Brazil: penal colony

Edwin Sanchez. Heroes in Colombia exist. Porno-documentary in which the author talks with a mutilated soldier and a sex worker. Installation, variable dimensions. Curitiba, Brazil, 2013.


The pandemic has radically exposed the colonial and punitive structures that constitute Brazil, since its formation, as a penal colony

The work of Franz Kafka is certainly an important reference for the exercise of interpretation of the authoritarian reality in Brazil. From its first “controlled” readings during the military dictatorship, to the rescue of The process (1925) for understanding the legal-political-media collusion present in the farce of the 2016 impeachment and in the condemnation without evidence of the candidate with the highest voting intentions in 2018, Kafka was certainly responsible for offering a minimal elaboration of the daily absurdity of a country little fond of democracy.

Undoubtedly, the historic record of deaths in a massacre promoted by the police in the Jacarezinho community in Rio de Janeiro, amid a catastrophic scenario of very high deaths resulting from covid-19, takes us once again to the unspeakable dissected by Kafka in his texts, by reminding us of the structure and historical-biographical function of Brazil: to be, by essence, a penal colony.

in your soap opera in the penal colony (1919), Kafka tells the story of a traveling French researcher who is on an island (a penal colony) to monitor and evaluate the functioning of a “unique device”, namely: a torture and execution machine, which wrote on the body condemned the specific commandment that he violated in that colony, digging into his skin the infraction he committed. This writing was carried out by a device called a “rake”, which scarified the skin of the executed, making them bleed to death. After death, the dead were thrown into a pit, a kind of mass grave.

The apparatus was administered by an officer, who had inherited the legacy of the machine's inventor: a late commander who, in the past, concentrated all powers in his hands, assuming the functions of soldier, builder, chemist, designer, legislator, judge and executioner. . Despite his figure having become irrelevant on the island, the late commander was taken by some as a messiah, who would resurrect to impose his authoritarian justice again.

In history, the execution accompanied by the French traveler would be that of a man who did not correctly carry out the order of a resident captain of the colony. The order? Salute every hour in front of the captain's door. The infraction? Having fallen asleep, that is, not having given in to that humiliating relationship of command and obedience. On account of this crime it would be written on his back: "Honor your superiors!"(1).

Questioned by the Frenchman, the officer stated that the defendant did not need to know why he had been convicted and that he would even less have the right of defense, to avoid any “confusion”. He justified that, in addition to executor, he was also a judge, concentrating many powers just like his predecessor commander.

Without any shame, the principle that underpinned the legal processes in that penal colony was: “Guilt is always indubitable”(2). The official, with his apologetic rhetoric, told the French traveler that “other courts may not follow this principle, as they are composed of many heads and also have higher instances”(3). These “other courts”, to which he referred, would be precisely those of modern countries such as France, the country of origin of the traveler researcher and the place where the division of the three autonomous powers of the State made sense.

Appalled by the island’s legal-criminal process, the French traveler researcher then had to “remember that there was a penal colony there, that special measures were necessary there and that it was necessary to proceed in a military manner until the last consequences”(4).

Indeed, the pandemic has radically exposed the colonial and punitive structures that constitute Brazil, since its formation, as a penal colony. Not only did he open them up, he updated them. The military intervention in Jacarezinho on May 6, 2021, carried out despite the ban on this type of incursion decided by the Federal Superior Court (STF), updated not only the new ways of “proceeding in a military manner until the last consequences” that characterize the management policy of the black and poor population in the country, as well as the place that the military-militia power is placed before society, as legislator, judge and executor.

It is no mere coincidence that a community not yet taken over by the militias in Rio de Janeiro suffers the greatest massacre in the country's history, days after the President of the Republic again threatened the autonomy of the three powers with an alleged coup and, not satisfied, posed smiling for a photo in which he held a sign with the phrase “CPF canceled” (a term used by militiamen in reference to those they murdered).

The “cancelled CPFs” in Jacarezinho did not know the reason for their execution and did not even have the right to defend themselves. Their names were not even revealed. Of the 28 dead in the biggest massacre carried out by the police in Rio de Janeiro, only four were effectively investigated by the institution, according to the UOL portal. The same source points out that the Civil Police report holds the restriction imposed by the STF responsible for the increase in drug trafficking in the region, without, however, presenting evidence of this supposed increase.

As experts point out, the operation in that community violated both the determination of the Federal Superior Court (STF) on the prohibition of police incursions in communities during the pandemic period, as well as on the non-permission to remove the bodies of victims carried out by agents. However, records point to the removal of 25 dead from the crime scenes. Added to this is the testimony of witnesses to the massacre, who point to serious violations of human rights, such as the murder of people who had already surrendered and were begging for their lives, beatings, humiliations, etc. Therefore, there is an explicit affront to the judiciary and the rule of law promoted by the executive branch, whose relationship with military and militia power is also explicit.

The operation in Jacarezinho is one of the many genocidal actions promoted by the Brazilian State that historically place the country as a penal colony, that is, as a laboratory for managing the death of its populations, previously considered disposable. This is proven by the speeches of the president and his deputy. The first to speak out, Hamilton Mourão, reinforced that in peripheral Brazil the guilt is undoubted, reducing the dead in Rio de Janeiro to “all bandits”. The same did Jair Bolsonaro, when he congratulated the police action and referred to the victims as “drug dealers who steal, kill and destroy families”.

If one of the faces of the management of death promoted by the Brazilian state is the mass murder and without the right to defense of the poor and peripheral populations, its other face is the negligence and lack of assistance that makes them vulnerable to death. The double face of this genocidal policy was revealed in the same week. On May 8, in an interview with Folha de São Paulo, the deputy governor of Amazonas (Carlos Almeida Filho) revealed that the strategy to combat covid-19 promoted by the governor of that state, aligned with Bolsonaro, was herd immunity. . In other words, Amazonas became a laboratory for the pandemic, in which proof of the effectiveness of herd immunity was sought. Its population has become a mere variable in a social experiment.

It is not by chance that the massacre promoted by the State takes place in the peripheral community of Jacarezinho and not in the Vivendas condominium in Barra da Tijuca, just as it is not by chance that the eugenic experiment takes place in the Unified Health System of Manaus and not in the Hospital Sírio-Liba. Lebanese from São Paulo. The Brazilian penal colony makes its hierarchical division very evident, in which there are not only superiors and inferiors, those who are worthy of life and those left to die, but it is necessary that the latter “honor” the former, as in the novel Kafka . In the same way, their disposable bodies bear the marks of their guilt, their internal or external scarifications, either by the bullet marks (on the bodies or in the residences) of the victims of the police, or by the difficulty of breathing that afflict the living and dead by the covid -19.

In summary, there is no doubt that the pandemic has altered the dynamics between capitalism and animism in Brazil, imposing the country's entry into a model of suicidal state. However, it is a mistake to judge the overcoming of the old necropolitics, the fusion between capitalism and animism that, according to Achille Mbembe, transforms human beings into animated things, into simple codes or numerical data, depending on the class and race they belong to in the penal colony. Brazilian.

* Thiago Bloss de Araújo is a doctoral student at the School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at UNIFESP.


(1) Kafka, Franz. (2020) In the penal colony. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Antofágica, p. 35.

(2) ibid, P. 40.

(3) Ibid, 40-1.

(4) Ibidem, P. 48.

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