Brazil is going to the polls on October 2 in an election that offers two diametrically opposed visions for how the region’s biggest country should tackle organized crime.
The crusading and controversial President Jair Bolsonaro is facing an uphill challenge. The destruction of the Amazon is at its highest peak in decades, with appalling consequences for the planet. Security forces are riding high, with salary and budget hikes, and a lack of consequences for abuses and killings. Miners, cattle ranchers, and large landowners have enjoyed preferential treatment, while Indigenous communities and residents of favelas, poorer communities in major cities that are often a flashpoint for both criminal activity and security responses, have been marginalized. The number of guns in private hands has doubled. One positive is that the national murder rate has dropped to a 15-year low.
Facing him, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is seeking a return to the glory days after a stint in prison for corruption for which the sentence was eventually annulled. President from 2003 to 2010, he was widely credited as one of the most popular heads of state on the planet.
Now 76, Lula has issued a defiant policy platform.
It all sounds good, but can he convince Brazil to back him once more?
Here, InSight Crime lays out how Bolsonaro and Lula differ on violent crime and the environment, and how this election could shape Brazil for years to come.
The Amazon has been one of the most-discussed aspects of this electoral race and for good reason. With deforestation soaring, one of the planet’s main bulwarks against climate change is collapsing. Parts of the Brazilian Amazon have already ceased being carbon sinks, now emitting more carbon dioxide than they absorb. The next Brazilian president has the potential to significantly accelerate or slow this devastation.
Bolsonaro has overseen an explosion in environmental crime in the Amazon, with critics accusing his administration of abetting illegal ranchers, loggers, miners, and other criminals. Lula has pledged to strengthen environmental protections, but he faces an uphill battle given how entrenched organized crime has become in the region.
Bolsonaro is certainly clear where he stands on the environment. Throughout his presidency, he has stated that Indigenous people intentionally “hold Brazil back,” that natural reserves “preserve nothing … and could bring in billions in tourism,” or that fires in the Amazon were “criminal acts by NGOs to bring attention against my me and Brazil’s government.” He pledged to weaken environmental safeguards for the Amazon and other protected areas, to favor the exploitation of land by the agricultural and cattle industries, and to roll back government protections for Indigenous communities.
All these have come to pass.
For a decade before Bolsonaro’s election, deforestation rates in the Amazon dropped. They have since skyrocketed to reach over 13,000 square kilometers in 2021, an area larger than the entire island of Jamaica.
On the rare occasions where he paid lip service to environmental protections, Bolsonaro’s government was accused of falsifying climate data or promising to do one thing only to turn around and do the opposite.
There is no reason to believe this will change if Bolsonaro secures re-election. In the last year, he has unveiled a stimulus plan for small-scale mining and lawmakers have tabled increasingly wild plans, including one that would officially remove the state of Mato Grosso from the protected Amazon reserve altogether.
Lula’s track record on the Amazon stands in sharp contrast. Deforestation in the early 2000s stood far higher than it does now, reaching 25,500 square kilometers in 2002. Lula faced a tough task in bringing order to this rampant exploitation of Brazil’s natural resources.
According to an investigation by Princeton University, reducing deforestation became a central axis of his government from the start of his first term. More than a dozen ministries worked together to create an Amazon action plan, which increased monitoring and supervision of the rainforest, and to ensure the enforcement of existing laws.
The results were rapid. From 2004 to 2007, deforestation dropped by more than 60 percent. This trend continued throughout his presidency.
His presidency was not without environmental blemish, however. Lula was not entirely opposed to industrial development in protected areas, including reviving the Belo Monte Dam along the Xingu River. This reportedly forced tens of thousands of Indigenous people to leave their homes. He also openly stated that the soybean and cattle industries were important to Brazil, although he submitted them to environmental constraints which seemingly did not harm their bottom lines.
Lula is now discussing a Green New Deal, if he wins. He has pledged substantial loans for soybean and cattle farmers who expand their operations in existing open pastures that do not require further deforestation. Another crucial pillar of his future environmental plan is “net zero deforestation,” to be achieved by restoring destroyed areas of the rainforest. And the promised creation of an Indigenous Affairs Ministry has been marketed by the Lula campaign as a needed attempt to reverse the despoiling of Indigenous areas in the last four years.
Bolsonaro has increased access to guns, with the predictable consequence that criminals have stocked up their arsenals. If the firearm-friendly president wins reelection, he may go even further. But Lula hasn’t promised to radically change the status quo, potentially leaving organized crime with relatively easy access to firearms, at least in the short term.
In 2019, Bolsonaro signed a decree relaxing gun ownership laws. It removed bans on importing certain firearms, lifted restrictions on the quantity of ammunition private individuals could purchase, and scrapped the need for people to register every single firearm they owned.
At the time, InSight Crime warned that this could easily provide criminal gangs with a convenient new way to acquire guns and only worsen Brazil’s rising homicides. For militia groups, who often recruit members from the ranks of the police and enjoy broad political protection, it was likely to make acquiring guns even easier than before.
Yet not even the police wanted these changes. Ahead of these reforms being passed, federal police representatives wrote to lawmakers to state that the law would “without doubt, result in a return to the chaotic situation in the country of excessive gun supply in circulation, including illegal ones, which could make crime rates much worse,” according to Reuters.
These fears were well-founded.
In June 2022, several operations against the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) in São Paulo found that plenty of weapons used by the gang had been purchased legally by people with no criminal record.
In January, a man was arrested in Rio de Janeiro on suspicion of selling dozens of legally purchased weapons and numerous rounds of ammunition to criminal gangs.
And far from backing off from these regulations, the Bolsonaro government is doubling down. A proposal is currently being discussed in the Senate to enshrine these changes as law with senators having allegedly received pressure from the Bolsonaro family and gun manufacturers to ensure it passes, according to Globo.
While Lula has not outright promised he would reverse all these decrees, it seems likely that he would. In a recent campaign speech, he stated: “there will be no gun decrees in this country, there will be book decrees, there will be decrees to strengthen education.” He may, however, have to contend with a newly confident Brazil gun lobby. Supported and advised by the US’ National Rifle Association (NRA), Brazil’s ProArmas organization has growing influence in the Brazilian Congress and close connections to the Bolsonaro family, as shown in a recent Vice investigation.
While he acknowledged that some felt safer by owning a firearm, Lula stated in September that “before … criminals stole from the police, they killed to steal weapons … Now the liar [Bolsonaro] has legalized the sale of weapons, who is buying weapons must be the PCC, must be the Red Command.”
During his term as president, Lula did take action to curb firearms sales. In 2004, his government passed new rules, raising the minimum age for gun ownership from 18 to 25, requiring weapons to be registered with the defense and justice ministries, and banning firearms in public places.
Brazil’s leading criminal gangs are truly international players in the drug trade. The PCC maintains a productive relationship with Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia, sending tons of cocaine annually across the Atlantic. The gang has also come to dominate much of Paraguay’s drug trafficking landscape and prison system. In the north of the country, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) and PCC continue to fight for control of cocaine from Bolivia, causing dozens of homicides.
Reining them in is a matter of international urgency. The two candidates would go about it differently.
Bolsonaro has vocally supported militarized policing policies, which have led to countless allegations of abuses and few signs of long-term success. But Lula’s flagship security policies also struggled to control organized crime and he hasn’t released a comprehensive plan for dealing with an evolved criminal landscape.
Lula’s rhetoric against criminal gangs, while not nearly as vehement as Bolsonaro’s, repeatedly praised police actions that led to numerous deaths in favelas. In 2010, he ordered that police move into some of Rio de Janeiro’s largest slums, declaring that “we will win this war.”
A 2009 report by Human Rights Watch looking at Brazilian police brutality found that “Rio and São Paulo police have together killed more than 11,000 people since 2003,” the year Lula came to power. Both at the state and federal level, it found overwhelmed criminal investigators, a widespread culture of impunity in police forces, and inefficient piecemeal attempts by authorities to resolve the problem.
Alongside this, one of Lula’s flagship security policies was the creation of Police Pacification Units (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP). These units built semi-permanent bases inside violent neighborhoods primarily in Rio de Janeiro, with a focus on community policing, relationship building, and improving public services.
The result was a mixed bag. A comprehensive World Bank report into the work of UPPs found reports of brutality and misconduct alongside stories of kindness and generosity. Some officers were found to be young and inexperienced, others corrupt and thieving, yet more patient and helpful. As InSight Crime has reported, UPPs tried innovative tactics, including prioritizing violence reduction over enforcing the laws or giving advance warning of a raid, allowing gangs to disappear and avoid conflict.
“Pacification proved that you can reduce violence,” Benjamin Lessing, an expert at the University of Chicago and author of a book on pacifying drug wars, told InSight Crime in 2018. “You can convince the drug traffickers, at least for a while, to put down their arms.”
