In 2023, Brazil faced a series of significant events across various sectors, ranging from political upheavals to security crises and social challenges. In January 2023, Brazil experienced a significant political upheaval when supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro invaded the Three Powers Square, in the capital. The former president also faced legal consequences, being condemned, and declared ineligible for eight years by the Superior Electoral Court. The political landscape further strained as tensions escalated between Congress and the Supreme Federal Court. In addition to President Lula’s efforts to build a broad congressional alliance faced challenges, with legislative rejections impacting key projects. The year also had security crises in the states of Rio Grande do Norte, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro, which were marked by waves of violence and special law enforcement operations in response. The year also saw an increase in crimes in some areas of São Paulo city, due to drug abuses and an increase of homicides during police actions to fight drug trafficking in the state. In addition, violence in the Amazon region, linked to the presence of criminal groups, raised international concerns. Additionally, violence in schools’ broke records. Another category of crime that stood out this year was that of digital crimes, particularly banking scams. All of this highlighted the need for comprehensive measures and reforms.
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The 8 January Incident
On 8 January, after two months of protests on federal highways and in front of military installations, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro invaded the three main Brazilian administration buildings in an attempt to initiate a movement to overthrow the newly elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The protests were driven by unfounded allegations of fraud in the elections, primarily spread through social media. Despite causing serious damage to buildings and objects of historical value, the invaders failed to mobilize the Armed Forces to support Lula’s removal.
Preparations for the attack involved messages exchanged between attackers and information shared on social media about alleged support from the Military Police. Despite warnings from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (Abin) about the risk of invasion, local authorities in Brasilia downplayed the situation, allowing the invaders to overcome resistance from security forces and invade the buildings.
In total, 1,843 people were detained, and material damage was estimated at R$20 million. The response to the actions involved the removal of local security authorities, arrests, and dismissals in the Armed Forces. The Lula government implemented measures to prevent future incidents, including creating a police force to protect federal agencies and drafting laws to punish financiers of coup demonstrations. The situation garnered international support, but tensions between the government and security forces persisted.
On 14 August, the Supreme Federal Court (STF) sentenced the first defendant, Aécio Lúcio Costa Pereira, to 17 years in prison for crimes such as criminal association and coup d’état. Two others were also sentenced to at least 14 years. The Superior Electoral Court (TSE) condemned former President Jair Bolsonaro, making him ineligible for eight years due to abuse of power and misuse of the media. These offenses were committed when the former President attacked the reliability of the electoral system during a presentation to dozens of foreign ambassadors at a meeting in Brasília, impacting Brazil’s political credibility. The TSE’s decision is seen as a message to defend institutions.
On October 18, the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI) issued its final report, recommending the indictment of former President Jair Bolsonaro and 60 others for their roles in the 8 January incidents. The report accuses them of crimes such as criminal association, political violence, and coup attempts. Notably, five former ministers and high-ranking Armed Forces officers were involved. Additionally, Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco proposed amending the impeachment law, especially the inclusion of a crime of responsibility for military commanders.
The punishments handed over to those arrested in the Three Powers Plaza incident were considered harsh but a way to prevent new acts. Since then, demonstrations promoted by Bolsonaro’s supporters dwindled. The most recent event held by this contestation group was seen only on 26 November, after a man arrested during the 8 January attacks died in prison due to health problems. Yet, comparatively, it mobilized few participants.
This may suggest that, for the moment, the previously quite volatile political scenario of Brazil has become a bit calmer and less prone to violent outbursts between supporters of politicians. However, with the 2024 Municipal Elections arriving soon, this condition has good chance of being reversed.
The Balance of Powers I
Elected with a left-wing base that won only a quarter of the seats in the Federal Chamber, Lula had to overcome a year full of negotiations with Congress to be able to even maintain the design of his ministries. The political agreements sealed involved mainly the distribution of strategic positions in the public administration and many resources to senators and federal deputies. An important player in this is the political group called the “Centrão”, a circumstantial coalition which has as members from different parties like PP, PL, Republicans, Solidarity, PTB, PSD, MDB and DEM.
Amid many negotiations, the government distributed 11 ministries to Brazil Union, MDB, PSD, PP and Republicans. In addition, until September, R$ 24.2 billion were allocated to congressmen to spend in their local bases.
Despite this, the relationship between Congressmen and the Federal Government was highly unstable and full of tense episodes due to problems in the political articulation, which led to delays to pay the promised resources and appoint positions within the state structure.
After many unsuccessful talks, Congress threatened to do not approve Lula’s administration ministerial structure, forcing it to return to that of the previous president, which had 23 ministries, instead of the current 37. At the last minute, the government succeeded in maintaining its structure that constitutes an important arrangement to negotiate support in Congress.
