Death squads run by active or former police officers have been a more or less accepted reality in Rio de Janeiro for many years now. This acceptance infests the general public who either regard the favelas as another planet or live in them and fear the violence; the politicians who feel the death squads serve a necessary evil; and the cops who take for granted that criminals are coddled by a liberal system and see murder as the only viable option to deliver justice. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is in many ways a standard genre film about crime and corruption, examining the methods seen as necessary. The constant narration provided by Nascimento, former captain of the elite paramilitary BOPE unit lends a different direction to this skillfully made actioner, however. This is a journey through the transformation of Rio’s criminal trade into an extension of the police force, the attitude that makes such annexation inevitable, and eventually a renouncement of the right-wing religion of justice by force. What makes this interesting is a reconsideration of how we view law and order.
The Enemy Within portrays a deeply ingrained system where the drug trade fuels tremendous levels of violence that corrupts any attempt to curb it. Nascimento, at first captain of BOPE, believes that criminals deserve death before any liberal court attempts to free them. He is not entirely wrong, as the favelas allow no witnesses, and law enforcement is insanely dangerous in the slums. BOPE is feared by scumbag and citizen alike with the bullets that rain down upon the shitty houses perforating the righteous and unrighteous without prejudice. A prison riot goes poorly when elite soldiers quell the disturbance via execution in a gripping scene that makes clear the stakes involved in this war. A liberal politician uses the disaster to rail against the police force, further stoking Nascimento’s conservative anger/philosophy. The captain is then punished by his superiors by being promoted to a position where the police force can be further militarized and given a free hand to utterly crush the drug trade. As the clearly fascist lead remarks, “Law enforcement should be warfare”.
This is where Elite Squad gets interesting – with a supreme eye to detail, the story demonstrates many fundamental lessons about justice and law enforcement. For starters, simply destroying any criminal network accomplishes nothing because someone will step into the void. Whereas The Wire’s arrest of Avon Barksdale only allowed an even more violent and reptilian antagonist to serve the public need, Elite Squad deftly shows how the police were ready to help out by creating its own criminal network. Every industry of the slums were controlled, and the crime became institutionalized. Cops became kingpins with ugly shirts the uniform, right wing talk show hosts (including one hilariously over the top Brazilian version of Sean Hannity) become politicians, and anyone who isn’t in line with this system is silenced one way or another. The story is labyrinthine and at turns surprising, all the while reasonable in how events turn out. The right wing extremist at the top of the game comes to realize just how wrong he is when a principled police officer challenges the corrupt machine set in motion. From there, the left wing liberal scumbags become the only salvation he has.
Events appear to wrap up neatly, but since crime pays for shit, others only take up the reins to fill the market need for strong-arm supervision. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within weaves an absorbing story with an almost epic scope and sickening details. Murders are fairly easy to arrange, the community will be helpfully silent, and the media will do as they are told. The most brutal moments come with those who do not comply with the system, from an honest cop to a curious reporter.† In Brazil, there was a public hue and cry prompting a Parliamentary hearing resulting in the arrest of 500 militia members and police officers, but this changed nothing about the industry that they protected. This became particularly clear after the 2011assassination of a liberal judge who went after the paramilitary mafia and sentenced 60 of them herself. Sure, there are ripples, but the ocean is never fundamentally moved.
The greatest accomplishment of Elite Squad is revealing the philosophy of conservative law and order to be deeply naive and ineffective, but does not ignore how seductive it can be. The sheer entertainment value of 80’s action cinema also forces you to regard your own politics. Nascimento is a hardass who believes in brute force to bring the judgment of a god to the crime-ridden streets, a war against evil where his antagonists are guilty even if innocent. He is awesome, though, and as liberal as I am, if he ordered me to storm the drug dealer fortress I would do so without hesitation. It feels good to cut through the haze of what causes crime and injustice.† The revenge of death sentences or harsh jail time gives one a feeling of power, until you realize of course that these things do nothing to deter crime, and are a great and useless expense. Getting at the root causes of crime and violence is a great deal of work and requires both rigorous research and asking difficult questions about culture and the values of our economic system. These efforts make our society a better place to live, but makes for shitty entertainment. Simplistic belief in self-reliance and hard work is a satisfying fiction, and makes more entertaining sound bites. Our heroes are gun-toting killers, not sociologists, epidemiologists, or accountants. We are wired this way, and so have the system we deserve rather than the ideal society that liberals have attempted to craft, with religious fanatics and liars garnering more public attention than people who actually know what they are doing. Frankly, the better world never had a chance.