'License to kill' in Brazil. What could go wrong?

High crime has made Brazil's cities unlivable, which is why many of even the poorest Brazilians flocked to elect right-wing conservative Jair Bolsonaro for president. 

But his solution – which news accounts say is to just get out there and shoot the criminals – isn't likely to work.  Here's what Bloomberg is reporting:

Teams of marksmen next year will patrol swaths of Rio de Janeiro with high-powered weapons and a license to kill, said a security adviser to Governor-elect Wilson Witzel.

As many as 120 sharpshooters will accompany police incursions into the slums of Brazil's postcard city to exterminate gun-toting criminals, according to Flavio Pacca, a longtime associate of Witzel who the governor-elect's press office said will join the administration.  The shooters will work in pairs – one to pull the trigger, one to monitor conditions and videotape deaths.

"The protocol will be to immediately neutralize, slaughter anyone who has a rifle," Witzel, a federal judge and former Brazilian marine, told reporters in Brasilia on Dec. 12.  "Whoever has a rifle isn't worried about other people's lives, they're ready to eliminate anyone who crosses their path.  This is a grave problem, not just in Rio de Janeiro, but also in other states."

So much for self-defense and Bolsonaro's much screamed about plan to enact responsible gun ownership.

It's probably triage, given the immense suffering of Brazil's citizens from violent crime, but it's also unlikely to work.  Enacting a mow-'em-down policy is little more a quick fix for a problem that has been decades in the making.  Instead of going for that, Bolsonaro would be way better off going for emulating nations such as Singapore and Chile, two countries that eradicated their massive crime problems by making laws mean what they say they mean.  Brazil actually needs more rule of law and fewer actual laws, the quantity of which fuels crime and corruption.  Here's what it's stuck with now, according to this superb report by David Luhnow of the Wall Street Journal:

A 10-year study of murder cases in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte found that police investigations lasted an average of 500 days, the average trial lasted 10 years and in a quarter of the cases the statute of limitations ran out – allowing the suspect to go free.  Some 7% of suspects were slain before their sentence was handed out, in many cases by families of victims tired of waiting for justice.

It shows that crime is a problem, a really, really, bad problem, across Latin America, and Brazil is one of the worst cases.  It was so bad that the locals (unlike in, say, crime-ridden El Salvador) really did get fed up, and they elected Bolsonaro precisely because they wanted him to get rid of it.

Luhnow gives a sense of how bad it is:

It's not just Mexico. There is a murder crisis across much of Latin America and the Caribbean, which today is the world's most violent region.  Every day, more than 400 people are murdered there, a yearly tally of about 145,000 dead.

With just 8% of the world's population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders.  It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia.  Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil.  Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

The 2016 tally in China, according to the U.N.: 8,634.  For the entire European Union: 5,351.  The United States: 17,250.

Here's what Brazilians read on their Twitter feeds the way middle class Los Angeles people check traffic congestion conditions on their Google Maps before getting in their cars:

A vital Twitter feed in Rio de Janeiro is "Onde Tem Tiroteo," or "Where's the Shootout?" which tells motorists which parts of the city to avoid.  Some recent entries: "A grenade was thrown on the pedestrian bridge near Zuzu Angel Tunnel."  "Shots on 2nd Street in Rocinha, police base under shooting attack."

Will Bolsonaro's plan work?  I don't see how it can, given the global examples of trying what he's trying that are out there.  Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand tried it; he got thrown out.  Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is currently trying it and has fallen sharply in the polls.  The legal base had better be really strong for it, given the potential for abuse – the cameras idea might be some kind of control, but who's to stop the cops hitting a storekeeper trying to defend himself from robbers, or who's to stop political shootings over grudges, given what we have seen of the U.S. FBI's behavior against President Trump?  I have a friend who grew up in Argentina during the Dirty War, and she's a good conservative Trump-supporter these days, living in the States.  She once told me the Dirty War cops in that country, Argentina, used to grope the schoolgirls, knowing they had complete impunity to do it.  They were, after all, engaging in extra-judicial killings, so what's a grope here and there?  Nobody punished them.  The whole thing goes to show that power of that sort is likely to be abused.  Law enforcement power is strong, and giving a lot of it out to cops (or anyone) is trouble. 

It doesn't have to be this way, and there are better ways of stopping it than the easy fix of just shooting criminals on the spot.  There are places that really did get rid of it, and in short periods of time. 

Start with nearby Chile, which Bolsonaro openly admires. After decades of socialism, Chile had been a pit of crime and violence – until free-market reforms, premised on strengthening rule of law, kicked in, under, of all things, the Pinochet military government, much reviled by the left.  This part of the Chilean story is rarely ever told.  But if you can read the memoirs of the heroes of this transformation – namely, José Piñera and Hernán Büchi (whose very interesting memoir is available in English), you will learn that that law was very much at the heart of the economic reforms that transformed the country.  Same with Piñera's.  In the latter's, for instance, we become immensely conscious of Pinochet's adherence to rule of law and his often being hampered by it but still wanting to go along with it.  A real dictator, such as Hugo Chávez, would, by contrast, just ignore laws he didn't like before gerrymandering the Legislature to rule what he wanted.  Pinochet's rule was always justified by its origins, which was the order of the Chilean Supreme Court and the Congress, and it was always premised on following law.  There were abuses, but they paled in contrast to the more strongman-y rule of other nations during the 1970s in Latin America, and that includes Brazil.  They also were punished.  There was no impunity. 

