It’s been a month since Brazil’s President Michel Temer signed a decree authorizing the military to take control of security in the state of Rio de Janeiro to “reestablish order.” Since then the intervention has been a mixture of promising moves from the military, and troubling echoes of previous deployments.
The February 16 decree places General Walter Souza Braga Netto in charge of the security apparatus in the state of Rio de Janeiro, including both the military and civil police. The mandate, which is explicitly stated as being military in nature, is expected to last until the end of the year and relies on a constitutional provision which is being used for the first time since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985.
The use of strong-arm tactics to deal with rising violence is nothing new in Latin America although with Rio having such a long history of calling on the military to keep the peace, it raises the question of whether this time it will be any different.
Thirty Days In
Since the launch of the initiative, there has been some confusion as to what exactly the details of the intervention will involve. President Temer stated during the signing of the decree that there would be ostentatious shows of force with the military “on the roads, avenues, and in the communities.” Since the announcement, however, things seem to have slowed down, with no general deployment of federal forces throughout the city. Only last week, nearly three weeks after the decree was signed, were military forces deployed to Villa Kenedy, a suburb of Rio’s Capital, to remove barricades placed by traffickers in order to impede police entry. Other actions had been conducted before this but under a previous mandate issued in 2017.
Several incidents during the Villa Kenedy operation have already raised concern amongst residents who were required to be photographed with documentation by the military on entering and leaving the community. Over 30 small shops were demolished for lacking licenses, something that the mayor called “a disproportionate use of force.” The military also announced that the area would be occupied by a force of 300 soldiers, something that just two weeks ago General Netto said was not planned.
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Despite the recent setbacks General Netto seems to be avoiding an ostentatious show of force that some could argue would benefit the current administration. The Villa Kenedy operation is relatively small in scale compared to operations conducted before the federal intervention and may be being used as a testing ground for future deployments. Instead, General Netto says he will be focusing on providing resources to the cash-starved state police, replacing different police leaders, and cracking down on corruption.
“Our intention is to strengthen the systems in place, to combat corruption and take steps so that the good professionals are rewarded and the bad penalized,” he said in an interview with Estadão.
Rio’s military police has received much attention under the intervention. Inspections of police barracks by members of the army, a March 14 operation targeting militias that arrested three members of the military police, and a new commander point to moves in the right direction.
The military police have been criticized by social activists including Marielle Franco, a councilwoman who was executed on March 14 in what police told the AP looks like a targeted killing. A tweet she made the day before her death made reference to the shooting of an unarmed man by military police. “Another young man murdered by the police. Matheus Melo was leaving church. How many more need to die before this war ends?”
Although short-term indicators point to a 30 percent increase in violence over the last four years in the state of Rio de Janeiro, rising criminality is a problem throughout Brazil. The state of Ceará, which has been a hot spot for violent confrontations between narco-factions, has had a 50.7 percent increase in homicides in just the last year with the capital Fortaleza almost doubling the number of violent deaths in the last 12 months. So why Rio, and why now?
President Temer insists that the reason is the violence experienced in the state and “social disorganization” during carnival. “No longer will our prisons be offices for criminals, nor our squares play host to parties for organized crime. Our roads should be safe for honest motorists and never be used to transport drugs or to steal cargo,” he said during the ceremony to sign the decree.
Today’s levels of violent deaths in Rio are about 40 per 100,000. Although on the rise, these homicide stats are more or less equivalent to cities in the United States such as New Orleans or Detroit, and significantly lower than their peak in 1994.
Some analysts believe there are other reasons behind the move. “I think it’s an attempt by the current government to try and leverage a candidate into the upcoming election, principally for the presidency,” Camila Nunes Dias, a sociologist and expert on criminality in Brazil told InSight Crime. “Public security is one of the principal points of interest amongst the electoral base in the upcoming election, although I think there is little chance for the bid to be successful,” she said. A poll taken before the intervention had Temer’s approval rating in the single digits.
Echoes From the Past
During the lead-up to the 2014 world cup in Brazil, the favela of Maré was occupied by the military for a year and two months. Like Villa Kenedy, the community is located in the northern part of the city, away from the tourist sites and is mostly comprised of poorer citizens. Marielle Franco was a resident of this community and represented them as a councilwoman. The deployment into the community was conducted under the banner of reclaiming the area from lawlessness after a spike in violence in the previous months. After a downward trend during the occupation by the military, homicide levels immediately started climbing when the military left, eventually passing the pre-deployment peak by 2017.
During the occupation of Maré, the temporary decrease in violent crimes came at a cost. According to Gisele Martins, a resident of Maré and community communicator, residents were victims of mistreatment and human rights violations. Their movements were limited and they were subject to constant searches. Schools were closed and violent clashes between the military and criminals were commonplace. “There are two different security policies in Rio, one for the street and one for the favela. Those in high-income areas are provided access to health care and education whereas those that live in low-income communities are dealt with by tanks and soldiers,” Martins told InSight Crime. Many fear that the recent operation in Villa Kenedy points to a willingness by the new military command to ignore the rights of poorer citizens in the interest of public security.
Time for a Change?
Over the last month, the federal intervention in Rio has not been the blitz that many expected. Instead, it has mostly been comprised of General Netto replacing the command structure of different elements of Rio de Janeiro’s security apparatus and making plans to route out corruption and provide resources, things that the state of Rio de Janeiro is in dire need of.
However, the main military deployment into Villa Kenedy has seen the rights of local residents waived in a way that would unlikely be seen in richer parts of the city. The extended placement of military personnel in communities like Villa Kenedy is the same tactic used previously in Rocinha, Maré and countless other favelas before that, and will likely have the same outcome once federal forces leave. A return to lawlessness and a spike in crime.
So far, General Netto has been slow to deploy forces without a plan, which is a positive sign, but unless the government takes steps to make systematic changes in the way that it deals with security in poorer communities, residents are likely to suffer.