Last year, Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro told a crowd of Brazilians gathered in Deerfield Beach, Fla. that he would “give police carte blanche to kill.” The first-time pronouncement was met with cheers and made headlines back in Brazil.
Bolsonaro’s strongman approach to policing and rule of law at-all-costs has made him an unlikely populist, winning a landslide election on Sunday thanks to the support from Brazilians in the nation and abroad, including the large population in Florida.
Fast forward a full year and 30 miles north of Deerfield Beach, in West Palm Beach, a trial got started last week that casts shadows on the brand of justice that Bolsonaro is promoting.
A Brazilian man named Edevaldo Ferreira De Souza is facing a federal trial for allegedly lying to U.S. immigration agents about never having been arrested or convicted of crimes in his native Brazil during a naturalization and citizenship interview.
The charges he allegedly hid from U.S. officials stem from a 2000 indictment for aggravated murder and armed criminal conspiracy. The crimes allegedly took place in collaboration with a police death squad named Death Commando, which roamed the streets of Brazilian state Minas Gerais in the early 1990s.
De Souza was indicted for allegedly acting as an informant for the police and helping them lure the victim, Manoel Messias Fagundes, to a place where he was later killed.
“The conspiracy members represented themselves as society's defenders, deciding to execute persons who were involved in criminal activities, or even if they were merely processed in the precinct various times, whether or not they were found guilty by a court of law,” read translated Brazilian prosecution documents.
“Oh my God,” De Souza said when he was confronted about the indictment by U.S. officials in an interview, according to a transcript. “I just have nothing to do with it. Never did this. Never.”
De Souza came to the United States immediately after the indictment came down in 2000, according to the prosecution's court filings. He has not yet returned to Brazil. He is pleading not guilty for the charge of lying to U.S. immigration officials and would face deportation if convicted.
The murder and conspiracy charges were dismissed by Brazilian authorities in 2013 due to the statute of limitations expiring. De Souza is not facing trial for those alleged crimes in the US -- he is only being tried for allegedly lying about getting indicted to U.S. immigration officials.
According to Cesar Muñoz, a Brazil-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, the biggest problem with state violence in Brazil is that so few people face consequences for extrajudicial killings. That makes De Souza’s a rare case of the Brazilian justice system working.
“It happens, but it’s a very small percentage of cases,” says Muñoz. “Any proposal that weakens even further investigations is going to make matters much worse.”
Bolsonaro has made several of these proposals. In addition to granting immunity to police officers who kill alleged criminals, he has said on a live television interview that officers should receive medals for killing people.
“His policies to grant immunity to police officers will definitely generate more and more violence in the short term, among those that need most from the government, poor people in the large cities of Brazil: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Recife and others,” Francisco Ciampolini, a Brazil specialist at Amnesty International, told WLRN.
Despite warnings against Bolsonaro’s policy positions from human rights groups and the internal opposition, he won the expatriate vote for every consulate in the United States for the first round of voting. In Miami, he won 80 percent of the votes cast (expatriate numbers have not yet been released for Sunday’s election.)
Police death squads have been an ongoing issue in Brazil for decades, dating at least back to the late 1980s, as the military dictatorship came to an end and the nation transitioned to democracy. Two massacres in 1993 received broad international attention: the Candelária Massacre, in which eight children were killed by off-duty policemen; and the Vigário Geral Massacre, in which 21 people were killed in one action by military police.
In recent years, as street crime has been on an upswing, the extrajudicial killings have also been on the rise.
Bolsonaro will immediately play a hands-on role in the increasing epidemic of police violence. Earlier this year, current President Michel Temer declared a “federal intervention” of crime in the Rio de Janeiro state, putting an Army general in charge of local police forces, prisons and security operations. The move was in an effort to reduce crime and the number of civilians killed by police, but police killings actually increased by 39 percent compared to the same period last year, according to local reports. Furthermore, any prosecutions of civilian deaths during police actions are now handled by military courts and prosecutors, thanks to a law Temer passed last year.
These processes will now be overseen by Bolsonaro, once he comes into office.
“With this policy, this immunity that Bolsonaro is suggesting, that [accountability] would most likely end,” said Ciampolini. “The due process, the investigation aspect of misconduct, or even of a crime committed by a military or police officer would be diminished to the level that they almost could do anything.”
In other words, under Bolsonaro’s watch, the murder De Souza allegedly lied to U.S. officials about soon might not even be considered a crime. Bolsonaro will formally take office on January 1, 2019.