Before he was shot to death by fellow members of military police in Brazil, 38-year old Wesley Góes fired his rifle in the air and shouted: “I will not allow them to violate the human dignity of the worker.”
Góes, whose face was painted in the national colours of green and yellow, had allegedly suffered a psychotic episode that led to his fatal stand-off. In the aftermath of his death, his words have made him a martyr among radical backers of President Jair Bolsonaro opposed to Covid-19 restrictions imposed by state governors.
The incident last month in the coastal city of Salvador, located in the state of Bahia, has exposed growing concerns over the military police, or PM, a heavily armed street force often associated with violent tactics and traditionally a loyal base for Brazil’s leader.
“I’ve experienced a lot in the military police, but nobody ever could imagine this,” said Soldado Prisco, a deputy in the Bahia state legislature in Salvador and member of the PM. “It’s a feeling of fear, because who is going to be the next Wesley?”
Within the ranks there is disquiet over its frontline role enforcing coronavirus rules, such as the closure of businesses deemed non-essential, according to current and former serving officers — measures that have generated unrest in a country where poverty and hunger are growing.
Retired colonel Wellington Corsino, head of an association for military police and firefighters, said that such orders were “not the proper activities” of the police.
“With these abusive decrees of governors and mayors, the police are being forced to work against everything they believe in — protecting citizens. It is creating confusion,” he said.
“I am afraid of people getting into a disobedient confrontation, because there is a strong feeling of repulsion among the police about having to face down working people . . . I am afraid of a revolt happening.”
There are also fears that discontent among officers could be manipulated for political gain by followers of Bolsonaro, whose denial of the gravity of the health crisis has cleaved Brazilian society and earned international opprobrium.
Following the killing, some social media users, including a prominent national lawmaker, even suggested members of the force should not comply with “illegal” orders. PMs are controlled at the state rather than at the federal level and have a history of illegal strikes.
“Bolsonaro supporters looked upon Bahia as a laboratory to raise tensions with governors and impose their rightwing populist narrative that says lockdown should not happen, that it’s not legal — even though the supreme court has already said such measures are legal,” said Renato Sérgio de Lima, head of the Brazilian Forum on Public Security.
The president’s office declined to comment. While there have been peaceful demonstrations in Bahia, so far no significant stoppages among PM have been recorded.
Days after Wesley’s death, Bolsonaro abruptly removed his defence minister and all three armed forces commanders, after Brazil’s top military brass refused to indulge the anti-lockdown crusade championed by the president, a former army captain with authoritarian tendencies.
The move has led to speculation he may turn to the PM to boost his chances of staying in power as polls approach next year.
“If Bolsonaro can [encourage] police officers to rebel against their governors in states ruled by political rivals . . . he can make these states ungovernable,” said Ignacio Cano, a specialist in public security at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
“And if he doesn’t accept the 2022 election result, which he has already been hinting at, then he could use the polícia militar forces to try to resist.”
For now though, the risk of mass disobedience among the PM may be muted by a public sector pay freeze imposed by the federal government, according to some analysts, which could weaken officers’ sense of fealty to Bolsonaro.
Many politicians with close links to the military police play down the idea of walkouts and radicalisation in the barracks. Instead, they focus on day-to-day issues that have made the job tougher during the epidemic, exposed staff to the risk of infection and fuelled mental health problems among the roughly 400,000 active personnel.
“The state doesn’t provide the necessary equipment for work. There are not enough masks for eight-hour shifts, nor gloves allowing for personal searches,” said Capitão Alden, a state deputy in Bahia and former PM.
“Most of the troops do not want to fail in fulfilling their role, but so long as they have the right conditions, the equipment and are supported. There is a lot of talk about being careful not to spread the virus.”
Colonel Wellington from the servicemen’s association dismissed warnings that the PM could end up as pawns in a power struggle, describing it as “leftwing rhetoric to explain the probable re-election of Bolsonaro”.
“If there were a break in the democratic order and the armed forces intervened, then together with them we will bring back democratic order,” he said. “We are clear-headed and have political maturity to understand when someone wants to manipulate us.”
Leandro Prior, a PM officer and co-ordinator of the police anti-fascist movement, said his comrades rejected the politicisation of Wesley’s death.
However, he said there was “tangible revolt” at having to prevent people from working while emergency public Covid payments were not enough to live on.
“How do you deal with this feeling of indignation? To what extent will the troops obey governors who won’t give a plate of food?” he added. “The more this chaotic scenario drags on, the more this possibility increases.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice