In April this year, the Yanomami people of Roraima State, Brazil reported that a twelve-year-old girl had been raped and murdered by garimpeiros or wildcat miners. The child’s aunt had also vanished, and the miners had thrown a three-year-old child into the river. When the federal police went to the girl’s remote Aracaçá community they found “no evidence of the practice of crimes of murder and rape or death by drowning” even though the village had been burned to the ground and twenty-four Aracaçá people had disappeared, facts that were ignored in the report. This led to a national campaign by Indigenous leaders, politicians, and artists, hashtagged as #Cadêosyanomami? (Where Are the Yanomami?). But this couldn’t address a much worse, more general situation. Reports of the crime recognise that this wasn’t isolated and mention other children “raped to death” or thrown into the river to die. After finally locating the villagers, the Yanomami and Yek’wana Indigenous Health District Council (Condisi-YY) reported a climate of extreme fear imposed by the miners. When some terrified people eventually appeared, they said they had been forced to accept a few nuggets of gold in exchange for their silence. On 10 May, the body of a fifteen-year-old Wapichana girl, Janielly Grigório André, who disappeared on 23 April, was found tied to a tree, also in Roraima. Newspaper reports say the “cause of death is unknown” but it’s significant that this story was juxtaposed with reports about the missing Yanomami. “Gold” is a key word because, as is well known, gold mining is the main driver of violence in the region, and the garimpeiros are encouraged by the Bolsonaro government.
Yet it’s not just about greed for gold but part of a terrible worldwide pattern that has a more acute and visible form in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. In the city of Umbaúba—two years to the day after George Floyd was asphyxiated by a white police officer in Minneapolis—a Black motorcyclist Genivaldo de Jesus Santos, 38, was stopped by five highway police. Although they were told by witnesses that he had been diagnosed as having schizophrenia, they pepper sprayed him, kicked him, stamped on his head, shoved him into the back of a police car, and then threw a gas bomb inside. When Genivaldo stopped struggling and screaming, the police drove off with him. He was dead on arrival at the hospital, but the police report said he “became unwell” on the way to the police station. Genivaldo de Jesus Santos was murdered one day after police raided the Vila Cruzeiro favela in Rio de Janeiro and killed 26 people, and one year after a raid on the Jacarezinho favela in which at least 28 people were executed. Such lethal police violence is commonplace, and to such an extent that the Brazilian Forum of Public Security estimates that police (Rio’s best “social insecticide”according to one police commander) killed 6,416 people in 2020, 80% of them Black: almost 18 people per day, 14 of them Black.
Indigenous people. Black people. Favela dwellers. LGBTQI+ community. Brazil has the highest number of homicides in the world, most of them hate crimes against certain groups. In 2017, a transgender woman, Dandara dos Santos was lynched by eight adults and four adolescents and then shot in Fortaleza, Ceará. A video of the murder went viral in the social networks. In the 2018 trial only five of the killers were sentenced. Although transphobia has been a crime since 2019, Brazil has led the world for thirteen consecutive years in terms of the highest numbers of trans murders, and the numbers are rising. Every 48 hours a trans person is killed and 82% of trans victims are Black. The real dimensions of violence against LGBTQI+ people can only be guessed at because, reflecting the subhuman status given to the victims, official data is scant where it exists and rarely registers underlying motives. However, from 2015 to 2017, data from SUS, the universal healthcare system, recorded 22 attacks per day, and most of the victims were Black.
Bolsonaro didn’t invent anti-queer violence, although he has intensified it most effectively with his special relationship with God, the Bible, and far-right evangelical pastors who have been able to build their platform of hate and death on a solid history of intolerance. In the years of the dictatorship (1964 – 1985), non-conforming sexualities were denounced as a threat to family values, and sexuality became a matter of “national security” in the project of morally sanitising society, as lawyer and human rights activist Renan Quinalha argues. If there were social problems, it was because of deviants. Decades ago, Stuart Hall pointed out that moral panics mobilise fear to construct authoritarian politics and specific social divisions, along such lines as race and gender. In Brazil, this use of moral panic goes back a long way. For example, documents of the Inquisition and others of the seventeenth century reveal a Brazil that is described as having “originated as if from a sexual disease … like entries in a sexual psychopathology manual … and there was clearly one interpretation blaming Africans”. And these old ideas crept into Brazilian modernity as “intervention programs of a hygienic and eugenic nature”.
Official indifference to crimes against certain targeted groups when not out-and-out encouragement of them, often with active police involvement, adds to other forms of dehumanisation of victims from these groups as a way of signalling that since they are less than human, there is really no crime involved. Some 80% of murdered victims are subjected, alive and dead, to carbonisation, decapitation, and stoning, which echo other crimes in which dehumanisation is an essential part: raping and killing young girls, throwing small children into the river, tying a dying girl to a tree, turning a car into a gas chamber in which a man is publicly executed. Sadism and brutality after a body is dead, sometimes called “overkill”, is particularly associated with anti-queerness, and a clear message that this can be done to any subject who is labelled as less than human in a framework where the cidadão de bem (good citizen or, in reality, white, heterosexual male, with money and power) represents the heteropatriarchal family, and where “good” is clearly divided from “evil” by a moral panic whipped up by the straw man of “gender ideology”, which is allegedly an ideological apparatus designed to indoctrinate children in sexual perversity and undermine “God’s” traditional family. All this ties in with a ubiquitous use of torture, as Amnesty International describes: “It is either committed by agents of the state … or with their connivance … Crucially, it is a crime that persistently goes unpunished [and] the vast majority of victims are … often of Afro-Brazilian or indigenous descent”. The paradox is that systematic anti-LGBTQI+ violence is dismissed by the very system that enshrines it, as random, individual, a question of private phobias. But maybe it’s not such a paradox because this means that appearances of respect for the law can be kept up by sometimes punishing it. Moreover and especially, keeping queer issues as a “personal” matter enlists the cidadão de bem as an (often armed) agent of the state who will take the matter of family protection into his own hands.