Meanwhile, Singapore was a filthy, stinking den of crime and a violence-plagued port so disgusting that Malaysia kicked it out of its union in the 1960s.  At the time, the nation wondered how it would survive.  It did, based on leadership and rule of law.  It was blessed with a strongman of unusual virtue, Lee Kuan Yew, a man who had been described as "a bit of a thug" by his British colonial masters in the old days.  In focusing on rule of law, he made the new city-state law-oriented, drew investment, and got everyone good jobs and salaries, and things got nice.  Really nice.

Both Singapore and Chile are absolutely wonderful, livable places, and having spent time and even lived in these countries, I am confident of what I am saying.  Both countries went from pigpens to garden spots and in a short period of time due to rule of law and free-market reforms.

Two honorable mentions for trying to follow this path, by the way, are Peru and Colombia.  Peru still has a lot of violent crime, but Colombia doesn't.  The bad guys there, as the WSJ report notes, are concentrated in small areas.  They are both rapidly improving every year by strengthening rule of law and making laws mean what they say they mean.

There's also the example of New York City, which went from a crime-infested, run-down hellhole, brimming with squeegee men and subway fare-jumpers as well as graffiti, muggings, and trash, to a spectacular and livable city during the Giuliani transition.  I lived in that city at the time and saw it transform into something wonderful through enforcement of existing law, making laws mean what they say they mean, in front of my very eyes.  Getting rid of those rule-of-law reforms, in the name of special interests, as socialist Mayor Bill de Blasio has done, has returned New York onto its former path to hell-holery.  "Shattered," anyone?

Shooting 'em all dead sounds nice, particularly for people who are suffering badly from constant, constant, constant crime, but it doesn't work the way they say it will work.  It hasn't worked in the Philippines, where an outrageously populist and fairly anti-American president ordered a similar "mow 'em down" policy, wiping out 20,000 hoodlums.  That hasn't raised his poll numbers or drawn foreign investment to create jobs, the way Singapore's and Chile's reforms did, nor has it raised Duterte's esteem among the electorate.  The crooks just keep coming, and the extended power of the police state has allowed the cops to get corrupt and abuse powers.  That's not fixing the problem. 

High crime has made Brazil's cities unlivable, which is why many of even the poorest Brazilians flocked to elect right-wing conservative Jair Bolsonaro for president. 

But his solution – which news accounts say is to just get out there and shoot the criminals – isn't likely to work.  Here's what Bloomberg is reporting:

Teams of marksmen next year will patrol swaths of Rio de Janeiro with high-powered weapons and a license to kill, said a security adviser to Governor-elect Wilson Witzel.

As many as 120 sharpshooters will accompany police incursions into the slums of Brazil's postcard city to exterminate gun-toting criminals, according to Flavio Pacca, a longtime associate of Witzel who the governor-elect's press office said will join the administration.  The shooters will work in pairs – one to pull the trigger, one to monitor conditions and videotape deaths.

"The protocol will be to immediately neutralize, slaughter anyone who has a rifle," Witzel, a federal judge and former Brazilian marine, told reporters in Brasilia on Dec. 12.  "Whoever has a rifle isn't worried about other people's lives, they're ready to eliminate anyone who crosses their path.  This is a grave problem, not just in Rio de Janeiro, but also in other states."

So much for self-defense and Bolsonaro's much screamed about plan to enact responsible gun ownership.

It's probably triage, given the immense suffering of Brazil's citizens from violent crime, but it's also unlikely to work.  Enacting a mow-'em-down policy is little more a quick fix for a problem that has been decades in the making.  Instead of going for that, Bolsonaro would be way better off going for emulating nations such as Singapore and Chile, two countries that eradicated their massive crime problems by making laws mean what they say they mean.  Brazil actually needs more rule of law and fewer actual laws, the quantity of which fuels crime and corruption.  Here's what it's stuck with now, according to this superb report by David Luhnow of the Wall Street Journal:

A 10-year study of murder cases in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte found that police investigations lasted an average of 500 days, the average trial lasted 10 years and in a quarter of the cases the statute of limitations ran out – allowing the suspect to go free.  Some 7% of suspects were slain before their sentence was handed out, in many cases by families of victims tired of waiting for justice.

It shows that crime is a problem, a really, really, bad problem, across Latin America, and Brazil is one of the worst cases.  It was so bad that the locals (unlike in, say, crime-ridden El Salvador) really did get fed up, and they elected Bolsonaro precisely because they wanted him to get rid of it.

Luhnow gives a sense of how bad it is:

It's not just Mexico. There is a murder crisis across much of Latin America and the Caribbean, which today is the world's most violent region.  Every day, more than 400 people are murdered there, a yearly tally of about 145,000 dead.

