decades. And in recent years, it’s already been very, very high. We’ve seen even cases as early as February of, according to witnesses, police executions. As many as nine people during a drug trafficking raid were just lined up and shot, executed. This type of thing takes what we’ve seen in Brazil already, very, very high violence, very, very high police violence going back years, and it takes it to a whole other level. So that’s on the police front. And it’s very difficult, it’s very intense and extremely disturbing for human rights observers and whatnot. At the same time, his violent rhetoric is also incentivizing violence in far-right communities. We’ve seen an uptick in the threats against LGBT communities, social movements. You say the killing just a couple weeks ago of an Indigenous chief in northeastern Brazil by a group of gold miners. And that also raised flags internationally.

So this thing is happening and it’s growing the impact of this violent rhetoric, and it’s spilling over. It’s also led to the self-imposed exile of many leftists here in Brazil. You saw that with Jean Wyllys, who was the top gay congressman in Brazil up until the end of last year, and he left after a series of death threats on his life. And of course, he’s from Rio de Janeiro, the same place as Marielle Franco, who was killed last March. And so all of this is pooling together and having a massive impact and obviously people are concerned.

GREG WILPERT: Yes, I actually want to dig a little bit deeper on that. Bolsonaro and the right in Brazil have long tried to link crime to the left or to social movements in Brazil. For example, Lula was actually in prison on charges of corruption when the truly corrupt are basically still allowed to go free for the most part in Brazil. Now, tell us about how Bolsonaro is pursuing this link between crime and social movements, and are people and the media buying it?

MIKE FOX: Well first off, it’s important to understand, when you ask if they’re buying it, what side are they laying? We know right now that Bolsonaro, roughly a third of the country supports Bolsonaro, roughly a third of the country is extremely against Bolsonaro, and the other third is somewhere in the middle. And those people who are backed by Bolsonaro and completely for him, of course, they’re going to buy this, and they’re going to share it on social media. Again, we know that Bolsonaro, since his inauguration on January 1st, he has lied or shared false or manipulated information at least once a day, so very similar to Donald Trump in this way. The same fake news, the same pushing of the identity, the narrative that the PT is connected, for instance, to the criminal organization, the PCC. That just came out this last week of them trying to make those ties. It is not.

But then, online trying to make those ties, and of course, it’s pushed by Bolsonaro’s people. The same thing is happening right now. For roughly two months, we’ve had social movement leaders from the housing movement in Sao Paulo that have been in jail under accusations of extortion and under accusations of connections to a criminal organization, of them being a criminal organization. So these connections, these ties, that is exactly what Bolsonaro and this sector is trying to do. And it follows this narrative, Bolsonaro ran on this narrative that the PT was a criminal organization, and basically they were the ones that destroyed the country. This goes back to what the far-right guru Olavo de Carvalho’s been talking about for years. Saying that there’s this cabal on the left that’s been trying to destroy the government and take control and that Communism, that’s what it is. And that’s where Bolsonaro comes in and he’s ran on this. And so his supporters are very much in favor of this.

Of course, everybody else, those people that back Lula very much and those people that back the leftist social movements, what they’ve seen is a crackdown on their own interest. We’ve seen a series, an uptick of surveillance, of police either invading or going into social movement spaces and monitoring what they’re doing, monitoring meetings. The most recent here was on August 2nd when a group of military police went in during a meeting of Women of the [Pesol 00:06:32], the leftist party, the Pesol in Sao Paulo, and basically they monitored people, they took people’s names and said, “We’re here to watch and follow what you’re doing.” So this is extremely concerning taking into consideration the history that the dictatorship has and Bolsonaro’s own relationship with the dictatorship. He was obviously a captain in the military under the dictatorship.

GREG WILPERT: Now, while Bolsonaro’s been using this crime argument in order to go after social movements, as you’re saying, crime ironically has actually been declining recently. As a matter of fact, it started to decline even before Bolsonaro got into office. Now I’m wondering though, what effect is this crackdown, that is particularly the extrajudicial executions and the surveillance in poor neighborhoods, what effect is it having on people there? Surely they must be reacting very negatively, particularly in those poor neighborhoods. Or do people also there maybe see some positive aspect to this?