Another achievement by the government was the approval of the tax reform and the project that changes the rules of Administrative Council of Financial Resources (Carf) in November, considered priorities for the Finance team. The provisional measure (MP) that changed the ICMS subsidy rules were another achievement for the Finance Ministry’s team.
Parliamentarians assess that ups and downs will continue in 2024 if the government does not change the political articulation team. It could evolve and reach a quite negative scenario, where two proposals, still without much support, could gain projection. The ideas are to implement a semi-presidentialism regime and to end with the possibility of re-election of the President. Semi-presidentialism is a political model in which the Executive power is shared with representatives of the Congress appointed in the Government, “diluting” the president’s power. Meanwhile, prohibiting a reelection would limit the president to only four years of mandate. The consequences of these reforms would be the limitation of the power of the head of the Executive and a probable increase in the power of the Congress.
Even though, there is no consensus that such measures will bring gains to the Brazilian political system, they have been promoted by the Senate and Federal Chamber presidents, respectively Rodrigo Pacheco and Arthur Lira.
The Balance of Powers II
Congress’ actions to expand its capacities led to a conflict with the Supreme Court (STF). On 23 November, the Senate approved the Proposed Amendment to the Constitution (PEC) that suppress STF’s judges’ monocratic decisions. The bill proposes a limitation to decisions taken individually by ministers of the country’s main court.
During the last months of 2023, tensions between the STF and Congress escalated. A more conservative wing was motivated to pursue limitations to the STF after it started to meddle with decisions about abortion, land demarcation for indigenous tribes, and the decriminalization of drugs and union taxes.
The bill still has to be approved by the Federal Chamber, where it is likely to face more resistance.
Crises in Rio Grande do Norte, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro
Rio Grande do Norte
Rio Grande do Norte experienced a wave of criminal attacks in March, including fires in public buildings, businesses, vehicles, homes, shootings, and deaths. At least 39 cities, including the capital Natal, witnessed at least 273 criminal actions. The attacks were attributed to the criminal faction Sindicato do Crime, which originated in 2012 as a dissent from the São Paulo’s First Capital Command (PCC).
The presence of criminal organizations has greatly contributed to the high homicide rate ever measured in the state, around 29.2 for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum (FBSP).
Last year’s wave of violence stemmed from human rights violations in state prisons, as highlighted by the National Mechanism for the Prevention and Combat of Torture (MNPCT). Their report exposed torture by criminal police, physical punishment, overcrowding, and even spoiled food. Videos circulating on social media show masked men with large-caliber weapons demanding improvements to the state’s prison system.
To address the situation, police officers from the National Force, Federal Highway Police, and Federal Penal Police were deployed to Rio Grande do Norte to support state and municipal security forces. The incidents underscore the challenges posed by criminal factions and the urgent need for prison system reforms to curb violence and human rights abuses.
Between June and September, Bahia experienced a surge in violence attributed to factional warfare, territorial disputes, and external criminal organizations infiltrating the state. The violence led to hostage situations, clashes with police, and disruptions to daily life, prompting informal curfews and closures of schools and businesses. Bahia’s strategic location for illicit activities, such as drug and weapon trafficking, along with the influence of external criminal groups like the First Capital Command (PCC) and the Red Command (CV), contributed to increase territorial conflicts.
During this period, the state recorded at least 68 deaths in police-involved shootings, averaging nearly two per day, with peripheral neighborhoods of Salvador being particularly affected. Bahia ranks as the second most violent state in Brazil, with 33 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to data from the 2023 Brazilian Public Security Yearbook.
Concerns were raised about the government’s militarized security approach, leading to negative perceptions of law enforcement. Critics are directed to historical ineffective responses which rely on confrontations rather than intelligence and social approaches.
To address the crisis, the Bahia government formed an Integrated Force to Combat Organized Crime (FICCO) in collaboration with the Federal Police. However, the situation in Bahia reflects broader challenges seen in other Brazilian states, suggesting that integrated police solutions provide temporary relief, but the potential for new conflicts remains.
Rio de Janeiro
On 23 October, violent clashes erupted in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro between criminal groups and the police, leading to over 35 buses and one train being burned. The confrontation was triggered by the death of Matheus da Silva Rezende, alias Faustão, nephew of the leader of Rio’s biggest militia, killed during a shooting with police. The incident exemplifies the ongoing power of the militias in the region.
Rio’s criminal landscape involves factions like the Red Command (CV), Pure Third Command (TCP), Friends of Friends (ADA), and militias. Militias, originally formed by active and inactive members of security forces, have surpassed drug factions in territorial control and exhibit no unified leadership. They have also changed behaviors, making alliances with drug traffickers to profit with the sale of drugs. This convergence of tactics between militias and drug traffickers blurred supposed distinctions between a “good evil” and a “bad evil” that permeated the public opinion.
