Brazil Has Two Polices: One Shines, the Other Puts the Country to Shame

Brazilian Federal Police agent's badge

On Sunday, May 27, nine people remained from the 48 arrested during Operação Navalha (Operation Razor) launched the previous week by the Brazilian Federal Police. Newsroom summaries are increasingly emptied because no new or spectacular events are expected from the investigations made public so far. What we have now are different characters and much more prosaic stories on the operation.

The Sunday headline in Globo, for example, features the president of the Association of Brazilian Magistrates (AMB) and his innocuous statement that AMB will request higher priority for corruption cases.

No word at all about the role that the same association agreed to play last week when it criticized “abuses” by the Federal Police without pointing fingers at anyone. A sign that the navalha was good enough to slash the neck of a minister, but now it’s blunt. End of story.

Now the press will finally have to step up. Is it ready to face the challenges of a country lacerated by corruption and eager to rid itself of evil, or is it content in its role as a sounding board for a section of the Federal Police? That is why I think we have two stories in the roll right now.

The first one: what is hiding behind the efficiency of Polícia Federal (PF) in these operations? What’s the secret here? Only the daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo got close, but not very close, to showing that there is a PF within the PF in Brazil and that PF-2, if we can call it that way, is the one responsible for the success of the investigations – Navalha, Hurricane and others.

A PF without the serious restrictions on supplies and equipment of the other police units – with money, time, manpower and technology to investigate crimes. This PF sits down with Justice Department officials and judges, negotiates deadlines and strategies, organizes its work in a way that helps those who will come later and puts together very thorough reports and dossiers. They know their role very well and strive to achieve strict observance of the law. With total support from their superiors.

Two Polices Within One
It has its slips, too, of course. Were its findings more daring, the press would get access to the failures of the new PF, which is a good story. But the best story is that PF-2 wants nothing to do with the other Police, the PF-1 – the one with the strikes, the airport lines, all those police stations, the 40-day wait to get a passport, all those inquests wandering like moribund zombies without an end in sight, with one extension request after the other and all the orders from the Justice Department which are never enforced due to some futile reason.

At some of those inquests the only thing missing was for the PF-1 officer to say that he did not do his job on time because he had to go have his hair cut at Jassa. By the way, O Estado de S. Paulo pointed to a curious fact: PF-2 does not even share the same facilities with PF-1 in the different states. They should have added that if you belong in PF-1 you can’t enter the PF-2 headquarters building in Brasília unauthorized: access is controlled by a strict electronic system.

The press, however, has until now ignored this story about two police forces within one and the same force and is now attributing to the entire PF something that belongs in one small and select group.

That is why we must show the other side: the PF that doesn’t work, the PF of the daily grind; the PF that citizens of Brazil have to face every day; the PF who never investigates anything, zilch, because it doesn’t want to be inconvenienced; the PF who sit at their desks in their grandiose, expensive and useless buildings and pretend to work.

Post-Navalha Challenges
The other issue is more complex. We keep searching for the root of impunity but the press never descended deep into these explorations. What we have are interviews with mediocre experts, always the same ones representing solid interests, but it’s rare to see a journalist get personally involved in the dirty daily work of a court or tribunal. Reporters actually almost never leave the office to collect information in the field.

I remember when I worked at Gazeta Mercantil in the beginning of the decade. We got several scoops by making simple visits to courtrooms, peeking into important cases and talking to court employees to find out when the “doutor” (“doctor,” the judge) was going to sign stuff.

It works, because the Judiciary is the most transparent of branches in end-work (which is crushed with the furious secret of middle-work) since everything is down on the records and records are public – except in the rare confidential cases. The staff at courthouses may look at you sometimes with a threatening expression but they are regular people who usually treat well those who treat them well.

I ask you now: why don’t we do special reports about the daily grind of investigators, attorneys and judges? What is the reason for trusting all these supposed experts so much? Big stories showing “justice from within” with testimony by real people (judges, attorneys, police officers, defendants, witnesses, staff, lawyers, etc.) in real situations (hearings, meetings, appearances, etc.) can clarify to the public innumerable issues about the poor workings of the criminal justice system and remove the debate from the sphere of the customary enlightened minds.

All we would need is to assign the best people for this kind of work. Bringing international correspondents into the game would be an excellent addition and would point to what really makes Brazil different from more serious countries.

However: no old reporters used to cover the police or judiciary beats. It’s essential to have little or no contact with the forensic-law enforcement world in which vices are learned very fast – as fast as virtues dissipate.

The complicity between sources and reporters in this issue and the survival instinct of the beat reporters, always anxious for the next scoop, would contaminate the journalistic investigation.

Will the press have the breadth, competence and seriousness necessary to face the post-navalha challenges? Or will the guys wait for the next operation so they can be miserable repositories of convenient off the record comments? We will find out.

Ângelo Augusto Costa is a Brazilian journalist. This article appeared originally in Observatório da Imprensa.

Translated by Tereza Braga. Braga is a freelance Portuguese translator and interpreter based in Dallas. She is a certified member of the American Translators Association. Contact:


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