Brazil has committed to an ‘extreme measure’ to combat crime in Rio — and it could be a model for the rest of the country

Brazilian soldiers patrol the Kelson's slum during an operation against crime in Rio de Janeiro, February 20, 2018.

Brazilian soldiers patrol the Kelson’s slum during an operation against crime in Rio de Janeiro, February 20, 2018.
REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

  • Brazil’s legislature has approved the military intervention in Rio de Janeiro decreed by President Michel Temer last week.
  • Deployments of troops to Rio are not new, but the latest measure gives the military control of public security there.
  • The intervention has brought a new round of warnings about relying on the military for civilian security operations.

On Tuesday, hours after Brazil’s lower house of congress overwhelmingly backed the military’s takeover of public security in Rio de Janeiro, the Senate gave the measure final approval, voting 55 to 13 in favor.

“Together, the police and the armed forces will combat and confront those who have kidnapped our cities,” President Michel Temer said on Friday, when he signed the decree deploying the military to Rio. “I know it’s an extreme measure but many times Brazil requires extreme measures to put things in order.”

Gangs have “virtually taken over” Rio’s metropolitan area, home to 12 million of the state’s 17 million people, Temer said. The state’s governor will retain control of the government, but the military will report to an army general who will report to Temer, which will ensure civilian oversight of the armed forces, the president has stressed.

It is the first military intervention since Brazil’s military dictatorship fell in 1985.

Rio de Janeiro has been plagued by worsening violence for several years, and Temer’s decree came just a few days after the end of Rio’s famed Carnival celebration, which was marked by violence and displays critiquing the government’s response to it.

Television networks showed footage of shootouts between gangs and of young men attacking tourists in areas usually considered safe, including Ipanema beach. Three military police officers were killed. The state governor admitted that his administration was not prepared to provide security and said authorities confiscated an “incredible” number of firearms.

The state government initially said crime went down during this year’s festivities, but data obtained by Rio newspaper O Dia indicated that even as homicides declined, robberies and car thefts increased.

‘A steep deterioration’

2018 has gotten off to a violent start for Rio. There were 688 shootings in the state in January – many in the sprawling, often poor and marginalized neighborhoods known as favelas, where authorities have little presence.

Violence in Rio is not as severe as in other parts of the country – in 2016 it was 11th among states in Brazil in terms of homicide rate. But it is one of Brazil’s most well-known locales, and insecurity there has intensified in recent years – especially after hosting the 2016 Olympics.

In the years after Rio was awarded the 2016 games, the state government invested heavily in security. In 2008, it implemented Pacification Police Units, sending police into communities where gangs and violence were problems. They were to be followed by social programs meant to reincorporate the community into the city and establish bulwarks against criminal influence.

The UPP program was “initially very successful in bringing areas under state control, where previously drug traffickers were the primary organization,” Thomaz Favaro, a regional analyst for Control Risks, told Business Insider in a January interview. “And over a period of time this strategy did prove partially successful. It did bring crime down. It did allow the government to regain control of some of these favelas.”

But as Rio started to struggle financially amid a broader recession in Brazil, the initiative faltered. It was hamstrung by budget cuts, while police have found themselves going without supplies, and, in some cases, pay. (The state and police were also criticized for failing to fully implement and adjust to the programs.)

“Over the last two, three years with dwindling resources for public-security forces, the drug traffickers have been able to regain control over some of these areas. So you’re already seeing that in some areas where the government had the upper hand, it no longer has” it, Favaro said. “And that’s leading to a steep deterioration of the security environment in Rio de Janeiro.”

Recent years have seen numerous military deployments to Rio – thousands of troops flooded parts of the city on several occasions last year – but their presence has done little to reduce crime and insecurity, while reports of abuses have increased.

Shootouts, between police and criminals and between rival criminal groups, are common, forcing residents to take cover. Deaths from stray bullets have increased considerably.

‘What will the Army will do? Shoot?’

Brazil’s current political environment – Temer’s single-digit approval ratings, his foundering effort to pass pension reform, and with politicians facing October elections – has led to suspicions that Temer’s latest moves in Rio are politically motivated. (Though military intervention is broadly popular, among Rio residents and Brazilians more generally.)

Temer’s government has touted federal intervention as the best way to address the situation there and gone further in recent days, suggesting the city and policies pursued there could serve as a model for other parts of the country.

“It’s important to understand that Rio de Janeiro is a laboratory,” Institutional Security Minister Sergio Etchegoyen said on Monday, after a meeting with Temer to discuss the intervention, according to the Associated Press. “It’s the outward manifestation of a structural crisis.”

“I believe that this is one more step along the road of being able to restore security, order and, above all, confidence to residents of Rio de Janeiro state,” said Wellington Moreira Franco, the secretary-general of the presidency. “This spirit is being mobilized so that … this conversation, this methodology can spread throughout Brazil.”

President Michel Temer in Brasilia, December 21, 2017.

President Michel Temer in Brasilia, December 21, 2017.
Thomson Reuters

Despite the government’s assurances about civilian oversight of the military, its deployment to Rio and suggestions it could take a larger role elsewhere have raised concerns about abuses and its past ineffectiveness – especially after Defense Minister Raul Jungmann said authorities would seek broader warrants that could list an entire street or even neighborhood rather than just an address.

“The Army does not have the capacity and training to address a security problem that exists in Rio. Public security depends mainly on investigations, and the Army does not investigate,” Ignacio Cano, a sociologist at the Violence Analysis Laboratory at Rio’s state university, told O Dia after the decree was announced.”When it arrives in the community, what will the Army will do? Shoot?”

Even the commander of Brazil’s army, Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas, has cautioned against relying on the military for civilian security, saying in January that such operations could deepen corruption among soldiers. The “simple deployment of the armed forces does not have the capacity, in and of itself, to resolve the public security issues” facing Brazil, he said.

During an event with Temer over the weekend, Rio de Janeiro state Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezão praised the federal response, but stressed the need for additional measures. “But we need a lot of jobs, that economic activity grows,” he said to the president. “We’ll only win the war for public security with work permits.”

“The federal government currently just provides emergency support for the states who are struggling the most with the security situation. Rio is one of them,” Favaro said in January, explaining that public security has typically been the remit of state governments. (The military police, who handle street patrols and make arrests, are somewhat insulated from civilian oversight.)

“I think sort of the lack of new initiatives, fresh initiatives, even dedication to specific concerns is certainly one of the key reasons why the security environment hasn’t improved,” Favaro said.