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Brazil’s President Is Playing a Dangerous Political Game

Words: Edmund Ruge

On Friday, February 16, President Michel Temer issued a decree authorizing “federal intervention,” and handing over control of all matters of Rio’s public security to the Brazilian armed forces. This was two days after carnival. Rio, still caked in glitter, had no idea it was coming.

Neither did state security secretary Roberto Sá, who “resigned” from his post that Friday, or Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão, who found out the day before. The man placed in charge, General Walter Souza Braga Netto, learned of his nomination as interventor the day of. He wasn’t happy about it.

At a press briefing two weeks later, frustrated journalists reported that the armed forces offered no substantive information on how the intervention would be conducted. There was no information because there was no plan. The intervention, it seemed, was just political maneuvering ahead of October’s elections.

This isn’t to say that Rio doesn’t have a security problem. It does. Over the last decade, the state has seen major advances in safety wholly reversed. In 2017, Rio saw it’s highest homicide rate since 2009, its highest rate of citizens killed by police since 2009, and (save 2016) its highest total number of police killed in and out of duty since 2009. The list goes on.

And yet, for all of these harrowing statistics on Rio’s security, this intervention struck many as well… arbitrary. Rio may have issues, but so does the rest of Brazil. Of the world’s 50 most violent cities by homicide rate, 17 are in Brazil and Rio isn’t one of them. Out of Brazil’s most dangerous states, Rio ranks 10 out of 27. Going by sheer violence, the intervention should have taken place in the state of Sergipe or Rio Grande do Norte. If the concern was for increases in violent crime, the intervention could have gone to Ceará, where the rate of violent deaths surged 126% between 2005 and 2015.

True, you might not have heard of any of those places. When you think Brazil, you probably envision Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Copacabana Beach. Rio is Rio. But if Rio’s security has been falling apart for almost a decade, why would Temer, who assumed office in August of 2016, declare call it a crisis only now? The Temer administration had even decided, in conjunction with Rio’s governor, that the armed forces would not be needed to police this year’s Carnaval. In January, then-Defense Minister Raul Jungmann declared that Rio’s state was neither “out of control nor disorderly.” Why, then, issue a decree one month later with the explicit intent of restoring “public order in the state of Rio de Janeiro”?

Well, there was the so-called “wave of violence” at this year’s Carnaval. News giant O Globo looped startling footage of mass assaults on tourists at Ipanema beach, firefights throughout the city, and kids climbing through bus windows. Things have gotten so bad, the implication was, that we can’t even enjoy Carnaval anymore. Governor Pezão even gave a public apology, lamenting that the state was unprepared for violence of this proportion.

The thing is, the “wave” was nothing out of the ordinary. General Braga Netto would later catch flak for attributing Rio’s security concern to “a lot of media,” but he wasn’t wrong: as the São Paulo-based Estadão pointed out, Carnaval 2018 was no worse than Carnaval 2017. By some indicators, it was even safer.

But hey maybe this is a good move. Fabricated crisis or not, maybe Rio’s violent crime needs these kind of unprecedented measures. Maybe it’s about time somebody did something about it.

Nah just kidding. This is an awful idea. Here’s why…

The military is already on the ground in Rio. It’s not working.

This specific sort of military intervention may be unprecedented since Brazil emerged from dictatorship in 1985, but the armed forces have been deployed in Rio’s police operations for decades now. Military involvement in Rio’s security via what’s known as the Guarantee of Law and Order (Garantia de Lei e Ordem), or GLO, has been invoked 12 times since 2008 to bolster security for everything from the World Cup to the Catholic Church’s Global Youth Day. It’s actually in effect right now. Temer signed GLO authorization in July 2017 as part of his national security plan. Since then, the military has acted in conjunction with state police to combat drug trafficking and cargo robberies, participating in operations in at least 14 favelas.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve been helping. A 2017 analysis of 11 major military operations in Rio over the past 25 years concluded that only one proved successful in reducing all four indicators surveyed (pedestrian robbery, cargo robbery, vehicular robbery, and homicide). In all others, at least two of the four indicators increased with military presence.

One of the armed forces’ highest-profile failures took place from 2014 to 2015, in an extended occupation of Complexo da Maré, an agglomerate of sixteen favelas in the city’s north zone. The operation — christened Operation Saint Francis because why not — achieved nothing. By armed forces Commander General Eduardo Villas Bôas’ own admission, the operation was a waste: “We spent fourteen months in the Maré favelas, and in the week following our exit, the whole previous status quo re-established itself […] We spent 400 million reais [around USD 120 million] and I must say that it was money absolutely squandered.”

Interventor General Braga Netto has at least declared that the military will not engage in any long-term favela occupations this time around. But even in the absence of occupation-type security, there’s room for concern.

The military seems ready and willing to abuse human rights.

Following February 16th’s decree, at the armed forces’ behest, the Temer administration pushed for the authorization of collective search and arrest warrants to facilitate the intervention. Human rights organizations and favela activists were justifiably horrified. Officials have pumped the brakes since, but the military’s actions the following week demonstrated that they probably don’t care about warrants anyway.

The following week, as the armed forces began an operation into the Vila Kennedy favela, news and images of soldiers photographing — with their own phones… like literally whipping out the Galaxy, closing Tinder, and snapping headshots and IDs — and registering favela residents blew up. Rio’s Bar Association and the State Public Defender’s office both condemned the actions as unconstitutional. Braga Netto would later say that the measure “saves state resources.”

Next were shots of soldiers rifling through children’s backpacks in the Vila Kelson favela.

Then there are the hints of impunity.

The military won a major battle last October when Temer signed law PL 44/2016, allowing armed forces members that commit homicide under GLO operations to be tried in Military Courts rather than Civil Courts. That means that any soldier that kills a civilian in the line of duty gets judged by a 5-member tribunal made up of 4 active military and one rando with a law degree.

General Villas Bôas has also openly stated that the military needs a “guarantee that it can act without the risk of another Truth Commission.” The Truth Commission (Comissão de Verdade) he’s referring to was created under former President Dilma Rousseff to investigate murder and torture committed under Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship.

Even in the absence of a comprehensive plan, the military’s actions and comments paint a fairly clear picture of its attitude toward intervention. They might not be happy about it, but if they must intervene, they want the unbridled freedom to do as they please.

The scariest thing about all of this is that a lack of evidence for military intervention combined with a high potential for human rights abuse doesn’t seem to bother most Brazilians. Quite the opposite, in fact. This decree might turn out to be the most popular move Temer makes in his whole, miserable, lowest-approval-rating-in-Brazilian-history mandate.

A recent poll showed 69 percent of Brazilians approve of federal intervention, and an October 2017 poll showed 83 percent of Rio residents are in favor of the use of the military for domestic security. The decree flew through both chambers of Congress days after its signing, 340-72 in the House and 55-13 in the Senate.

The Economist once swooned over Temer, venturing that he belonged to “a better class of politician.” He “would rather be unpopular than populist.” Well, one year later, after failing to pass his unpopular and long-promised pension reform, Temer has given up and turned to an issue guaranteed to please. And all this just months before general elections.

Does Rio need help with security? Absolutely. This intervention, however, is ill-conceived and dangerous. Temer is playing politics with the lives of Brazil’s most vulnerable.

Edmund Ruge


Edmund Ruge is a researcher based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He holds an MA in International Economics and Latin American Studies from The Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Prior to attending SAIS, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique.


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