Internal conflicts within militias, especially after the death of leader Ecko in 2021, created vulnerabilities exploited by the Red Command in 2023. The areas of conflict expanded to zones that include Greater Jacarepaguá, Greater Penha, specific areas in Baixada Fluminense, and Greater Barra da Tijuca (Barra da Tijuca, Itanhangá, Recreio dos Bandeirantes).
The death of three doctors in a kiosk in Barra da Tijuca beach, on 5 October, was one of the high points of the conflicts between militias and drug factions. The group travelled to Rio to participate in an international congress, but one of them was mistaken by a local militiaman during a leisure moment with other four colleagues. Drug traffickers came by car and shot all of them, one survived despite being hit 14 times.
The discovery of a “military tactics” training center settled by a drug faction in Maré Complex, Rio’s North Zone, attacks with grenades in Avenida Brasil and Linha Vermelha – important inter-region roads- added more elements to push authorities to implement another special security operation in the state and the National Force and the Federal Police were called to patrol roads. Later, President Lula approved another federal intervention through a Law-and-Order Operation (GLO), which authorized the use of the Armed Forces to reinforce security of ports, airports and other strategic locations. The state government decided to reinstate the Public Security Secretariat, which had been eliminated during Wilson Witzel’s government.
Even though the South Zone and other tourist areas remained almost untouched by the worst episodes of violence, it had to deal with its own typical issues, which started to multiply themselves in early spring, when temperatures become great for swimming at the local beaches. Recurring mass robberies, robberies, thefts, fights on the streets, episodes of vandalism appeared with strength in September. Despite increased policing efforts, including an entire coordinated effort by law enforcement institutions called Operation Summer, which was initiated earlier in 2023, the issue persists, impacting tourists and residents alike.
Under such circumstances, the Justice Ministry extended the National Force’s presence in Rio de Janeiro until January 31, 2024. The security situation underscores the complex challenges facing the region.
Cracolândia (SP) and New Drugs
In 2023, from January to October, São Paulo central area (1ª DP – Liberdade) accumulated a record number of robberies, 3,772 crimes, which was also the third highest result among the city districts. The region also had the second highest number of cell phone robberies and thefts, there were 6,605 incidents. This rise in crime is linked to the presence of the Cracolândia flow, which left its fix address in Praça Júlio Prestes, and started to move according to the influence of police forces, and drug traffickers, contributing to a spiral of violence in the city.
Over the years, various administrations have addressed the issue differently, with recent efforts by city hall and the state involving police actions to disperse drug users, causing them to spread across the region.
Monitoring by the City of São Paulo revealed a 42.4% growth in the number of drug users in the Cracolândia flow in the second half of the year. The daily average increased from 370 to 527 users from January to June and July to December, respectively. Currently, drug users occupy 12 streets in the central region of the city.
The outlook is concerning, with potential involvement of militias, corrupt security forces, and the influx of new cheap drugs, such as synthetic cannabinoids known as K drugs. The laboratory-made drugs already represent 15% of seizures in São Paulo, and pose a challenge due to difficulties in inspection, as they are often mixed in other substances to evade detection. The government warns that the effects of K drugs can be worse than crack.
In this sense, another threatening drug is fentanyl, an extremely addictive opioid. Even though it has been detected in the country a few times, it is still quite expensive to pose a massive risk. On the other hand, it can be mixed to different drugs to boost addiction, sometimes causing overdose.
Operation Shield, a 40-day effort to combat drug trafficking and organized crime in Baixada Santista, São Paulo, was initiated after the murder of a Rota military police officer in Guarujá. Launched as a response, the operation’s official objective was to dismantle drug networks, however, it became the deadliest São Paulo Military Police (PM) action since the Carandiru massacre. Over 600 people were arrested, and 28 deaths occurred, leading to reports of executions, home invasions, threats, and at least one case of torture.
The Tarcísio de Freitas government (Republicans) denied allegations of misconduct, stating no evidence supports the claims. Across the state, there was a 24% increase in victims of police interventions from January to August 2023, with Military and Civil Police killing 327 people. This contrasts with a previous three-year period, from 2019 to 2022, where there was a 51% drop in deaths during police actions, attributed to the “Olho Vivo” program’s expansion, incorporating body cameras.
Criticism arose due to the absence of body cameras in Operation Shield, contrasting with the positive impact observed when cameras were used. The lack of camera footage in confrontations raised concerns.
On 13 December, São Paulo Justice Court decided that the use of body cameras in operations aimed at responding to attacks suffered by security agents is not mandatory. In addition, the state administration has been reallocating funds dedicated to maintaining the cameras project to other areas. Authorities say that the measure is temporary.
