Brazil took an 'extreme measure' to fight crime in one of its biggest cities, but it's only made things worse

  • Brazil’s government sent the army into Rio de Janeiro to take over public security in February.
  • It was the first such move since the country’s military dictatorship fell in the mid-1980s.
  • In the months since, violent crime continues and gangs remained unbowed.

In February, after a Carnival celebration marred by violence, Brazilian President Michel Temer again sent the country’s army into Rio de Janeiro, giving it control of public security in the city – a step not taken since Brazil’s military dictatorship fell in the mid-1980s.

“Together, the police and the armed forces will combat and confront those who have kidnapped our cities,” Temer said at the time, adding that gangs had “virtually taken over” Rio’s metropolitan area, home to 12 million people.

“I know it’s an extreme measure but many times Brazil requires extreme measures to put things in order,” he said.

Those measures appear to have had the opposite effect, however, and the consequences of a failing intervention could have a lasting impact on Brazil, its military, and its democracy.

Six months after thousands of soldiers were deployed to Rio to take over police functions and increase operations in high-crime areas, homicides in Rio de Janeiro state are up 5% over the same period in 2017.

Between February and July, 738 people were killed in confrontations with police, which was 35% more than that period last year, according to Reuters. Between February and July, 16 police officers were killed – one fewer than during that period in 2017.

Polls have shown that many in the state support the intervention, but few believe much has improved during it.

The federal intervention office told Reuters in mid-August that some crime, like cargo and car thefts, had declined. A spokesman for the office said much of its work focused on administrative and logistical problems and the results would take longer to see.

For residents of Rio, the results can already be seen, including suspected rights abuses and extrajudicial killings.

“In addition to the rights frequently violated, like entering homes (without a warrant), mistreatment and torture, there is an even more grave situation,” Pedro Strozenberg of Rio’s Public Defender’s Office told the Associated Press in August. “It’s (allegations of) homicides, deaths and bodies hidden in the forest.”

Strozenberg’s comments came several days after shootouts between soldiers and armed gangs in the Penha, Mare, and Complexo do Alemao favelas left three soldiers dead. Five suspects were killed and another 10 arrested. Soldiers led those operations, despite previously having mostly a supporting role.

Similar confrontations between soldiers and armed criminal groups have shut down swaths of the city for extended periods, interfering with daily life. But criminal groups in the city have remained defiant.

A member of Red Command, the most powerful drug gang in the city,told Reuters this spring that there was “not a chance” the army could break the cycle of violence in Rio.

A leader in the Pure Third Command, the city’s second most powerful gang and the arch rival of the Red Command, said he would lie low during the intervention but fellow gang members would keep selling drugs and the gang would reassert itself once the armed forces withdrew.

“Nothing will change,” he told Reuters. “I will return and get back to work when they leave.”

“Violent crimes remain persistently high, and both civilian and police casualties are on the rise, whereas results in terms of dismantling drug trafficking groups, improving intelligence-gathering and providing local police forces with better resources and training have been disappointing,” Caio Pizetta Torres, a political risk analyst at Control Risks,told Latin America Advisor.

Gen. Richard Nunes, commander of the intervention force, said in late August that a rise in killings during police operations was a sign authorities were confronting crime and not that the situation was worsening.

Nunes, a Rio native, lamented the increase in deaths, but he said those figures would decline and touted the fall in crimes like theft and other improvements. “We now have a much stronger police presence in the streets,” he said.

The intervention is set to last until the end of the year, and some observers have said a final evaluation should wait until the deployment was concluded.

“It is very difficult to answer such questions while the military intervention is still trying to rework the present intelligence processes in place as well as the organizational structure of the Rio police,” Henrique Rzezinski, former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Rio, told Latin America Advisor.

“Until then, we can only speculate with very little data,” Rzezinski said, suggesting Temer government’s low popularity influenced public opinion about the intervention.

At the time of the announcement, Temer’s decision to send the army into Rio, which is not among the country’s most violent states, was seen as politically motivated. (One of the leaders ahead of the presidential election in October, Jair Bolsonaro, has promoted hardline responses to crime.)

Even before the intervention, officials and activists said the use of the military in a public-security role would increase abuses, especially against minorities, while failing to have a serious impact on the underlying factors driving crime.

From the outset, the intervention seemed unlikely to succeed. The strategic plan laying out its goals was not released until five months after the operation started, and little progress has been made on reforms to local police forces, which was seen as a central component of the intervention.

Scepticism has grown about the armed forces’ involvement in public security, including among members of the military, and the way the intervention has played out raises concerns about the lasting impact on Brazilian society.

“Brazilian military involvement in policing is compromising Brazil’s democracy and jeopardizing the military’s image as one of the few remaining trusted government entities,” Katie Hillegass, a military-science professor and US Army officer who was stationed in Rio as part of an exchange program, told Latin America Advisor.

“Brazilian military tactics, based largely on their international peacekeeping experience and American counterinsurgency doctrine, cannot remedy the endemic violence crippling Rio de Janeiro,” Hillegass said.

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