Organizations and social movements in Bahia publish letter denouncing increased violence in the state

On the morning of 11 December, 62 civil society organizations jointly issued an Open Letter in protest against the rise in violence against the black population in both the urban and rural parts of the state. The initiative, which brought together organizations that advocate for human rights and religious groups, aims to put pressure on the authorities to take concrete action in response to the escalating police repression in Bahia. It also highlights the state’s negligence in failing to protect rural communities such as encampments, settlements, indigenous territories, quilombos, and pasture and grazer communities.

On the 10 December, International Human Rights Day, demonstrators tied a banner between two boats sailing from Porto da Barra to Barra Lighthouse, one of Salvador’s main tourist spots, highlighting their manifesto with the phrase: ‘Bahia is the state that kills the most black people. #LivingIsARight.’ Throughout December, further protests will take place in the state capital.

Salvador’s black territories in the city centre and its peripheries, as well as a number of cities in the Bahian countryside, have witnessed an intensification of armed confrontations involving power struggles and territorial disputes, some between rival criminal gangs and others involving the repressive forces of the state.

Added to the historic social inequality in Bahia and Brazil, which has deepened in our racist, patriarchal, and neoliberal capitalist society, violence has an increased impact, due to the heavy militarization of local criminal groups in alliance with criminal gangs from the Southeast, resulting in forced evictions and even the use of residents as hostages.

We know that confronting this issue is a challenge, but we cannot water down this debate and normalize the notion that the only solution is state repression within these territories and communities. What we have observed is an operational model with the characteristics of a war, generating panic and death in black communities.

Perpetuating this war is not restricted to this public security model, but also to a series of genocidal policies, ranging from the physical elimination of bodies to the breakdown of black territories through the denial of the right to dignified housing, health, education, quality public transport, work, income and similar.

The alleged reason for the increased violence in these neighbourhoods is the fight against crime, the militarization of communities by gangs, and more generally, the so-called ‘war on drugs’ and drug trafficking. If drugs are present in all areas, including in middle and upper-class neighbourhoods, why is it only black territories that are the targets of these repressive operations, which, between January and November 2023, resulted in 380 deaths?

This increased repression is not restricted to urban areas. In rural communities, violence has intensified through rural militias and hired gunmen, principally in traditional territories (quilombos, pasture and grazer communities, indigenous communities, fishing and shellfish picker communities, etc.), where the agricultural frontier is advancing. In these areas, violence generally occurs because of state negligence of land regularization, even where there are strong indications of the grabbing of vacant land. Deaths and rights violations continue, affecting families that, for generations, have lived in in these territories, increasingly sought after by agribusiness, mining, property speculation and large-scale enterprises.

This ineffective and inefficient security policy does not reduce crime rates – the population’s sense of insecurity is only increasing. The results have been more armed confrontations with the loss of black lives, damages to the economies of grassroots neighbourhoods, psychological distress, despair and panic in the communities, especially for mothers who have lost or fear losing their children.

In 2022, according to the Brazilian Yearbook on Public Security (Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública) (2023), Bahia ranked first in police lethality, accounting for 22.77% of the national total.  As noted in the study ‘Targeted Skin: the colour the police erase,’ only one victim of the 299 people killed by the police was white. For how much longer will racism continue to prevail in ‘public security’ practices?

The Brazilian state cannot rely on violence as a public security strategy, and neglect grassroots demands and the need for historical reparations. The fundamental conditions to enable these territories and peoples to be integrated into citizenship arenas include: the universalization of quality public education; the recognition, demarcation, and regularization of peasant, indigenous, quilombola and extractivist territories; effective health and psychosocial care, suitable for each group’s needs; technical and professional training, and widespread credit incentives for the community and social economy; and recreational and cultural facilities, supporting production and valuing local initiatives.

At the end of this year, as we experience more intense solidarity, we call on society to understand the urgent need to support this agenda. Apart from holding the state accountable, how can we demonstrate solidarity with the families and communities suffering the consequences of this war?