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Giving the Military Control in Rio Threatens Brazilian Democracy

Last Friday, Brazilian President Michel Temer signed a decree handing control of Rio de Janeiro’s police forces to the country’s military. Temer defended the dramatic measure, claiming “circumstances demand it” and federal troops will implement the “hard and firm responses” necessary to defeat Rio’s violent drug trafficking gangs. Despite such assertions, this is a shortsighted and cynical political move that will fail to address Rio’s criminal violence problem. It also sets a dangerous precedent for Brazil’s democracy.

Temer’s decree comes amidst a period of political instability following the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Many Brazilians consider her removal, for the use of fiscal mechanisms to avoid budget shortfalls, to have been a coup through legal means. Since taking office in August 2016 after serving as Rousseff’s vice president, Temer himself and members of his cabinet have been accused of flagrant corruption, including illegal campaign financing and bribe-taking.

With approval ratings in the single digits and this year’s elections quickly approaching, Temer is seeking increased support. His turn to one of Brazil’s most trusted institutions, the armed forces, plays particularly well among Brazil’s middle and upper classes, which welcome an active military role in curbing urban crime.

Many other Brazilians, however, are far less sanguine about this development, as they have not forgotten the torture tactics and human rights abuses committed by Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85). They worry about a growing far right movement that calls for “military intervention, now” – a return to military rule.

Temer’s claim that “organized crime has almost taken control of Rio de Janeiro” and that military intervention is necessary to “reestablish order” is extraordinarily reactionary. The government has long used widespread public fear to clamp down ever more severely on the city’s favelas, impoverished informal settlements where drug gangs operate. But now, Temer’s rhetoric is signaling the demise of Rio’s once-heralded “Police Pacification program,” a policy begun in 2008 that sought to retake territorial control of favelas, and which has faltered due to budget deficits, a lack of political will and deteriorating relations with favela residents.

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As a result, crime rates and homicides have increased over the last several years, and a growing number of citizens are being killed by police. Even so, Rio is not close to being the most violent city in Brazil today. Once the epicenter of the country’s urban violence epidemic, Rio has now been far outpaced by other urban centers, many in Brazil’s destitute northeast.

The assertion that the military will “defeat” Rio’s drug gangs is also highly suspicious. Over the past several decades, federal troops have often supplemented Rio’s police, including most recently during the 2016 Olympics. Experience has shown that after the military ends its involvement, there is a return to the status quo. In 2014, for instance, two months ahead of the World Cup, 2,500 army and marine troops were stationed in Complexo da Maré, a sprawling cluster of favelas with a population of 140,000. A year later, on the very day the military left, Maré’s gangs resumed control of its streets. In other countries in the region, notably Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras, when militaries cracked down on large, multi-faceted criminal organizations, violence only increased, as criminals were spurred to compete even more fiercely with one another and with government forces.

But the problem is not just that military control of policing will not provide any long-term solutions. The even bigger concern is: What if it is long-term? The Brazilian military prides itself on always being ready to step in and save the nation, seeing itself as a bastion of responsibility and ethics amid chaos, corruption and criminality. Even today, there are many within the military who view the dictatorship as having been a necessary measure to rescue Brazil from incompetent political leadership. It is not too much of a stretch, therefore, to view this military takeover as a warning about Brazilian democracy. One could imagine the military continuing in the same direction, taking advantage of today’s political turmoil to deem the civilian government unworthy of governing altogether.

In the meantime, the impoverished residents of Rio’s favelas and urban peripheries bear the brunt of this policy. Past instances suggest that the military will likely occupy their neighborhoods, implementing war-time strategies – including attempts to “win hearts and minds” – to combat drug gangs. Ironically, perhaps, favela residents have far more respect for the military than for the corrupt police whose violence marks their daily lives. But ultimately, the life they lead under military occupation is not a life anyone would wish for. Their houses and bodies are regularly searched, they are constantly surveilled by patrols, subjected to nighttime curfews, and their civil society organizations are tracked and monitored. Young black men in particular – all of whom the military suspects of being involved in the drug trade – are treated with discrimination and abuse. This is life in a war zone.

Military-led policing will provide little if any real solution to Rio’s crime-related violence. What it will do, instead, is empower the military to take greater control of civilian life, and normalize authoritarianism in a supposed democracy. This is a treacherous opening for a military all too ready to take on greater authority, in a country whose current leadership has scant public legitimacy.

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