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The Hand That Feeds

Brazil's election could usher in a new era of US-sponsored human rights abuse.

Words: Edmund Ruge
Pictures: AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

“Let me repeat myself: We will not provide arms where we believe they will be used to conduct a gross violation of human rights.” – Tina Kaidanow, former assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the US Department of State. August 8, 2018

“You can get out of here! You won’t have any more chance in our homeland […] It will be a cleansing never seen in the history of Brazil.” – Jair Bolsonaro, presidential candidate. October 21, 2018

On October 8, a US-supplied shipment of 96 armored vehicles pulled into southern Brazil’s Paranaguá port. The timing could not have been worse.

The cargo numbered 56 M109A5 auto-propelled howitzers and 40 M992 armored ammunition carriers, all donated under through the Pentagon’s Excess Defense Articles Program (EDA). Brazilian social media erupted.

Arriving just days after the first round of Brazilian national elections, the shipment’s timing seemed intentional — a measure of tacit approval for presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right rhetoric. Many remembered “Operation Brother Sam,” the Johnson administration’s unfulfilled contingency plot to provide a naval task force in support of the 1964 military coup that ousted President João Goulart. The imperialist establishment, it would seem, was up to the same shenanigans.

Well, no.

The delayed shipment — authorized in the fall of 2017 and due to arrive months ago — was just one of dozens of EDA transfers (detailed in a public database) from the US to Brazil over the last decade. The electoral-season timing may be cringe-worthy, but this isn’t Cold War intervention. This is the US’s new brand of blindly militarized foreign policy.

And there’s more on the way. Brazil is slated to receive 200 M577A2 command post carriers and 120 M198 towed howitzers via EDA from the US in the coming year.

But the problem transcends optics.

In a context of extreme violence and a near-certain victory for Jair Bolsonaro, continued EDA transfers to Brazil will directly support militarized domestic security and human rights abuse. This is a violation of the US’s Conventional Arms Transfer policy.

The EDA Program, Bolsonaro, and Human Rights

Authorized under Section 516 of the Foreign Assistance Act, the US began its policy of distributing surplus military equipment as a measure to support Cold War allies. Partner countries either buy arms at a reduced price or receive them as grants, covering only shipping and handling costs, accepting arms on an “as is, where is” basis.

All arms transfers are subject to case-by-case approval under a presidential-level Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy, which lays out thirteen prerequisites that must be met prior to any sale or export. But, in the case of Bolsonaro, these prerequisites raise some major red flags, particularly with regard to human rights.

At this point, you have probably heard of the horrific things presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro has said. The former army captain is demonstrably homophobic, sexist, racist, and has openly lauded torture. In other contexts, Bolsonaro has claimed he would “put an end to all activism,” and that the UN Human Rights Council is “good for nothing.” Last week, he threatened members of presidential candidate Fernando Haddad’s Workers’ Party (PT) with exile or imprisonment, saying “Either you leave or you go to jail. These red outcasts will be banned from our country.”

Last week, he threatened members of presidential candidate Fernando Haddad’s Workers’ Party (PT) with exile or imprisonment, saying ‘Either you leave or you go to jail. These red outcasts will be banned from our country.’

Bolsonaro’s supporters dismiss his more inflammatory remarks as rhetorical. But if his typo-riddled middle school powerpoint of a government proposal, titled “Project Phoenix,” is at all indicative of his actual intended policy, human rights are in serious jeopardy.

The plan’s public security section includes reducing the penal code’s legal age of adulthood to 16, revising disarmament statutes to legalize civilian arms possession (currently illegal in Brazil), and expanding the use of a Brazilian legal tenet known as excludente de ilicitude — giving expanded legal protection to police that kill in the line of duty.

The policy also calls for “a redirectioning of human rights policy, prioritizing the defense of victims of violence.”

Cryptic? Consider that the reputation of late city councilwoman and human rights defender Marielle Franco been attacked since her assassination in March. Only days after her death, Brazilians took to the web to announce that Franco got what was coming for “defending criminals.” On October 3, two congressional candidates from Bolsonaro’s PSL party destroyed a street placard designed in homage to Franco, writing on Facebook, “Prepare yourself leftist-psychos, when it comes to us, your days are limited.”

Eroding the work of human rights advocates while expanding police use of lethal force should raise red flags anywhere, but Brazil isn’t just anywhere. Brazil’s police already kill more than any other police force on earth, having tallied up 5,144 kills in 2017 alone, up 20% from 2016, and more than five times the number killed by police the US in the same year.

Bolsonaro’s security policy framework is an invitation for the deadliest police on earth to shoot more, assuring impunity for those who kill.

Power and Impunity Unseen Since the Military Dictatorship

Were public security the exclusive territory of Brazilian police, the US might rest assured that arms donations would at least be used only for military operations. Not so.

The Brazilian military does regularly conduct counter-narcotics operations along its interior and maritime borders, but the Brazilian armed forces have also seen direct involvement in domestic operations for the last several decades via the Guarantee of Law and Order (GLO) provision of the Federal Constitution.

GLO allows the armed forces to intervene episodically to support state police in the context of a “serious breach of peace.” Amid the deterioration of state finances and public security over the last decade, Brazil has increasingly relied on GLO operations to shore up state security forces. Bolsonaro has said he will continue to use the military for this purpose.

Current president Michel Temer ratcheted up military involvement in February 2018 by declaring federal intervention into Rio de Janeiro State security affairs, replacing the state security secretary with a federally appointed interventor, and declaring all issues of state security under direct control of the armed forces. This interventor responds directly to the president.

In Rio, the intervention has made things worse.

According to the Intervention Observatory, a monitoring body installed at the onset of federal intervention, while state homicide levels have decreased by 3.2% from February to October compared with the same period in 2017, shootouts have increased by 59% and the number of people killed by police has increased by 42%.

A preliminary report by the Rio de Janeiro public defender’s office found state police and armed forces members responsible for more than 30 types of human rights violations in Rio favelas since the intervention. These included, among others: robbery, damage to property, sexual violence, extorsion, physical and verbal aggression, and extrajudicial execution.

The armed forces have also enjoyed new impunity since last October, when president Temer signed legislation allowing armed forces members that commit homicide under GLO operations to be tried in military courts rather than civil courts. The law, according to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, would “preclude the possibility of an independent and impartial investigation carried out by judicial authorities not linked to the command structure of the security forces.”

And military equipment plays a part in all of this.

Naval warships, armored personnel carriers, and military helicopters are all routinely used in urban counter-narcotic operations in residential neighborhoods. Video footage of tanks rolling up the hills of Rio’s Complexo do Alemão favelas may have shocked the world in 2010, but such tactics have become standard practice in Brazil. In fact, the M113 armored personnel vehicles used in that operation have been put to consistent use in security operations throughout Rio since 2010.

The US donated 12 M113s to Brazil via the EDA program in 2016.


In a few days, Brazilians will return to the polls to cast their final votes for president. In a likely victory, Jair Bolsonaro will stand poised to commit gross violations in human rights.

The US now faces a choice. If it continues to mechanically supply Brazil with EDA and other arms transfers, these weapons are likely to be used against civilians. The US can violate key tenets of its own policy, or it can stop.

Now is the time to stop.

Edmund Ruge


Edmund Ruge is a researcher based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He holds an MA in International Economics and Latin American Studies from The Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Prior to attending SAIS, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique.


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