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Opinion: Brazil militarizes its war on crime

Even if expanding the use of military operations to combat crime has shown little success in the past, the current Brazilian government has decided to carry on

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by C.H. Gardiner

President Michel Temer met with politicians and members of his cabinet on February 19 to discuss an executive decree he signed on February 16 allowing the military to assume control of security operations in Rio de Janeiro.

Following that meeting, Wellington Moreira Franco, a close advisor to Temer, told the Associated Press that he hoped to see the model of federal military deployments “spread throughout Brazil.”

Sergio Etchegoyen, the president’s top cabinet member for military and security matters, said that “Rio de Janeiro is a laboratory.”

During the meeting, the speaker of the lower house of congress, Rodrigo Maia, described federal military interventions as a “weapon” in the “war on crime.”

The military has repeatedly been called in to assist civilian police in Rio de Janeiro in recent years, but Temer’s decree — subject to congressional approval that is expected this week — represents the first time that the government is using the constitutional provision allowing the federal armed forces to assume control over civilian police since the end of the country’s military dictatorship in 1985.

The proposed federal takeover has been met with some controversy by opposition politicians, who say the move is legally questionable and politically motivated.

Moreover, the head of Brazil’s army, Eduardo Villas Boas, recently cautioned against using the military for domestic crime-fighting, arguing that such actions increase the risk of politicization and corruption of the troops.

The intervention in Rio de Janeiro seems to be part of a bigger security play by Temer ahead of general elections scheduled for October. The day after signing the controversial decree related to Rio, the president announced the creation of a new Public Security Ministry, which will assume control over the federal police.

Meanwhile, in the northern Brazilian state of Ceara, the government has deployed a federal task force in response to rising violence and the recent slaying of two principal members of the country’s most powerful crime group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC.)

The recent comments made by top Brazilian officials point towards a desire to institutionalize a strategy of militarization that has shown little long-term promise — both in Brazil and throughout Latin America.

Etchegoyen’s description of Rio as a “laboratory” for militarized security policies is telling, given that the city has seen multiple past deployments of the armed forces in recent years that have not achieved any sustainable security gains. The results of militarized anti-crime strategies implemented by civilian authorities in the city have proven to be similarly lackluster.

Even while praising the military intervention, Rio de Janeiro state Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão saidsecurity efforts should aim to address socioeconomic drivers of crime.

“We’ll only win the war for public security with work permits,” the governor said.

However, the federal intervention in Rio and the creation of the new security ministry raise questions about whether sufficient resources will be dedicated to tackling those issues.

Brazil’s economy has been struggling for years, and budget cuts have hit social programs as well as the security apparatus at both the federal and state level. Resource limitations will likely continue to be a barrier to addressing fundamental issues like poverty, joblessness and poor training and compensation for civilian police.