- Brazil’s largest coalition of Indigenous groups has filed a motion with the country’s highest court in response to escalating police brutality against Indigenous peoples in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.
- In the first seven months of 2022, 759 violent incidents with police were recorded, involving a total of 113,654 families and 33 killings in land-related conflicts in rural areas of the country, marking a 150% increase from the first six months of 2021.
- Most cases of violence are tied to disputes over non-demarcation lands; Indigenous peoples, attempting to reclaim their ancestral territory, often run into conflicts with landowners, such as farmers or developers, which end in forceful police interventions.
- The Indigenous coalition is requesting the installation of GPS equipment and recording systems on security officers’ uniforms and vehicles, as well as measures aimed to improve their training and public protocols to protect human rights.
Indigenous groups are seeking urgent measures against the escalation of police violence they face in seeking to reclaim their ancestral lands in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state. In most cases, the victims of violence were protecting their territory from the expansion of large-scale agriculture, mining or development projects.
The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB), the country’s largest coalition of Indigenous groups, recently took the issue to the Supreme Federal Court, seeking the adoption of measures to tackle police brutality and misconduct by the state military police.
APIB, which accuses the military police of carrying out violent evictions without following legal protocols, says most cases of violence are tied to disputes over non-demarcated Indigenous lands. Indigenous peoples, attempting to reclaim their ancestral territory, often run into conflicts with landowners, such as farmers or developers, which end in forceful police interventions.
In recent years, APIB says, it has “witnessed an unprecedented rise in attacks on territories” in Mato Grosso do Sul, including forced expropriations to free up land for the advancement of agriculture, mining, or infrastructure projects.
Maurício Terena, APIB’s legal coordinator, said this has led to many cases of “deaths, massacres and bloodshed.”
The state military police did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment by the time of publication.
An analysis by Amnesty International in 2022 and 2023 found the excessive use of force on the general population by police across Brazil “manifested itself in raids on people’s homes, destruction of belongings, psychological torture, restrictions on people’s freedom of movement and the suspension of basic services such as schools and health centers.”
APIB says Brazil’s security forces have violated the rights of Indigenous peoples on numerous occasions, highlighting concerns about the disproportionate use of force, which has led to an increase in violence and killings.
In the first seven months of 2022, the Pastoral Land Commission, a Catholic Church-affiliated organization that advocates for traditional land rights, recorded 759 violent incidents with police. These involved a total of 113,654 families and 33 killings in land-related conflicts in rural areas of Brazil, representing a 150% increase from the first six months of 2021.
Mato Grosso do Sul is also the state with the highest number of Indigenous people jailed in Brazil.
A 2023 report by the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), another advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, showed that of the 1,038 Indigenous peoples arrested in 2021, 403 had been jailed in Mato Grosso do Sul. The state also recorded the second-highest number of murders of Indigenous individuals in 2021, behind only Amazonas state.
APIB highlighted the killing of Vítor Fernandes, an Indigenous Guarani and Kaiowá individual, in Mato Grosso do Sul on June 24, 2022. Fernandes was killed during a violent military police operation that left 15 people injured and became known as the Guapoy Massacre.
In a legal motion, APIB alleges that Brazil’s security forces breached fundamental human rights. It’s seeking the installation of GPS equipment and recording systems on security officers’ uniforms and vehicles, as well as measures aimed to improve their training and public protocols.
Brazil’s security forces are divided into two branches: federal or state government. The Federal Police are responsible for investigating crimes and the state military police are responsible for policing and maintaining the public order. “State forces do not have the attribution of acting in Indigenous territory, as the Constitution provides that this is the competence of the federal justice,” Terena said.
Sally Freitas Fernandes, communications coordinator for the Kaiowá and Guarani peoples’ general assembly, told Mongabay they wanted the security forces to offer them greater protections against invaders, rather than the relationship they have today that she said is characterized by extreme violence and brutality.
During the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, which ran from 2019-2022, violence against Indigenous peoples increased significantly. Bolsonaro encouraged the excessive use of force by applauding officers after deadly raids in impoverished neighborhoods, and proposed new laws shielding abusive officers from punishment.
Police violence is also a problem outside Indigenous territories in Brazil, disproportionately affecting Afro-Brazilians in impoverished neighborhoods. In 2021, nearly 6,150 people were killed by Brazilian police, or an average of 17 people a day. The following year, despite lockdown measures in response to COVID-19, 6,424 people were killed. Most cases were reported in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the two most populous cities in the country.
Land conflicts set the stage for police confrontations
On April 8, a violent police operation in the Yvu Verá territory that Indigenous peoples call their ancestral home, but that hasn’t been demarcated as such by the government, resulted in the arrest of 10 Guarani, Kaiowá and Terena individuals. Nine of them were placed into preventative detention for 20 days, without trial or charge. Those arrested had been campaigning against efforts by the state to construct a new luxury development on the land.
