“The System”: Tropa de Elite

23:27 Sun 01 Sep 2013
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Tropa de Elite and Tropa de Elite 2 – O Inimigo Agora é Outro[1] are two Brazilian crime/action movies about the drug trade and corruption in Rio de Janeiro. While fictional[2], they clearly draw upon contemporary Brazilian politics. They both follow Roberto Nascimento, who at the start of the first film is a captain in BOPE, an elite unit roughly analogous to the American SWAT squads[3].

The first film depicts Nascimento’s attempts to leave the organization, and chronicles the induction of two police officers, Neto and Matias, into BOPE. The second follows Nascimento as he inadvertently rises politically, and introduces Diogo Fraga, a left-wing history professor making his move into politics.

The films have three primary themes: violence, the drug war, and corruption.

They’re both action films, and fail to meet the nigh-impossible challenge of depicting violence without glamorizing it. They do show the brutality and arbitrary nature of it, however, and certainly make it disturbing. But the portrayal of BOPE as the only non-corrupt force strongly colors their brutality as serving the cause of morality—whatever that means in this context. The macho, controlled savagery of BOPE is contrasted, particularly in the first film, with bourgeois tolerance and sympathy, with those latter values portrayed as naive and as contributing to the larger problems. While the BOPE violence is examined, the strong implication is that it’s necessary as part of the struggle against antisocial forces[4].

Those “antisocial forces” are the drug dealers in the first film, and while poverty and inequality are evident as reasons for the prevalence of dealing in the favelas, Nascimento’s view of the dealers as simply evil is proven correct in every encounter with them. A disappointing aspect of both films was that drug legalization wasn’t mentioned anywhere, ever, in either of them, even though they’re focused on the drug war, even though they address (and critique) other left-wing approaches, and even though they give voices to left-wingers and bourgeoisie who are themselves drug users. (And also imply that drug use is extremely common.) Legalization would not magically solve the problems, but it would certainly alter some of the dynamics, and drug prohibition has clearly contributed to the appalling situation in Rio de Janeiro that the films depict.

In the first film, corruption was depicted as something emanating from the drug dealers. They had money and were ruthless and violent[5], and spread those things to the forces attempting to control them. Primarily, however, it was the money that corrupted the police, whose corruption was portrayed as both opportunistic and as weak (and connected to poor pay). The drug money also reached higher into the state institutions.

That analysis is reasonable but limited (particularly, but not only, due to the lack of any legalization references), and the second film brings it to a more interesting level. In it, Nascimento uses his position higher up the political ladder to dramatically increase funding for BOPE and to coordinate their intelligence gathering, and successfully reduces the supply of drugs to the favelas dramatically.

He does this with the explicit plan of using it as a way to end police corruption, which he refers to as “the system”. He imagines that cutting the supply will cut the dealers’ money, and that without money to bribe police, the corruption will fade away. The film goes as far as showing an alternative reality where things go as he planned, before replaying the same scenes as they progressed in the main narrative.

What happens is that the dealers are indeed hampered significantly by BOPE’s attacks on their supply lines, and are unable to bribe the police on the ground. However, the police and “the system” are so accustomed to the income that, when it dries up, they look for other ways to make money. The drug dealers have secondary criminal incomes, undeveloped because they drug trade is so profitable, and the corrupt police eliminate the now-weakened dealers and install themselves as de facto rulers of the favelas. The corruption is so endemic that the elimination of the dealers merely cleared the way for “the system” to establish what is effectively direct rentier capitalism[6], and this turns out to be even more lucrative than the drug bribes they were getting before.

Nascimento eventually realizes this, and directs his energies elsewhere, coming into conflict with politicians higher up, and stating that “the system” reaches higher than he had imagined. But how does one distinguish between “the system” and “normal politics”? Nascimento clearly sees himself—and BOPE—as anti-system forces, but both he and they are very much a part of the political institutions of Brazil. He sees himself and them as incorruptible, but even assuming that he’s right, how much does that matter if they’re directed by corrupt people and institutions, as he implies at the end of the second film? Or, to again raise this question: what if drug prohibition is itself corrupt, an ongoing failed experiment that continues despite evidence of its harm because too many politically-connected players are gaining too much from it? The question of what that would make BOPE is one I would love to have seen the films engage with.

Connected to that question is another not effectively handled by the films: incentives. Nascimento states at one point that all people are alike, they protect what’s theirs, but never takes the next step and asks how things are set up in such a way that “the system” encourages horrific violence from people apparently believing they’re protecting what’s theirs—or what makes them reach out and take more despite having to bury others to do it. Not every city has problems with corruption like Rio de Janeiro, so what makes it different? What are the incentives it provides its inhabitants that cause its problems, and how do they differ from those in other places?

The second film is Brazil’s box office record holder, so presumably a third film is a possibility—perhaps some of those questions will be addressed in it.

[1] Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within are the English titles.

[2] They’re based on the book Elite da Tropa, which purportedly has a factual basis.

[3] Although regardless of propaganda to the contrary, there is no American city with a situation like Rio de Janeiro’s, and nothing in this post should be construed as defense or support of militarized police action.

[4] Nascimento does have an important line in the second film in which he talks about how war is a way to work out personal issues, clearly suggesting that the BOPE actions are partly fueled by highly questionable motivations, but this comes across as a stain on his character rather than as a reflection on the more general violence question.

[5] All three characteristics are essentially inevitable if you drive the trade in something underground—the participants in it have to fend off state efforts to shut them down, and also must operate without being able to use state systems to arbitrate disputes.

[6] Supported by brutality and murder.

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