Rio de Janeiro: Crime Surge Calls for Military Involvement

By: Janelle Rodriguez-Mena

The famed Carnival is a festive time marked by colorful samba parades and animated street parties, with approximately 1.5 million tourists descending on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second-largest city, for the annual weeklong festival.  This year, the celebrations were marred by muggings, robberies, and confrontations.  President Michel Temer equated the violence to “a cancer” and said organized criminals and gangs had all but seized control of the state amid the financial crisis.

After months of the violence and crime rates spiraling out of control, Rio’s governor issued an appeal for help.  In response, President Temer signed a decree on February 16, 2018 transferring responsibility for public security in Rio from state authorities to the nation’s military, under army general, General Braga Netto.  On February 21, 2018, the Brazilian Federal Congress approved the presidential decree.  It is the first federal intervention in a state and the first time the army has had such a high profile since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, after 21 years of military rule.  President Temer claims the severe circumstances justify taking extreme security measures.

Specialists maintain that the grave situation in Rio has been exacerbated by political and budget crisis.  Since June of 2016, ahead of the summer Olympic games, Rio has been in a state of public calamity.  The state has experienced drastic drops in terms of tax revenues, oil prices, and Petrobras investments.  One of the many consequences of the financial crisis is a significant reduction in police budget.  The state lacks the resources to hire police officers that pass the entrance exam.  There is a shortage in police equipment, including bulletproof vests and ammunition.  Many officers are equipped with obsolete firearms and the police do not have the money to pay for the petrol for their patrol cars.  This phenomenon explains, although not fully, the rising trend in violence.  In 2017, the rate of violent deaths was 40 per 100,000 inhabitants.  Official statistics for 2018 have not yet been released, but the Fogo Cruzado app, which reports gun-related conflicts in the metropolitan region, registered 688 shootings or shots fired in January, the highest number registered by the app since July of 2016, when it was launched.  This figure represents a 117% increase when compared to the same time period in 2017.

Although President Termer has emphasized that the government will take all necessary measures to eradicate organized crime, many Brazilians are weary of the implications of the military governing the security arena.  Military missions and police missions are fundamentally different.  Military forces are trained to use ruthless tactics to kill an enemy and seize territory, with little to no focus on community engagement, investigating crimes, providing long-term protection, and working to prevent possible crimes.  Many fear that, instead of reducing violence, gun battles between the military and gangs only put civilians at a greater risk.

Moreover, Brazil’s military has an extensive history of engaging in abusive tactics.  Increased concern stems from Brazil’s congress approving a controversial law on October 10, 2017, which allows for cases of abuses by members of the armed forces against civilians to be judged in military, rather than civilian, courts.  For example, the investigation into killings of civilians during policing operations by members of the armed forces is put into the hands of the armed forces and any trial would be before a court composed predominately of military officers.  This law essentially assures that there would be no independent and impartial investigation of these cases, blatantly violating international and human rights norms.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has held that it is inappropriate to try violations of human rights in military jurisdiction. “Brazilian authorities should ensure that the ‘legal protection’ that military commanders repeatedly demand for their troops is not used as a carte blanche to commit abuses,” Marie Canineu, Brazil Director of Human Rights Watch, said.  The temporal proximity of the passage of this law and the signing of the decree ordering military responsibility for security in Rio, coupled with Brazil’s corrupt history, is troubling to say the least.

Though it is too early to speculate on the implications of the Brazilian army’s role in governing Rio’s security on the soaring crime rates and civilian protection, it is undeniable that General Braga Netto needs to prove that he is committed to providing enduring protection and steadfast justice in light of the law passed last year.

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