Bahia Noir

Forrest Hylton

Under a vaulting blue sky, the Sunday morning before last, in Porto da Barra, beside the wooden deck where people practise yoga or capoeira in the morning, and in the evening watch the sunset over Itaparica and the Bahia de Todos os Santos, a young man’s body was found next to the rubbish bins, stuffed in a large Styrofoam cooler, of the sort the barraqueiros on the beach – the people who rent out beach chairs and umbrellas – use to keep beer, soft drinks and coconuts on ice.

Military police with automatic rifles loitered in greater numbers than usual, and bystanders crowded around to see. The man had been shot four times. Another young man who sold drugs on the beach was fatally stabbed a month or so ago.

Jorge, who runs the jogo de bicho on the beach and sells me coconut water, told me there was nothing to see. Just another message from the gang that used to run the beach to the gang that took over. The latter have made themselves scarce since the murder. According to Jesús, a barraqueiro who used to sleep on the beach until it became too dangerous, a lot of them are dead already. They don’t last long, he said.

Each killing brings a temporary show of a massive police presence, after which business as usual resumes: drug deals within spitting distance of where the police park and loaf around. The other end of the beach is more violent: it has more festas, so more drug dealing. Shootings usually happen there, not far from another police command. For the moment, the beach is tranquil, as it used to be before the gangsters moved in a few years ago.

Both facões – the gang that used to run the beach and the one that took over until the Sunday before last – belong to a larger local fação, Bonde de Maluco (‘Crazy Guy’s Crew’), which is backed by the PCC from São Paulo, Latin America’s largest organised crime outfit (thanks to the Brazilian prison system). Comando Vermelho, from Rio (also a product of the prison system), backs another local gang – called, ironically, Comando da Paz – and burned a bus in São Marcos on Monday after one of their members was murdered in police custody.

Murder is an integral part of urban policing in Brazil as in few other countries. More people were killed by the police in Bahia last year (1464) than in the entire United States (1201). Between 2017 and 2022 there were 341 mass-killings in Brazil, of which 252 were carried out by police. In Rio alone, where the police are responsible for 35 per cent of violent deaths, there have been 33 massacres so far this year, twenty of them during police operations, though the overall number of violent deaths in Salvador is down 19 per cent compared to the first half of last year. Afro-Brazilians suffer the brunt of state violence.

Silvio Almeida, a founder of Black Lives Matter Brazil and now the minister of human rights and citizenship, said on 5 August that the pattern of recent police violence, which left thirty dead in eight days in Salvador and the nearby cities of Camaçari and Itatim, was ‘incompatible with a country that calls itself democratic’. After meeting with Almeida on 6 August, the state government – which has been in the hands of the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) for sixteen years – scrambled to fall in line. The governor, Jerônimo Rodrigues, having initially claimed that the police only killed ‘murderers, traffickers, rapists, robbers and other criminals’, promised to investigate any excesses. Almeida’s ministry will be conducting its own investigation.

On the São Paulo coast, in ‘Operation Shield’, the police killed at least 16 people in Vila Santa Clara, Guarujá, on 31 July, in revenge for the murder of a traffic cop several days earlier. A family member of one victim said the police had promised to kill sixty in total; masked men have been raiding homes near where the massacre took place. The governor, Tarcísio de Freitas, formerly a minister in Bolsonaro’s government, declared his satisfaction with the operation.

The far right has deep roots in the police, as it does in the military, and the PT has never managed to confront the issue of policing and public security: neither under Lula from 2003 to 2010, nor under Dilma from 2011 to 2016. This explains, in part, how the Colombianisation of Brazil advanced so dramatically after the far right came to power in 2016, as well as why it continues despite Lula’s re-election last year, and is unlikely to stop. Rui Costa, before he became Lula’s chief of staff, ran Bahia, the PT’s most important stronghold, for two terms, from 2015 to 2022; Lula and Costa selected Rodrigues as Costa’s successor.

Although Bolsonaro may be on his way to jail and is now banned from politics, bolsonarismo – fascism with Brazilian characteristics (both military and parliamentary) – lives on. Unless Lula and the PT reverse course on public security, it is difficult to see how it can be uprooted from the state and civil society.