There’s a pattern. These crimes are systemic and against clearly identifiable groups of people, but what kind of barbaric system is this? It may not be exclusive to Brazil (as global neoliberalism, could be described as a form of the same thing, still disguised in liberal garb) but it is blatant enough to merit another name even if it belongs to the system albeit at the more extreme end. It fits the definition of necropolitics. The Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe describes sovereignty as “the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not”, and distinguishes Foucault’s concept of biopolitics (governance of life) from necropolitics (politics of death) or “contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death”, which “profoundly reconfigure the relations among resistance, sacrifice, and terror”. The closer people are to power and wealth, the more valuable their lives, and the further away people are from this sphere and its rules the more precarious and terrifying their existence becomes because they are the subjects of necropolitics.
The Brazilian jurist Antonio Pele, drawing on Mbembe, describes three main aspects of necropolitics. The first is what he calls the necroeconomy, in which “surplus” populations are exposed to risks and dangers. Bolsonaro’s vetoof crucial points of a law aimed at protecting Indigenous communities against COVID-19 would be one example of this, especially since, with their land claims, they stand in the way of the government’s plans to exploit the Amazon to the point of destroying it all, bringing about the extinction of thousands of species, and accelerating the deadly global climate crisis. Second, certain groups are confined in demarcated spaces, like refugee camps, slums, and favelas, where they are monitored, threatened, harassed, and killed in such a way that random violence becomes total violence. For many women, not to mention non-straight and gender-dissident people, the family could be one of these confined spaces where, as Banu Bargu and Marina Segatti point out, “If biopolitical mechanisms promote the traditional family, fear creates the conditions that justify the necropolitical persecution and elimination of the Other, in this case, of the one who threatens the ideal traditional family”. A third aspect, death on a large scale, takes several forms that are especially relevant in Brazil, including state terror against certain groups; use of accomplices in state violence, like militia groups, gangs, paramilitary groups, and widespread circulation of weapons in society; predation of natural resources in which Indigenous people are displaced and exterminated by state forces and their agents, like garimpeiros, armed beef barons, international corporations and their hitmen, and criminal organisations; sadistic forms of killing, using torture, mutilation, massacres, and public executions; and a point that is especially pertinent in Brazil, namely moral justification of these crimes and, in this case, what Mbembe calls “messianic eschatologies”. Finally, we would add that since outsiders have no voice, politics in Bolsonaro’s Brazil becomes an exercise in mass criminalisation in accordance with a moral agenda dictated by fanatical evangelical politicians who organise the policing of citizen behaviour by state and non-state agents.
At a recent meeting in Barcelona, organised by the Pere Casaldàliga Foundation, theologian Juan José Tamayo, described Bolsonaro’s political theism as providentialism in which a wonder-working god saved his life from an assassination attempt (and from COVID-19) and made him win the 2018 elections (evidently a god who is a fake news genius, though Bolsonaro doesn’t mention this). “The God of Bolsonaro—also known as BolsoNero—requires human sacrifice, a selective sacrifice of people, social classes, and the most vulnerable sectors of the Brazilian population, of Afro-descendant, and Indigenous communities”. Bolsonaro believes more in the Bible than the Constitution and his god is invented by the hocus-pocus of evangelicals, so at the height of the pandemic, which has reportedly (5 June 2022) killed 667,000 Brazilians, he officially decreed that religions are an “essential service”, echoing the claim of far-right evangelical pastor Silas Malafaia who says, “The church as an agency of emotional health is as important as hospitals”. Needless to say, hospitals critically lacked essential staff and supplies to deal with the pandemic. In fact, in 2020Bolsonaro rejected 700 million vaccines from eight different manufacturers. Biologist-researcher Dimas Covas is blunt about the reality. “The president is practising social Darwinism. [He] exposes people to the virus: the strong survive and the rest die.” More pragmatically, these deaths are also justified in the name of “saving the economy” (in one of the world’s most unequal countries where, for example, 1% of white men have more income than all Black and mestizowomen together).
Opinion polls presently show that Lula has a clear advantage over Bolsonaro in next October’s elections. One Afro-Brazilian activist from Bahia, Nathália Purificação, aged 23, expresses her hopes in a way that shows she understands all too well how necropolitics functions: “Bolsonaro represents the death of our people, our extermination … Lula’s the opposite – he represents hope”. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro describes the election as an epic battle between Good and Evil, while Lula declares, “We are going to win this battle for democracy with smiles, affection, love, peace and harmony”. But Lula will need to provide a solid material foundation for these fine feelings, and his best option would be a universal basic income above the poverty line, which would (at least statistically) abolish poverty, recognise the right to material existence of all citizens, and underpin a new emphasis on human rights in general. And he should start on this project right now, explaining to the population what a universal basic income would really mean in terms of their human rights. It will take a lot more than smiles to rid Brazil of its deeply entrenched politics of death.