Gunning For Brazil
In March 2014, members of Brazil’s indigenous Guaraní tribe attempted to peacefully reclaim their ancestral homeland from a rural rancher. The move proved a temporary boon for the community: The landowner abdicated his property, and the Guaraní began to slowly rebuild their homes in the area, which had been taken over and cleared by ranchers in the 1970s. The next month, however, armed men with motorcycles and pistols brought a wave of violence against the native community, documented through video evidence and witness testimonials. Following intense confrontation, the injury of an unarmed woman, and the blockage of medical aid, the Guaraní were forced to abandon their land once again. This aggression against the Guaraní does not only amount to a human rights violation under international law—it also reveals how Brazil’s decentralized private security industry is systematically implicated in violence against indigenous peoples. Given the context of Brazil’s untrustworthy law enforcement, small security firms complicate the ongoing global discussion on regulating larger, multinational private military and security corporations (PMSCs).
The armed group behind the Guaraní persecution was a small, unidentified private security corporation (PSC) employed by a Brazilian rancher, and its actions were clearly in violation of international human rights norms. The Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Brazil voted in favor of at the United Nations, constitutes customary international human rights law. Pursuant to this declaration, the armed group’s actions should be considered human rights violations due to the Guaraní people’s indigenous background. The declaration theoretically guarantees indigenous peoples the right to a fair and transparent adjudication process for disputes over ancestral land. The Guaraní claimed the rancher’s lands as their own due to their tribal connection to the parcel. A year before the incident, the Brazilian government itself actually demarcated the land as Guaraní territory. Moreover, the declaration requires that states obtain “consent prior to the approval of any project affecting [indigenous] lands.” The prolonged usage of Guaraní land for cattle grazing constitutes an exploitation of resources that legally belong to the tribe. The Declaration is merely one statute under which the ranchers’ use of PSCs was a violation: Brazil is also party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, and many similar such agreements. The Guaraní ouster is a human rights violation, then, in direct contravention of laws and treaties to which Brazil is party.
Acts like the assault on the Guaraní reveal a troubling trend in Brazil’s security industry. Private gunmen have targeted—and gone so far as to assassinate—tribal leaders in Brazil. Ranchers have been employing private security firms to intimidate tribes like the Guaraní for years, often using tactics like crop burnings and lethal drive-by shootings. Explicit reports of “unidentified people” and “private militias” attacking Guaraní homes and burning crops have been made public since 2001. Most strikingly, assassinations and assaults by PSCs hired by ranchers since 1983 have been condemned by NGOs, such as Survival International, as human rights violations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, of which Brazil is, yet again, a signatory. The convention protects “the right to security of person and protection […] against violence or bodily harm, whether inflicted by government officials or by any individual group or institution” [emphasis added]. As “groups,” PSCs give rural landowners the ability to perpetuate an anti-indigenous agenda, motivated by extremely profitable markets for crops like sugarcane, that are grown on indigenous lands.
While it may be obvious that the armed group’s actions against the Guaraní were abusive, unjust, and symptomatic of a deeper trend, taking punitive measures against their crimes is markedly less simple. The specific working definition of what constitutes a PSC, or what differentiates a PSC from a private military corporation, fluctuates from state to state. However, such security firms generally take contracts that outsource physical security or security consulting on behalf of either public or private entities. Due to the sometimes-illicit nature of the industry, many groups (like those which assaulted the Guaraní) go unidentified. As one of the most prominent sites of PSC-derived human rights violations, rural Brazil represents a harrowing example of how weak law enforcement, coupled with rampant outsourcing of security, contributes to human rights abuses similar to the Guaraní assault.
PSCs are pervasive across Brazil and pose a huge threat to those who cannot protect themselves. Over 18,000 PSCs exist in Brazil, and private security personnel outnumber its military-police force. Earlier in 2014, private security outsourcing on behalf of the Maranhão prison system was implicated in prisoner abuse; in the same year, FIFA organizers worried NGOs and journalists after employing Academi, formerly Blackwater, to train private security forces to quell expected protests at the World Cup. World Cup riot control was later accused of using an excessive degree of force.