The issue was one of scale. When the UPP program expanded, resources were stretched thin, which strained the ability to replicate its core values of pacification. It is uncertain whether Lula would bring them back in their original form but he has certainly spoken about wanting to reform the way police treat the citizens of poorer areas.
Bolsonaro never valued the UPPs, stating that a military presence inside favelas would be more efficient.
While Lula’s anti-gang efforts may have been a mixed bag, should he return to power, he will face a more challenging scenario.
Soon after taking office, Bolsonaro gave permission to police to implement shoot-to-kill tactics. A litany of abuses of power has been documented ever since
Police killings have continued to soar, reaching a record of 1,810 people in Rio in 2019 although they trended downwards during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the military police had long been the main dealers of swift justice, killings carried out by the civil police and highway police have soared.
Police helicopters have been regularly sighted over favelas, on occasion sniping at targets from above and wounding bystanders. Alleged raids to root out gangs, especially the CV, have descended into carnage, with alleged gang members chased down and shot dead while unarmed.
Such abuses happened in Lula’s time in office and it is uncertain how he could begin to change such practices. Several Brazilian states and municipalities have come a long way through localized police reform programs. These have contributed to the lowering of Brazil’s homicide rate and may provide a source of inspiration for a potential Lula government.
Militias, while present under Lula, have changed the dynamic of gang violence across the country. Usually made up of former and active police, prison guards, and firefighters, they have swindled their way into controlling entire swathes of public services in major cities. There is strong evidence to suggest that militias benefit from raids on favelas, muscling in once their rival drug gangs have been weakened. And their alleged connections to the Bolsonaro family and their political allies have only deepened concerns about their strength. Yet militias offer a powerful argument: relative safety. Between 2016 and 2019, just under three percent of police shootings in Rio took place in militia territory, as compared to 57 percent in areas held by the CV.
Curbing their power will be a major challenge for Lula if he wins.
Despite a decrease in the number of drugs seized in the country during the pandemic, Brazil remains by far and away the largest consumer of cocaine, marijuana, and synthetic drugs in Latin America and a linchpin of the cocaine pipeline to Europe. It shares borders with all three major cocaine-producing nations, Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, as well as with Paraguay, a large producer of marijuana.
Brazil has only increased its importance to the global drug trade in recent years. The port of Santos, near São Paulo, has confirmed its status as perhaps the most important gateway to send cocaine to Europe. Brazilian drug gangs continue to buy tons of cocaine from Bolivia and Paraguay. The international imprint of gangs like the PCC only continues to grow.
Yet Bolsonaro has not seemed particularly concerned.
Early on in his presidency, Bolsonaro took a tough line against drugs. He signed an anti-drugs law that required consumers to seek treatment, including in private or religious rehabilitation facilities. It also allowed relatives or public officials to recommend addicts be taken for treatment, even against their will. The law also toughened sentences for drug traffickers from a minimum of five years in prison to eight.
This approach was criticized for going against more health-based treatments becoming increasingly popular around the world.
Beyond this, the president has not brought anything new to the table. Bloody raids into favelas have continued. Overcrowding and abuses remain commonplace in prisons. A few notorious drug traffickers have been brought down.
In contrast, it is unclear how much energy Lula would devote to curbing drug trafficking. During this campaign, he has mulled changing the country’s anti-drugs law to reduce prison time and overcrowding. The former president is also keen to reverse Bolsonaro’s stance on drug addicts and return to a healthcare-based approach.
Beyond that, he has not revealed any plans to curb gangs or work with neighboring countries to crack down on drug trafficking. Bolsonaro has used the threat on the campaign trail that Lula will legalize drugs in Brazil but there is no evidence that he favors this.
Yet there is a lot to do here. Should Lula win, he will certainly enjoy a wave of goodwill which could lead to meaningful collaboration. To the north, President Gustavo Petro of Colombia is embarking on a genuinely ambitious crusade to make peace with criminal gangs and change the dynamics of the cocaine trade. To the west, Paraguay is dependent on Brazilian support and intelligence to crack down on criminal activity as the PCC continues to expand. And to the south, Uruguay is dealing with a worrying sophistication of its drug trafficking landscape, with its gang leaders looking to Brazilian criminal structures for inspiration.
Tackling the drug trade is, by necessity, a transitional challenge requiring transnational solutions. A Brazilian government committed to reforming the way drug addicts are treated, the way drug traffickers are punished, and the way drugs are bought and sold could be transformational.
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