Yvu Verá, which translates to “shining fountain,” is the name of the area that borders the Dourados Indigenous Territory in Mato Grosso do Sul. The Guarani and Kaiowá people were expelled from their land in the 1940s and have been campaigning for official demarcation since it was promised to them in 2007. The territory is covered under an agreement signed by the Federal Public Ministry and Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs, which states that full demarcation should have been completed and the territory handed over to the communities by 2010.
More than a decade later, however, they are still awaiting the return of their land, which has instead been sold off for a condo development by contractor Corpal Incorporadora e Construtora, a family-run company that manages more than 32 similar projects across six Brazilian states.
In response to requests for comment, Corporal Incorporadora e Construtora told Mongabay the company “has all the necessary authorizations and licenses from the bodies responsible for the construction of the project.”
“Corpal reinforces that, so far, no decision has been taken to recognize the area as an Indigenous reserve, and it also maintains permanent contact and open dialogue with representatives of the Indigenous communities residing in areas surrounding its enterprise.”
About 20,000 Indigenous peoples live within 3,400 hectares (8,400 acres) of the Dourados reserve, an area representing only 0.08% of the estimated 4 million hectares (nearly 10 million acres) previously held by Guarani and Kaiowá peoples in Mato Grosso do Sul. Between 1910 and 1928, the Indian Protection Service (SPI), the government agency that would become Funai in 1967, forcibly removed Indigenous peoples from their territory and confined them in small reservations. Since then, the families have experienced years of poverty, abandonment by public authorities, high suicide rates, and exposure to pesticides and contaminated water.
When the Guarani and Kaiowá learned that the construction of the new development had begun, around 20 campaigners gathered at the site to reclaim the area. According to the protesters, the former owner of the land had not complied with an informal agreement they had stating that, despite the demarcation process having stalled, the families would be allowed to remain in a small area of the land.
The military police were sent by the Mato Grosso do Sul state secretary for public security, Antonio Carlos Videira, after reports that the group had been spotted on private property. Those arrested were accused of criminal association, damage to private property, threat of bodily harm, and possession of a weapon.
In the custody hearing, six of those arrested said they were victims of police violence and described having guns pointed at their faces. The court denied requests by the Federal Public Defender’s Office (DPU) and the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) to free the protesters.
Brazil’s Ministry of Justice and Public Safety and the Federal Police did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment by the time of publication.
The Observatory of the Criminal Justice System and Indigenous Peoples, an Indigenous civil society organization, published a statement calling the police operation illegal. It said “the decision did not observe any of the legal norms for the protection of Indigenous Peoples that appear both in the Brazilian legal system and international human rights treaties.”
This is because the operation was carried out without a court order — a practice that is common in many conflicts over land. Under international law, this is permitted in situations of urgent risk. However, Stuart Maslen, honorary professor of international law at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, told Mongabay that “it’s hard to see this as the kind of emergency or urgent operation that would justify action without a court order.”
On April 22, a demonstration was held calling for the release of the nine prisoners. Indigenous protesters blocked a major ring road leading to the Yvu Verá territory, resulting in their forceful removal by military police. According to newspaper Brasil de Fato, a 2-month-old child had to be taken to hospital after exposure to smoke bombs. Nelson da Silva, a 55-year-old man from the Kaiowá and Guarani people, was shot multiple times with rubber bullets by military police, including in the face.
The nine protesters were released after 20 days in prison, where they say they faced harsh conditions, including having no mattresses to sleep on, no blankets, little food, and very limited communication with their families.
Spensy Kmitta Pimentel, an anthropologist at the Federal University of Southern Bahia (UFSB), told Mongabay the government of Mato Grosso do Sul is made up of many rural landowners who promote weakening Indigenous land rights in Congress.
“The territorial problem of the Kaiowá and Guarani in the southern region of Mato Grosso do Sul is one of the most serious in Brazil,” Pimentel said.
A representative of the Kaiowá and Guarani peoples’ general assembly told Mongabay that life hasn’t been easy for the community. “Every day the violence increases in our village, as well as the criminalization of leaders, murder and illegal evictions,” the representative said.
Pimentel said there’s still no announcement by authorities of actions that could lead to changes in the region: “For now, there is still no clarity as to what will be done.”
In 2020, APIB presented a similar allegation to the Supreme Federal Court, stating the federal government had violated the rights of Indigenous peoples during the COVID-19 pandemic. On this occasion, the court acknowledged the complaints and determined that the government should adopt measures to protect Indigenous communities.
At the time, APIB lawyer Luiz Terena described it as “a historic action because for the first time the Indigenous people came to the judiciary in their own name.” Before this, the APIB wasn’t allowed to file a direct action at the Supreme Court.
Regarding the most recent case, however, Maurício Terena said he believes “anything could happen.”
Banner image: Indigenous protest in Brazil in 2022. Image courtesy of Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here: