Brazil is taking an ‘extreme measure’ to confront crime in Rio — the first time it’s done so since the country’s dictatorship fell

Policemen take positions during an operation against drug dealers in the Cidade de Deus slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, February 1, 2018.

caption
Policemen take positions during an operation against drug dealers in the Cidade de Deus slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, February 1, 2018.
source
REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

  • Days after the end of Rio’s Carnival, Brazil’s government has sent in the military to take command of public security in the state.
  • It’s the first such intervention since the country’s dictatorship fell in the mid-1980s.
  • Military interventions in Rio are not new and have frequently been criticized for failing to reduce crime and for leading to abuses.

Brazilian President Michel Temer signed a decree on Friday giving the military control of public-security duties in Rio de Janeiro state until the end of the year, amid spiraling violence in the state and the city of the same name.

The military has been deployed to Rio several times in recent years, but the new measure will give it total control of public-security functions there. Rio’s governor will continue to run the state government.

“Together, the police and the armed forces will combat and confront those who have kidnapped our cities,” Temer said at a signing ceremony. Gangs have “virtually taken over” Rio’s metropolitan area, home to 12 million people, he added.

“Our prisons will no longer be offices for thieves, our public squares party halls for organized crime. I know it’s an extreme measure but many times Brazil requires extreme measures to put things in order,” he said.

The decision came days after the end of Rio’s Carnival celebration and is the first such action since Brazil’s military dictatorship fell in the mid-1980s. The decree is expected to be approved by Congress next week, though opposition lawmakers have come out against it, calling it an effort to distract from Temer’s inability to govern.

‘We must join forces’

Brazil's armed force members frisk residents during an operation against drug dealers in Cidade de Deus slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, February 7, 2018.

caption
Brazil’s armed force members frisk residents during an operation against drug dealers in Cidade de Deus slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, February 7, 2018.
source
REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Temer met with legislators about the decree on Thursday, according to AFP, but Friday’s announcement reportedly came as a surprise to Brazil’s military command, which was unclear on the scope of the intervention and the role federal forces would play.

On Saturday, after meeting with local authorities in Rio about implementation, Temer said he wanted to create a public ministry to coordinate public-security operations throughout Brazil.

“We must join forces to combat crime,” he said without offering details.

Violence has become pervasive in Rio, intensifying after the city hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics. The 2,125 killings in 2017 were 37% more than in 2014. According to state-government statistics, 2017’s homicides were 26% more than the total in 2015 and 8% more than the number in 2016.

Shootouts, robberies, and roadblocks have become frequent in Rio, which is also the state capital. Drug-trafficking groups and other criminal groups control large swaths of the city. Scores of police have been accused of aiding gangs by providing guns and information about police operations.

Brazilian navy soldiers patrol the Copacabana beach as part of a plan to combat organized crime in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 30, 2017.

caption
Brazilian navy soldiers patrol the Copacabana beach as part of a plan to combat organized crime in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 30, 2017.
source
REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

Residents often find themselves caught in the crossfire during clashes between rival criminal groups as well as between police and criminals. One local newspaper has started covering violence in a section called “Rio War,” which was criticized for echoing the aggressive rhetoric used by the government and others to justify militarized anti-crime strategies.

The city’s Carnival celebration, which ran from February 9 to February 13, was also marred by violence. Television networks showed footage of shootouts between gangs and teenagers attacking tourists in areas usually considered safe.

The state governor admitted that his administration was not prepared to provide security during the festivities. He also said authorities confiscated an “incredible” number of firearms.

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

Many Carnival performers used the occasion to criticize insecurity and corruption and their effects on the public. (Some used the event to mount endorsements of the military dictatorship that ran the country from 1964 to 1985.)

In recent years Rio has seen numerous military deployments to quell violence. Temer signed an order last summer sending 10,000 security personnel, including 8,500 troops, to the city for the remainder of that year. Some 80,000 security personnel were also deployed to the city ahead of the 2016 Olympics.

Brazilian army Gen. Walter Braga Netto, who commands the military in the eastern part of Brazil and will oversee the Rio deployment, also took part in the Olympics security operation. Asked this weekend if the security situation in Rio was really bad, Braga shook his head and said “too much media.” (Brazil’s largest media company, Globo, is based in Rio.)

The state is grappling with crime as it faces a dire financial situation. Budget shortfalls have left the state police struggling to find supplies, and mass layoffs from national oil company Petrobras, the state’s largest corporate employer, have exacerbated economic hardships for residents. Rio state, home to 17 million people, has lost more than a half-million jobs over the past three years.

‘What will the Army will do? Shoot?’

Despite rampant violence in Rio, the state’s homicide rate remains well below peaks in the 1990s and is lower than the homicide rate in other states. Nineteen Brazilian cities were on a list of the 50 most violent cities in the world in 2016, but Rio was not among them. The disparity has led some to see Temer’s actions as politically motivated.

Temer, who has approval ratings in the single digits, has been pushing for a vote on an unpopular pension-reform measure by the end of February, when legislators start to focus on reelection bids ahead of voting in October.

Temer’s ministers admit the measure is still short 40 votes it needs to pass in the lower house, but that vote can’t go forward while the military is deployed to Rio, as changes to the constitution are prohibited during such interventions. (Though Temer has said he could lift the decree to allow a vote.)

Brazilian President Michel Temer at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, December 6, 2017.

caption
Brazilian President Michel Temer at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, December 6, 2017.
source
Thomson Reuters

“He is changing tack. He will assume a leading role in this issue of public security,” Ricardo Ismael, a professor of political science at Rio’s Catholic Pontifical University, told The Guardian. “He will try to gain popularity.”

Militarized responses to crime have been widely criticized for being ineffective and for leading to rights abuses. And many, including the head of the country’s military command, have said the military can do little to address an insecurity problem like that in Rio.

“Rio’s problem is more complex than police management. There could be a quick sensation of security, but that will not last,” Paulo Storani, former commander of Rio’s elite BOPE police force, told the Associated Press. He said Temer’s decision “will bring a lot of challenges to the military because it will not solve a security problem of decades.”

“We have seen the affect of using military to police Rio,” Jurema Werneck, executive director of Amnesty International Brazil, told The Wall Street Journal. “There was a significant increase in human-rights violations, especially in the case of young, black men.”

“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. “When it arrives in the community, what will the Army will do? Shoot?”