But the “private police” problem in Brazil is not a legal one—in fact, Brazil’s regulation of the industry is ironically comprehensive and free of ambiguity or obvious loopholes. For example, Brazilian law defines a PSC as any entity that protects “security of the property of financial institutions and other private or public establishments; security of individuals; and security in the transportation of currency and securities, as well as in the transportation of any other type of cargo.” Private security guards must have a company-issued uniform approved by the Ministry of Justice, have guaranteed life insurance, be of Brazilian nationality, and be directly employed by a Brazilian national. Brazilian PSCs appear to face adequate scrutiny under the law, but any expectation of these laws translating to action on the part of law enforcement is dispelled in the face of contrary empirical evidence.
The critical failure of Brazilian law enforcement contributes to both the prevalence of PSCs and the impunity they face when violating human rights. According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, police officers in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo regularly engage in extrajudicial and execution-style killings while on duty, while some participate in so-called “death squads’ while off-duty in poor favelas. Perhaps rationally, 60 percent of the Brazilian populace distrusts its police force. In the context of Brazil’s flawed enforcement of the law, the strength of the country’s PSC industry appears more understandable—as do its privileges.
A corrupt Brazilian police force contributes to the impunity PSCs face in situations like the Guaraní assault. Brazilian police officers often double as private security guards while off duty—and, further complicating the situation, the Brazilian government is one of the largest consumers of private security. The link between the Brazilian police’s violence, public distrust of police, and small private security corporations is old and well documented, especially in rural areas. The relationship is explained in a 1991 Americas Watch Report, which states that “The principal source of killing in the countryside is not the police but private gunmen…The perpetrators of these political assassinations operate anonymously, in hit-and-run fashion, and are rarely identified or caught. In large part this is the fault of the police, who in almost all cases have a casual attitude toward these crimes… This of course leads the victims’ families and unions to believe that the police are in league with those who hired the gunmen.” The reasons that PSCs, more than twenty years later, can freely continue their behavior towards groups like the Guaraní at the behest of wealthy ranchers is a domestic problem deeply rooted in a flawed system of law enforcement. In the case of Gaspem Segurança, another PSC hired by ranchers for approximately $12,700 to assault the Guaraní, it took state prosecutors eight years to implicate the security firm in the murders of two tribal leaders.
If Brazilian law enforcement does nothing to regain the trust of the Brazilian people, wealthier Brazilians will continue to pay for enhanced security. For the urban rich, this means buying bulletproof cars and escorts. For rural landowners, this means exploiting the growing industry to violently deny indigenous communities the reclamation of ancestral lands. The assault on the Guaraní should serve as a case study, one that implicates Brazil’s flawed law enforcement as both the reason that PSCs are so prevalent in the country and the reason that wealthy landowners can so easily subvert the law through these firms.
The plight of Brazil’s indigenous communities is not only urgent; it also brings complex questions of regulation to the fore. Current language surrounding global PMSC regulation focuses on confronting the multinational nature of the industry. The Guaraní predicament, on the other hand, involves small, decentralized security firms operating in a permissive local environment, in which local law enforcement, not the law itself, is to blame. The United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries recently urged countries “to recognize the need for a legally binding international agreement to regulate the use and activities of private military and security companies to complement existing regulations.”
The “existing regulations” in question are largely made up of the United Nations Mercenary Convention, the Montreux Document, and the International Code of Conduct, which the Working Group admitted retain “inadequacies related to registering and licensing, and [lacking] effective and transparent mechanisms and remedies for human rights violations.” The UN working group on PMSCs clearly describes the “transnational nature of PMSCs and the difficulties in ensuring accountability for any violations that may occur.”
While further regulation should indeed be conscious of international PMSCs, Brazil serves as a case study of a purely domestic PMSC landscape. It is therefore imperative that human rights policymakers incorporate the drivers of the Guaraní struggle into new PMSC regulation. The international push to control PMSCs is not an isolated movement concerned only with large multinationals, and should be seen as directly consequential to hyper-local issues like the indigenous land rights of native peoples.
The Guaraní and their troubles demand the structuring of an international framework that takes into account smaller private security firms to properly regulate defense and security contractors worldwide. An effective framework would address not only headline offenders like Blackwater, but also micro-firms like Gaspem Segurança, along with the very different political contexts in which they both operate. NGOs and journalists have demonstrated that in order to bring reprieve to the Guaraní community, unmonitored, profligate private security activity must be stopped. It is the responsibility of the international community to make this happen. •