The UK Sold Weapons to Police in Brazil as Killings Soared

The UK government facilitated the sales after Jair Bolsonaro came to power, in a year that the force killed twice as many people as all police in the US.
January 18, 2021, 5:42pm
Family and relatives of Marcelo Guimaraes he is buried in Inhauma Cemetery in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on the 5th of January, 2021. The family accuses the military police of shooting him  Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images​
Family and relatives of Marcelo Guimaraes he is buried in Inhauma Cemetery in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on the 5th of January, 2021. The family accuses the military police of shooting him.

Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The UK government facilitated arms sales which went to a police force that killed almost 2,000 civilians – twice as many as police in the US – in a single year, VICE World News and SourceMaterial can reveal. An overwhelming majority of the civilians killed were Black.

Sales were promoted at a trade event organised by the UK government for companies selling weapons to police in Brazil, even as police killings soared across the country.

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In early 2019, Rio de Janeiro’s governor introduced a shoot-to-kill policy and vowed to “slaughter” criminals in the streets. In the months that followed, in a campaign opposition politicians and campaigners say is illegal, police killed nearly 2,000 people, many in impoverished favelas, making it the most lethal year on record.

In September 2019, as the killings reached new peaks, the Embassy of Brazil in London hosted the Second Brazil-UK Defence Industry Dialogue, jointly organised with the UK government. According to documents obtained by VICE World News and SourceMaterial under Freedom of Information laws, Mark Prisk, then the government’s trade envoy to Brazil, gave a closing speech.

The government said it did not have a copy of the speech but we obtained a separate briefing provided to Prisk by civil servants under FOI laws. It said that the objective of the event was “to facilitate UK-Brazil defence dialogue, increasing commercial opportunities for both countries’ defence industries and respective governments”.

The event came only one month after Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, who entered office at the start of 2019, said that he hoped criminals will “die in the streets like cockroaches” as a result of new legislation to protect police who use lethal force.

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A list of attendees for the event shows that companies from the UK and Brazil which have sold guns and helicopters to Brazilian police were also there, along with British and Brazilian civil servants.

Government data collated by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, meanwhile, shows that just months after the event, a UK company gained a licence to sell guns to law enforcement in Brazil.

The UK and Brazil are both signatories to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, which commits them to assess whether the sale of arms would commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law.

VICE World News and SourceMaterial asked the Department for International Trade whether such an assessment has taken place for Brazil.

In response, a government spokesperson said the UK’s controls on exports was “one of the most comprehensive” in the world.

They added: “The government takes its export responsibilities seriously and rigorously assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licences where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.”

“For all intents and purposes, Britain does not have any arms export control regulations,” Claudia Webbe MP, a member of the Committee on Arms Export Controls, said. “The government will sell to anyone as long as they can pay and are geopolitically aligned.”

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Webbe chaired the Operation Trident Independent Advisory Group – an initiative to tackle domestic gun-crime in the UK.“We went after many arms traders unlawfully providing firearms. In many cases, I see no difference between what ministers are doing and what those men behind bars did,” she said. 

“The arms sales must be stopped, with a full review into if UK-made weapons have contributed to the violence,” Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade said. “By arming and supporting the Brazilian police the UK is sending a strong statement of political support and making itself complicit in the abuses that are being inflicted.”  

Wilson Witzel, governor of Rio de Janeiro and an ally of President Bolsonaro, used his inauguration speech at the start of 2019 to confirm plans to implement shoot-to-kill policing tactics. After the election, he promised to “slaughter” criminals by having snipers in helicopters kill anyone carrying a rifle.

That year, police in Rio de Janeiro killed 1,814 civilians, almost twice as many as all the police forces in the US combined. More than 75 percent of the victims were Black, according to the Institute of Public Security. An investigation by the New York Times found that in many cases, officers had ambushed and killed suspects, or shot them multiple times as they fled.

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Witzel himself, who is currently suspended amid a corruption investigation, attended one such operation, tweeting a video of himself in a police helicopter filled with snipers.

Last year, as Brazil battled the COVID-19 pandemic, killings in Rio de Janeiro soared again. In May, a police officer shot and killed 14-year-old João Pedro Matos Pinto with an assault rifle shot to the back, sparking protests.

On the 5th of January, military police shot and killed Marcelo Guimarães at the entrance to the City of God favela, after he had dropped his son off at school.

São Paulo has also seen an increase in police killings, with the 381 people killed in the first four months of 2020 representing a 30 percent increase on the same period in the previous year.

UK government data collated by Campaign Against the Arms Trade also shows that since 2008, 92 licenses worth £7.1 million have been approved for small arms to be sold to Brazil. This, however, is an underestimate, because the government has also approved 18 so-called “open” licences. These allow exports of small arms up to an unlimited value.

Some licences – including one granted in December 2019, just months after the event, to sell assault rifles, sniper rifles and gun silencers – explicitly state that the weapons will be used by law enforcement.

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The government stopped providing information on which companies applied for which licences in 2015 and so it is not possible to tell who received the December licence to sell guns to law enforcement. This information is not currently obtainable via FOI.

One company attending the summer event from the Brazilian side was the major arms company Taurus Armas, which sold 96 rifles to the police in Rio Grande do Sul as recently as the 29th of October last year.

Representatives from Companhia Brasileira de Cartuchos were also present. This company describes itself as “a partner of the police forces” on its website and offers police ballistic vests, pump action 12 calibre weaponry and a range of ammunition.

Many licences do not even reveal the “end user”. For example, some of the most lucrative licences are for military helicopters. The government data does not reveal who will be using these helicopters, making it difficult to know whether they are part of the controversial sniping programme.

A report by Aviation International News from 2017, however, indicates that Brazilian police use helicopters made by Leonardo, one of the companies present at the event from UK industry. Leonardo did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Textron, another company at the meeting representing UK industry, confirmed that military and civil police in Rio use its helicopters. They declined to provide a view on the killings, stating: “Those sales were concluded some time ago.”

@lukewbarratt