With just 8% of the world's population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders.  It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia.  Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil.  Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

The 2016 tally in China, according to the U.N.: 8,634.  For the entire European Union: 5,351.  The United States: 17,250.

Here's what Brazilians read on their Twitter feeds the way middle class Los Angeles people check traffic congestion conditions on their Google Maps before getting in their cars:

A vital Twitter feed in Rio de Janeiro is "Onde Tem Tiroteo," or "Where's the Shootout?" which tells motorists which parts of the city to avoid.  Some recent entries: "A grenade was thrown on the pedestrian bridge near Zuzu Angel Tunnel."  "Shots on 2nd Street in Rocinha, police base under shooting attack."

Will Bolsonaro's plan work?  I don't see how it can, given the global examples of trying what he's trying that are out there.  Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand tried it; he got thrown out.  Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is currently trying it and has fallen sharply in the polls.  The legal base had better be really strong for it, given the potential for abuse – the cameras idea might be some kind of control, but who's to stop the cops hitting a storekeeper trying to defend himself from robbers, or who's to stop political shootings over grudges, given what we have seen of the U.S. FBI's behavior against President Trump?  I have a friend who grew up in Argentina during the Dirty War, and she's a good conservative Trump-supporter these days, living in the States.  She once told me the Dirty War cops in that country, Argentina, used to grope the schoolgirls, knowing they had complete impunity to do it.  They were, after all, engaging in extra-judicial killings, so what's a grope here and there?  Nobody punished them.  The whole thing goes to show that power of that sort is likely to be abused.  Law enforcement power is strong, and giving a lot of it out to cops (or anyone) is trouble. 

It doesn't have to be this way, and there are better ways of stopping it than the easy fix of just shooting criminals on the spot.  There are places that really did get rid of it, and in short periods of time. 

Start with nearby Chile, which Bolsonaro openly admires. After decades of socialism, Chile had been a pit of crime and violence – until free-market reforms, premised on strengthening rule of law, kicked in, under, of all things, the Pinochet military government, much reviled by the left.  This part of the Chilean story is rarely ever told.  But if you can read the memoirs of the heroes of this transformation – namely, José Piñera and Hernán Büchi (whose very interesting memoir is available in English), you will learn that that law was very much at the heart of the economic reforms that transformed the country.  Same with Piñera's.  In the latter's, for instance, we become immensely conscious of Pinochet's adherence to rule of law and his often being hampered by it but still wanting to go along with it.  A real dictator, such as Hugo Chávez, would, by contrast, just ignore laws he didn't like before gerrymandering the Legislature to rule what he wanted.  Pinochet's rule was always justified by its origins, which was the order of the Chilean Supreme Court and the Congress, and it was always premised on following law.  There were abuses, but they paled in contrast to the more strongman-y rule of other nations during the 1970s in Latin America, and that includes Brazil.  They also were punished.  There was no impunity. 

Meanwhile, Singapore was a filthy, stinking den of crime and a violence-plagued port so disgusting that Malaysia kicked it out of its union in the 1960s.  At the time, the nation wondered how it would survive.  It did, based on leadership and rule of law.  It was blessed with a strongman of unusual virtue, Lee Kuan Yew, a man who had been described as "a bit of a thug" by his British colonial masters in the old days.  In focusing on rule of law, he made the new city-state law-oriented, drew investment, and got everyone good jobs and salaries, and things got nice.  Really nice.

Both Singapore and Chile are absolutely wonderful, livable places, and having spent time and even lived in these countries, I am confident of what I am saying.  Both countries went from pigpens to garden spots and in a short period of time due to rule of law and free-market reforms.

Two honorable mentions for trying to follow this path, by the way, are Peru and Colombia.  Peru still has a lot of violent crime, but Colombia doesn't.  The bad guys there, as the WSJ report notes, are concentrated in small areas.  They are both rapidly improving every year by strengthening rule of law and making laws mean what they say they mean.

There's also the example of New York City, which went from a crime-infested, run-down hellhole, brimming with squeegee men and subway fare-jumpers as well as graffiti, muggings, and trash, to a spectacular and livable city during the Giuliani transition.  I lived in that city at the time and saw it transform into something wonderful through enforcement of existing law, making laws mean what they say they mean, in front of my very eyes.  Getting rid of those rule-of-law reforms, in the name of special interests, as socialist Mayor Bill de Blasio has done, has returned New York onto its former path to hell-holery.  "Shattered," anyone?

Shooting 'em all dead sounds nice, particularly for people who are suffering badly from constant, constant, constant crime, but it doesn't work the way they say it will work.  It hasn't worked in the Philippines, where an outrageously populist and fairly anti-American president ordered a similar "mow 'em down" policy, wiping out 20,000 hoodlums.  That hasn't raised his poll numbers or drawn foreign investment to create jobs, the way Singapore's and Chile's reforms did, nor has it raised Duterte's esteem among the electorate.  The crooks just keep coming, and the extended power of the police state has allowed the cops to get corrupt and abuse powers.  That's not fixing the problem.