By Allison Fedirka

Brazil, like most countries in South America, experienced an extended period of military dictatorship during the latter half of the 20th century. These regimes were notorious for their strict control over society and violent suppression of political opposition. Democracy was instated only a generation ago and military dictatorship is still a very sensitive topic in many of these countries. That is why the Brazilian government’s recent deployment of the military to step up security in the state of Rio de Janeiro after a spike in violence following Rio’s carnival festival has raised some eyebrows.

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Understanding the military’s role in Brazil’s history, the government has been very deliberate in the way it has carried out the intervention. President Michel Temer proposed imposing Article 34 of the constitution that says the military can intervene in situations where national integrity and state control are under serious threat. There was considerable political support for the measure with the lower house of parliament voting 340 in favor and 72 against with one abstention and the senate voting 55 in favor, 13 against and one abstention. This is the first time since the 1988 constitution was introduced that this article has been implemented. The measure will be applied for one year and then re-evaluated. Although the military had previously carried out some security operations in Rio, now it will be in charge of security operations and local police forces.

A Critical Moment

The move comes at a crucial juncture in Brazil’s modern history. Brazil is a very young democracy. From 1964 to1986, the country was under military rule and its current constitution did not come into force until 1988. The first generation to be born under a democracy in Brazil is now reaching adulthood and becoming more involved in business, politics and security. Most adults over the age of 40 – nearly 38 percent of the country’s total population – will have memories of what life was like under military dictatorship.

Therefore, the possibility of military rule returning to Brazil is concerning for many Brazilians, though a small portion of the population sees it as preferable to modern party politics that are widely viewed as extremely corrupt. Since 2015, Brazil’s political system and institutions have come under a lot of scrutiny, particularly since the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff’s downfall was just the tip of the iceberg and part of multiple massive corruption investigations that involved politicians at all levels and from all parties. This left the public disillusioned by politicians and the political system, and the government weaker than it had been for a decade.

At the same time, the country also experienced an economic crisis that was in part tied to the political upheaval. From 2015 to 2016, Brazil’s economy contracted by more than 7 percent, following a year of negligible growth in 2014. While the technical recession ended in 2017, the public hasn’t seen an improvement in living conditions. For many, the crisis continues. This ties in closely with the political crisis because the Workers’ Party, which was in power from 2003 to 2016, pursued populist policies that – in addition to corruption and falling commodity prices – were seen as largely responsible for the economic crisis.

The political turmoil coupled with economic decline resulted in a deteriorating security climate throughout the country. In Rio, homicides, street robberies and highway cargo robberies have been rising since 2012, particularly since 2015. The state government’s Public Security Institute reported a total of 6,731 homicides in 2017 and 40 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. There were nearly 126,000 reported street robberies and 10,600 cargo robberies. In fact, cargo delivery is so risky that the national postal service now charges an extra fee just to deliver parcels in Rio.

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It should be noted, however, that these are not historic highs for Rio. In 1994, the state had 8,631 homicides and a murder rate of 64.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2002, there were 8,043 homicides and a murder rate of 54.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. In the past 25 years, Rio’s “best” year was 2012, when it still registered 4,666 homicides and a murder rate of 28.7 per 100,000.

Rio is a special case in terms of security for a few reasons. It has the second-highest number of homicides in Brazil – although other states have higher murder rates than Rio. Rio, however, has a much higher international profile and more international tourism than other Brazilian states, making what happens there potentially damaging for the Brazilian government both domestically and internationally. The state is also a hub for drug trafficking and criminal groups. Historically, there have been three groups – Comando Vermelho, Amigos dos Amigos and Terceiro Comando Puro – that compete for supremacy in Rio. But in the past year or so, Primer Comando Capital has tried to get a foothold. Unlike street gangs found in other parts of Brazil, these are highly sophisticated organized crime groups that have access to military-grade weaponry and control many areas in the state. This poses a much greater threat to the government and overall security environment.

No Margin for Error

But the deployment of the military in the state is due to factors beyond the general lack of security in Rio. Drug trafficking and organized crime have been a fixture in Rio for years and films like Cidade de Deus (2002) and Tropa de Elite (2007) depicted this reality to international audiences over a decade ago. But Rio state officials, security forces and programs like the Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs, have failed to improve the situation. The UPP were police-run programs that aimed to clear out drug dealers from neighborhoods and maintain a police presence in the area. While they generally succeeded in their first goal, they failed in their community outreach mission, often sparking bouts of violence. A lack of funding, poor training and deteriorating security of neighborhoods previously considered “successful” cases have resulted in these programs being re-evaluated and restructured.

Understandably, the public reaction to the military deployment has been mixed. A nationwide survey carried out by private polling group Parana Pesquisas showed that 74 percent of those surveyed said they supported the intervention, while just 20.5 percent opposed it. However, when asked about their opinions on military intervention in general in Brazil, 51.6 percent said they opposed it, while 43.1 percent said there were cases where they may be in favor. The firm also found that 67.9 percent of Brazilians felt security in their areas had deteriorated in recent years and 60.5 percent believed all levels of the government were responsible for solving this problem. But another poll published by Voz das Comunidades – a community group based out of Rio’s favelas – showed that only 40 percent of people favor intervention and 60 percent oppose it. Anecdotal evidence indicates that concern over military intervention is not about fear that military rule will return but about the belief that the military’s presence will lead to increased violence in their neighborhoods.

Though this situation isn’t quite as dire as imposing martial law, the government and military are walking a fine line and, given the coinciding crises, have no margin for error. It is impossible to restore public security in Rio without engaging criminal groups, and this may lead to violence or even casualties. The first reports of mass casualties or regular abusive behavior will very likely spark a public backlash. The government is also making this move while much-needed economic, public spending and security reforms have yet to be implemented. These reforms are necessary for Brazil’s mid- and long-term development and cannot be put off indefinitely. But the government cannot legally move ahead with the reforms now that it has deployed the military. In one year – when the intervention is set to expire – Brazil will have a new government that will be left to deal with the issue. No matter how this turns out, the decision to deploy the military in Brazil marks a decisive moment in the country’s history that will greatly impact the future relationship between the military, public and government.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this report mistakenly stated that Rio had the highest number of homicides in Brazil. It actually has the second-highest number. The error has been corrected.

Allison Fedirka
Allison Fedirka is a senior analyst for Geopolitical Futures. In addition to writing analyses, she helps train new analysts, oversees the intellectual quality of analyst work and helps guide the forecasting process. Prior to joining Geopolitical Futures, Ms. Fedirka worked for Stratfor as a Latin America specialist and subsequently as the Latin America regional director. She lived in South America – primarily Argentina and Brazil – for more than seven years and, in addition to English, fluently speaks Spanish and Portuguese. Ms. Fedirka has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international studies from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in international relations and affairs from the University of Belgrano, Argentina. Her thesis was on Brazil and Angola and south-south cooperation.