Sacralizing Security: Religion, Violence and Authority (SACRASEC) ERC Consolidator Project


Bandits, Victims or Sinners?

Negotiating public security provision in Brazil

by Jolien van Veen 

Who should be protected or punished? And who is responsible for executing punishments or protective measures? The answers to these questions are not straightforward but depend on the ways in which security is understood, performed, and experienced in a particular context. While it is often assumed that police officers are responsible for protecting citizens from violence, in Brazil state security forces instead contribute to a sense of insecurity for stigmatized favela residents. The following text illustrates how assumptions about security provision are publicly debated amongst government officials, community organizations, and church affiliates in the wake of a lethal police operation.

On the 6th of May 2021 at least 28 people were killed in a police operation in Jacarezinho, a favela in the north of Rio de Janeiro. “Operation Exceptis” was carried out by a special unit of the civil police force (CORE) and involved over 200 heavily armed police officers and an armored helicopter firing bullets from above. The lethal operation followed a ten-month investigation into the recruitment of children and adolescents by the favela’s leading criminal organization Comando Vermelho (Red Command). Despite a decision by the supreme court to prohibit police raids in favelas during the Covid-19 pandemic, Allan Turnowski, secretary of the civil police, stated that the circumstances of the operation were “exceptional” and justified the need for military intervention.

Civilian police officers during an earlier operation in the Jacarezinho favela in July 2011. The words on the mural read: “look out for us”. Credits: VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images.

Turnowski’s statement is not surprising, given that around the world states increasingly deploy military tactics as part of anti-crime policies. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s iron fist approach to crime has increased the number of shootouts between police officers and favela residents involved in illegal activities. In a reaction to the Exceptis operation, the president congratulated Rio’s police force and stated that “the media and the left treat traffickers who kill, rob and destroy families as victims, as if they were honest citizens who respect the law. This is a big offense to the people who are taken hostage by criminal groups[4]. In a similar vein, vice-president Hamilton Mourão reacted to the operation by saying: “They [those who were killed] are all bandits (…) true narcoguerrilla’s”.

For Bolsonaro and his allies, it is ultimately the Brazilian state who decides whether people need to be punished (as bandits) or protected (as citizens) and which situations count as exceptional and which ones do not. Critical security researchers have pointed out the tensions that arise from this one-sided perspective on security provision as being solely the responsibility of the state. In fact, these scholars argue that de facto security provision in postcolonial settings is often carried out by actors located outside the domain of the state, be they militias, private security companies, or gangs.

Community responses to police violence

Community organizations have responded to the state’s militarization of security in different ways. Immediately after the end of Operation Exceptis, human rights organizations called out against the ‘massacre’ of Jacarezinho’s residents and demanded an independent investigation. Lawyer Joel Luiz Souza, who grew up in the neighborhood, uploaded a video on twitter in which he denounces the use of violence by police officers: “Here, there is no democracy about which they talk in the books, about which we learn in the faculty. (…) People do not deserve to live in a war. It is not fair[6]. Souza’s video received over 300,000 views and generated strong support. The hashtag #ChacinaDoJacarezinho (MassacreInJacarezinho) has been widely shared on social media, accompanied by pictures of blood-covered streets. Other denunciations followed, including a post by the Marielle Franco Institute accusing mainstream media outlets of not talking about the “illegality” of the operation and of calling those who were killed “suspects” rather than persons or citizens.

The post of the Marielle Franco Institute also circulated on the community platform RioOnWatch, which compiled an article of messages criticizing the operation. The platform particularly highlighted the persistent inequalities and discriminative policies leading up to the killings: “You die from the virus, from hunger, or from a bullet. A favelado has no choice. The state is cruel, [it] is a genocide!

In addition to speaking out on social media, favela residents, NGO’s and community organizations have organized public protests around the city carrying banners with the slogans “respect the home of the morador” and “If the favela is a suspect, the state is a culprit”.

“If Jesus were a police officer”

Religious followers have also responded to Operation Exceptis, particularly those affiliated to Pentecostal churches which enjoy a high level of popularity in the favelas. In a column that appeared days after the Jacarezinho massacre on the Christian online platform Comunhão, a retired federal prosecutor writes that: “If Jesus were a police officer, even though he was suffering, he would do everything to protect the lives of criminals or enemies of the uniform and the badge [the police] just as he would do everything to guard the lives of innocent people”. Citing different passages from the bible, the author argues that sin should not be combatted with violence but with love. The only “weapons” one should use to combat sin, he argues, are divine: love, compassion, prayers, and the word of God.

Taking it one step further, pastor Henrique Vieira, who is known for his political criticism, wrote a tweet stating that: “It is the task of Christians to denounce the massacre in Jacarezinho. Jezus was targeted by the violence of the state. Jezus continues to suffer for this [political] carnage. Jezus is on the side of the people. The church has to take a position”.

The website of Igreja Universal, one of the largest Evangelical churches in Brazil, featured an article on the operation from a rather different perspective. Titled: “What has not been said about the operation in Jacarezinho”, the author warns readers not to jump to any quick conclusions about what actually happened during the operation. The article instead highlights the violence employed by Comando Vermelho, the ‘target’ of the operation and states that “police need better training, equipment, and renumeration. Because dealing with human evil everyday affects anyone’s emotional life”.

Negotiating security

Taking the Exceptis Operation as my starting point, I have examined how state officials, community and human rights organizations, and church affiliates publicly voice their ideas on what security provision should look like. In the context of a right-wing presidency, poor, black favelados are often labelled as criminals and are dehumanized to the extent that they can be killed with impunity. For Bolsonaro, only ‘honest citizens’ qualify for protection by the state. Community and human rights organizations have denounced the criminalization of individuals and instead argue that punishments are gendered and racialized. For these organizations, protection from violence applies to everyone and should not be limited to the elite. Church affiliates also partake in discussions concerning public security by pointing to Jesus as the savior and protector of the people. Reactions on social media seem to suggest that the invocation of religion in this context is a political act and takes the responsibility for protection away from the state. Others, however, may read it as a confirmation that ‘true’ religious practice is incompatible with the current militarization of security provision. Ethnographic research would enable us to further unpack the different ways in which political, public, and religious understandings of crime and security circulate and intersect with one another.