Violence in the Amazon
The expansion of deforestation in the Amazon in 2022, reaching a record of 10,573 km², is linked to the presence of drug trafficking gangs seeking control of borders and drug routes. These groups engage in additional profitable activities such as squatting, mining, logging, and extortion, impacting indigenous peoples and those defending them. Red Command (CV) and First Capital Command (PCC) are the main criminal organizations in the region, with CV controlling territories through guerrilla tactics, acting as a militia, and PCC focusing on trafficking routes.
Criminal actions have contributed to the North region of Brazil having one in five violent deaths in the country, totaling 9,302 intentional violent deaths in 2022. Under international pressure, the Brazilian Federal Government initiated operations to combat illegal activities in the Yanomami Territory, expelling thousands of illegal miners and loggers. Challenges include fighting organized crime in urban centers and providing work opportunities after the closure of illegal operations.
The Amazon region also faces tension with Venezuela claiming ownership of Essequibo, a disputed territory with Guyana, leading to fears of armed conflict on the Brazil-Guyana border. Brazil is interested in preventing instability and potential damage to its regional leadership, particularly with concerns about the involvement of the United States, possibly leading to the installation of a US military base in Guyana.
In October, a 16-year-old student shot and killed a classmate, injuring two others, at Escola Estadual Sapopemba in São Paulo. This incident marked the second such case in the city in 2023, contributing to a nationwide trend of increased attacks in schools. The year has had the highest number of reported cases of school-related violence in Brazil.
The surge in violent incidents within educational institutions has raised significant concerns about the safety of students and educators. These attacks, involving stabbings, shootings, and break-ins, highlight the pressing need for comprehensive measures to address the root causes of such violence and to enhance security protocols in schools.
Several factors contribute to the rise in school-related violence, including exposure to violent content on social media, the vulnerability of young people to extremism, and the aftermath of the pandemic. The closure of schools and the shift to online learning may have played a role in pushing some students toward violent actions.
In Brazil, efforts to address the issue appear uncoordinated and diverse. The Federal Government is working on regulating the online environment and formulating a national policy, while some city and state administrations have opted for responsive tactics, such as deploying armed guards in schools. The multifaceted nature of the problem requires a holistic approach to ensure the safety and well-being of students and educators in educational settings.
In 2023, Brazil experienced a significant increase, ranging from 25% to 35%, in digital scams and victims, leading the country to transition from a role of being a victim to that of an exporter of digital fraud expertise. Banking scams, often correlated with cell phone theft or fraudulently gaining access to victims’ bank details, topped the list of these scams.
Brazil moved from the position of protagonist in the scenario of digital and financial fraud to that of an exporter. Local criminals started to use their expertise to victimize thousands outside the country.
Monitoring of digital scams carried out by the Personal and Consumer Data Association (ADDP) points to a correlation between banking scams and “traditional” crime: cell phone theft/robbery with subsequent access to the victim’s bank details and account access due to fraud (whether through a phone call or malicious link).
Even though scams are reinvented daily, we listed some of the traps that have caused the most financial loss to Brazilians.
- 0800 scam: Perpetrators send false alerts via SMS or messaging apps, claiming suspicious credit card transactions, and instructing victims to contact a fake telephone exchange using a seemingly legitimate 0800 number. Scammers then extract confidential information and induce financial transactions.
- Virtual attendant calls: In this variation, criminals call potential victims, alleging suspicious credit card purchases or scheduled transfers, aiming to extract sensitive information or engage in fraudulent activities.
- Phishing with hot topics as bait: Scammers use popular events like the Oscars, World Cup, or commemorative dates to lure victims through phishing schemes. Victims are convinced to register for gifts, leading to data theft and potential financial losses.
- Sim or WhatsApp cloning: Scammers utilize sim cloning or WhatsApp cloning after obtaining victims’ information through phishing or data leaks. They activate the victim’s number on a fraudulent sim or WhatsApp account, gaining access to SMS and calls and potentially conducting financial fraud.
- Machine scam: Common at large events, scammers quickly exchange a victim’s card during a purchase or use a method called “password sucking” to record a victim’s card details and password for fraudulent operations.
To address some of these issues, the federal government launched the “Celular Seguro” app, aimed at combating cellphone robberies and thefts. The app allows victims to block phone lines and banking applications with a few clicks, contributing to efforts to reduce these types of crimes across the country.
Apple, Google and Samsung do not directly participate in the initiative. As a result, it will probably bring difficulties to completely hinder the criminals’ actions. The companies are behind the most used smartphone platforms in the country. By being left out of the project, this means that the “Celular Seguro” does not impact the systems of the stolen devices, which could reduce the effectiveness of government action.
As shown in this 2023 security retrospective, the phrase “Brazil is not for beginners” attributed to Brazilian musician Tom Jobim is still true and security awareness should be raised when visiting the country.