MIKE FOX: Look, in general, in the poor neighborhoods, obviously there is a massive outrage to this. They’ve seen an uptick in the amount of human rights abuses in those neighborhoods. We’ve seen this for years in Brazil. But definitely within just the last six months, seven months, we’ve seen this uptick. Like I mentioned, you had the case of the executions against people in that neighborhood, and people are distraught by this. They’ve been trying to link Bolsonaro, they’ve been making comparisons between Bolsonaro’s attack on criminals or attack on poor communities and making that connection to Duterte, right, in the Philippines. So this is a big issue. But you do have people, I remember late last year, I was in Rio de Janeiro, I interviewed this one gentleman named Clayton Black from a poor neighborhood, and he was adamantly in favor of Bolsonaro because of the crime issue. So you do have some people that are going to be backing Bolsonaro because of this. They want to see a massive crackdown.

But overall, in the poor favelas, in the poor neighborhoods, they’re the ones that are being most impacted by this and they’re the ones that are feeling these human rights violations absolutely directly. And obviously, to put this into context, we also need to understand that Bolsonaro is not cracking down, he might be trying to track down on narco-traffickers, on crime in general, but there is no crackdown on the militias. And this is a major piece because we have to remember that the Bolsonaro government, Bolsonaro family, has major ties to the militias. If you look at Bolsonaro’s son Flavio, just until late last year, the man who was responsible from the Special Operations police unit, who is accused of killing Marielle Franco, or at least being involved in the killing of Marielle Franco, last year, both his wife and his mother were employed in Flavio Bolsonaro’s office as of late last year.

So these connections are really, really tight, and it’s even fascinating because these corruption charges against Flavio Bolsonaro were rolling through the beginning of this year, through the very beginning of Bolsonaro’s term, and the Supreme Court put a stop to that. They said, “That investigation cannot go on.” So we have not seen any sort of crackdown on the militias, while at the same time what we have seen is an indiscriminate crackdown in poor communities.

GREG WILPERT: Now finally I want to return to the issue of the anti-crime legislation that Bolsonaro is pushing, his package. Now, what likelihood do you see that this law or this package will actually pass in Congress, and how is Brazil’s Congress and the media reacting to this proposal?

MIKE FOX: So there’s two different things, I think it’s important to put that in context. On the one side, you have this one item that Bolsonaro’s been talking about, which would basically be a “get out of jail free” card for police and military who act indiscriminately when on the job. And also not just police and military, but also average every day folks. And I think that’s one of the major concerns about what Bolsonaro’s calling for, is that it can be used across the board in attacks against whatever cases. Like I said, it’s a “get out of jail free” card. So that’s one piece. The other piece is this anti-crime package that Justice Minister Sergio Moro’s been trying to push since February. Right now, the Senate and Congress have been really, really focused on pension reform. Obviously that just passed Congress last week, and is now moving on to the Senate. That’s what the focus is. So this anti-crime package has been in the wings, it’s been waiting, people have been talking about this.

At the same time, we also need to recognize that Justice Minister Sergio Moro has taken a hit from his major involvement in The Intercept leaks that have come out over the last two weeks showing that while he was a judge overseeing the Lava Jato corruption task force, he was extremely biased in his case. He guided prosecutors and his conviction of former President Luiz Inacio Lula was in itself biased. So he’s really taken a hit. Before this he was seen as the golden boy who could do no wrong in Brazil. And so that’s going to weaken the chances of that anti-crime package to be pushed through with such force. We’ve also seen, according to reports just over the last couple days, that members of the Senate and Congress have been lukewarm on Bolsonaro’s freeing up of this indiscriminate package, of giving a carte blanche to military and police to be able to do what they need to do. So we’re probably going to see a weakening of that within the anti-crime package.

At the same time, we also understand that Bolsonaro’s backed by the BBB, right, the Bible, Bullets and Beef caucus, which is one of the major caucuses in Congress. And that is major piece that people are going to be pushing this in order to really back Bolsonaro in this sense. So I think it’s going to be a bit of a fight. Obviously Bolsonaro’s comments that criminals should be shot in the streets like cockroaches are shocking. Many of his comments are shocking and these comments go back to last year when he was talking about how he’d want to push this through and really open up police’s ability to really crack down as much as they want to. The major concern, obviously again, for social movements and members of the left is how this will be used if it is allowed. We’re going to see what happens in the coming months.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Mike Fox, freelance reporter based in Florianopolis, Brazil. Thanks again, Mike, for having joined us today.

MIKE FOX: Thanks, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Michael Fox is a Latin America-based media maker and the former director of video production at teleSUR English.