In an emergency decree, the Brazilian army was ordered to take over security in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian leaders seemed to believe that this was the only option given a homicide rate that has steadily increased year after year. With criminal elements fighting both among themselves and with the police, Rio and many other Brazilian cities suffer under a staggering level of violence. Putting the army in charge is not the solution to this problem. Military forces are trained differently and operate with a different mission than police forces, making this role incompatible with the needs of Brazil’s cities.
The level of violence in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil overall is undeniable. The homicide rate in Brazil has escalated steadily every year since 2011. In recent years, the killing has increased, with Rio seeing a 26-percent increase in homicides since 2015. In 2016, more than 61,000 people were killed in Brazil, putting their overall homicide rate above that of Mexico, which has made headlines recently for its own record levels of violence. There is no indication that homicide dropped in 2017 or will slow in 2018.
The homicide rate in Brazil is largely driven by criminal groups that control large parts of cities. In particular, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are famous for their sprawling poor neighborhoods, known as “favelas.” Starting in the 1970s, groups such as the Red Commando emerged to embed themselves into poor areas and have now spread throughout Brazil’s cities to control lucrative drug trafficking routes and engage a range of other criminal activities. According to the investigative journalist group InSightCrime, it appears the recent rise in violence is due to a falling out between the Red Commando and the First Capital Command, the two most powerful gangs in the country. Coupled with intra-gang conflict, gun battles have become a regular part of life in Brazilian cities.
Police forces have struggled to contend with the gangs. Budget crises have sucked resources from police. The problem has become so acute that in one case police in the state of Espirito Santo went on strike in protest of poor working conditions and low wages, leading to chaos in the state. Police in Rio threatened a similar strike.
In order to either replace police forces or provide additional support, military forces have been deployed to fight gangs. This appears to be the first time that the army will fully take charge of policing in a major city. Past experience does not give this strategy much hope. While army troops have reportedly been marginally successful in establishing a presence, reporting has indicated “that the failure to follow up military-style occupations of crime-ridden areas with community-focused outreach hampered its long-term effectiveness.”
The problem is the fundamental difference between military and police missions. Military forces are largely trained to use heavy-handed tactics to kill an enemy and seize territory. There is little focus on engaging with the community, investigating crimes, providing long-term protection, and working to preempt possible crimes. Instead of lowering violence, large gun battles between military forces and gangs only put civilians at greater risk and increase the body count.
Additionally, Brazil’s military has a long history of engaging in abusive tactics. Utilizing the military in an unfamiliar role only increases the likelihood that human rights abuses will be inflicted on the population. Instead of providing security and increasing the population’s faith in governance, these methods will only drive the marginalized further into the hands of the gangs that should be eliminated. As I have written before about similar efforts in El Salvador and in attempts by Mexico to use the army to eliminate cartels, abuses by the security services only serve to perpetuate the cycle of violence. There is no reason to believe that Brazil will be any different.
There appears to be few paths forward for Brazil. Since 2015, the country has suffered from an economic crisis, draining government coffers and driving up unemployment. This no doubt contributes to the gang problem as disaffected young men with no employment prospects are driven to crime. Coupled with massive corruption scandals that touch all levels of government, the legitimacy of Brazilian governance is strained. Ideally, the government would focus on heavily funding police forces that are well armed, but also trained to engage with the communities in which they work and judiciously use force. On a larger scale, funding to provide education, jobs, and basic services to poor communities would help rob the gangs of their sources of manpower and protection. These are long-term solutions to a complicated problem. In the near future, it is more likely that gang dynamics will dictate the homicide rate rather than anything the government can implement.