Citizens Lack Trust in Rio Military Police but See Few Alternatives

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Brazil’s justice minister caused a stir this week when he accused Rio de Janeiro’s military police of maintaining ties to organized crime, and recent polls show citizens lack trust in the force. But “cariocas,” as the city’s residents are known locally, seem to be at a loss for alternatives to the notoriously corrupt and abusive security body.

In an interview with Brazilian blogger Josias de Souza published on October 31, Justice Minister Torquato Jardim alleged that Rio Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão and State Security Secretary Roberto Sá are unable to exercise control over the local military police.

Instead, Jardim said, the top leadership of the force “are associates of organized crime.”

Both Pezão and Sá initially expressed outrage at Jardim’s comments, while the military police responded by calling them “an unacceptable irresponsibility [that] deserves our most vehement repudiation.”

Later, however, the officials seemed to tone down their indignation.

“I don’t think he’s lying. I have a profound admiration for him,” Pezão said of Jardim in a November 2 radio interview. “He said that this [accusation] is based on the history of the military police. It wasn’t an official affirmation. It was his personal [opinion].”

Indeed, the military police have frequently come under scrutiny for alleged links to criminal elements. Earlier this year, nearly 100 current and former military police officers were arrested for alleged ties to drug trafficking in what was described as the largest-ever police corruption scandal in Rio’s history.

‘More Fear Than Confidence’

The uproar over Jardim’s statements followed on the heels of the release of several reports suggesting that cariocas lack confidence in the military police.

A recent survey carried out by the Datafolha polling agency found that two-thirds of Rio residents have “more fear than confidence” in the military police, and that fewer than one in 10 respondents believe that the force is “very efficient” in preventing and combating crime.

A separate study published in August by the Center for Security and Citizenship Studies (Centro de Estudos de Segurança e Cidadania – CESeC) similarly determined that two-thirds of cariocas believed that the military police-run security initiative known by the acronym UPP (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, or “Police Pacification Unit”), had failed to achieve its main objectives.

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At the same time, nearly 60 percent of respondents said that they favored keeping the UPP program in place, albeit with some modifications to the strategy.

Support for maintaining the UPP appeared to be correlated with respondents personal experience of the program.

For example, in the city’s center and south zones, which generally have residents who are whiter and wealthier, 48 percent of respondents judged the UPP positively. In the west zone, which is more heavily populated by darker-skinned and poorer citizens who are more likely to be the target of police abuse, only 23 percent said they support the program.

“Because the south is the wealthiest part of town, there is the general perception that UPPs implemented in those areas received more attention from the authorities, more resources and better trained officers,” Felipe Medeiros, an analyst at the consulting company S-RM, told InSight Crime.

Deepening Insecurity

Part of the reason for citizens’ low levels of approval of the military police likely lies in the deteriorating security conditions in Rio. A report released on October 2 by the Public Security Institute (Instituto de Segurança Pública) shows that the city’s homicide rate is on the rise.

The recent Datafolha survey found that more than 70 percent of cariocas want to leave Rio de Janeiro because of insecurity. Of the 812 individuals surveyed by the agency, 40 percent feel very insecure during the day in their own neighborhoods, with 78 percent saying they feel insecure in the city at night.

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These fears directly impact people’s lives, with 35 percent of respondents saying they modify their daily routine because of insecurity. More than 70 percent said they live under curfew, and another 70 percent reported hearing gunshots daily. (Several internet-based apps have been introduced to help citizens avoid getting caught in the shootouts that often erupt around the city.)

The size of the polling sample is rather small, and the report notes that the survey was conducted only ten days after an outbreak of violence that prompted authorities to deploy the military in Rocinha, one of the city’s largest “favelas,” the term that designates marginalized neighborhoods often built on percarious hillsides. These events, portrayed by many media outlets as reminiscent of a war, may have affected the response.

No Clear Alternative

Elevated levels of violence and insecurity are the result of a number of intertwined factors, but one of them is undeniably the UPP’s failure to sustain initial security gains brought by its implementation in the mid-2000s. Still, the August study by the CESeC suggests citizens don’t necessarily have a clear idea for an alternative strategy.

“It worked for a while, and we don’t have a better solution,” Júlio Altieri, a Rio-based analyst for the security consultancy firm Amarante, told InSight Crime.

One major obstacle to changing course is the city’s budget crisis, which has generated frustrations among police over lack of sufficient resources as an increasing boldness on the part of powerful criminal organizations continues to contribute to escalating violence in Rio.

“They are diversifying the ways in which they make profits, not only by selling drugs but also by committing crime on the streets,” Altieri said. “This wasn’t the case before … Drug gangs wouldn’t normally take part in crimes that call attention and attract police operations. However, now … they are robbing ATMs, cargos, jewelries, cell phone stores [and] electronic stores, or partnering with locals to provide weapons for mass robberies, whose profit would be shared among them.”

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In response to growing concerns over rising violence in Rio, the government has fallen back on a previously unsuccessful approach; namely, sending in federal armed forces. But as Brazil-based journalist Cecília Olliveira told InSight Crime in July, “If this were an effective strategy, we would not need the army on the streets again.”

Rio de Janeiro is not the only part of Brazil affected by increasing insecurity. In fact, the situation is arguably much worse in the more rural northern regions of the country. But while President Michel Temer recently described the problem as a “national emergency,” authorities nationwide also seem to be at a loss for how to deal with the issue.

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