Brazil’s lawmakers this week overwhelmingly approved the Army’s controversial takeover of security in Rio de Janeiro following a breakdown of law and order in drug-ravaged neighbourhoods.
Despite criticism that the military intervention could lead to violations of constitutional rights, while also failing to address the causes of the urban violence, the Senate voted this week by 55 to 13, with one abstention, in favour. Brazil’s Lower House had approved the measure a day earlier.
President Michel Temer issued a decree, which put the Army in charge of all policing in Rio last Friday. While regular police are still doing most of the work on the streets, generals are now in command, with troops available as back-up. While the military is in charge of security for the whole state, their focus is on the city of Rio’s crime-ridden favelas.
Security in Rio de Janeiro has been deteriorating rapidly since the city hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics, with well-armed drug gangs making numerous favelas virtually off limits to police. The decision to send in the Army appears to have been triggered by a wave of street robberies during the recent carnival festivities that were given heavy media coverage.
“When we see delinquents holding up a street stall with a rifle we can see how serious the situation is. The population lives in terror,” said Senator Eduardo Lopes, who led the Senate support for the decree.
Principal opposition came from the Workers’ Party.
The military intervention is the first of its kind since Brazil returned to democracy in 1985 after two decades of dictatorship. Although many support a crackdown, critics worry that the mission has been poorly defined and could lead to abuses. There are also criticisms that years of heavy-handed policing in the favelas, including numerous Army-backed operations, have done nothing to resolve problems rooted in poor education and stunning inequality.
“The intervention in Rio is an inadequate and extreme measure that is worrying because it puts the population’s human rights at risk,” said Jurema Werneck, head of Amnesty International in Brazil.
Previous use of soldiers in Rio to support the police “did not guarantee an improvement in the violence levels” yet led to “serious violations of human rights,” Werneck said.
There is particular controversy over government calls for the Army-led police to be able to serve search and arrest warrants in favelas.
One high-profile critic of the proposed measure is star prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol, who spearheads Brazil’s enormous anti-corruption operation dubbed Car Wash (Lava Jato).
“The penal code does not authorise serving collective or generic search warrants. On the contrary, it demands the greatest possible precision in the homes being searched,” he tweeted.
On Wednesday, as Rio’s residents awoke, the Armed Forces and police spread out across the city in the first major operation since the change in command. They took up positions on major roads that connect Rio with the rest of the country in an effort to prevent drugs, illegal arms and stolen goods from entering the city, said Colonel Roberto Itamar, a military spokesman. Around 3,000 members of the Armed Forces were involved.
On Monday, Brazilian leaders said that the use of the military could serve as a model for other violent areas of Brazil.
“We are in a war against crime,” said Lower House Speaker Rodrigo Maia. “Our weapon is the constitution” for the federal government to intervene.
“It’s important to understand that Rio de Janeiro is a laboratory,” Institutional Security Minister Sergio Etchegoyen said after a meeting with President Temer. “It’s the outward manifestation of a structural crisis.”
Secretary-General Wellington Moreira Franco, a key Temer adviser, said what happens in Rio will hopefully spread throughout Brazil.
“This spirit is being mobilised so that ... this methodology can spread throughout Brazil,” he said.