Brazil’s military to take control of Rio police amid crisis

February 16, 2018
An presidential guard soldier holds his position at the Presidential Palace ramp, in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. Brazil's federal government is seeking to put the country's military in charge of Rio de Janeiro's local police. Chamber of Deputies Speaker Rodrigo Maia told journalists in Brasilia on Friday that a measure regarding federal intervention would be taken up by Congress next week. It is widely expected to be approved. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s federal government issued a decree Friday to put the military in charge of Rio de Janeiro’s local police amid a spike in violence.

The move is significant, both symbolically and in practical terms, for Latin America’s largest nation, where many still remember the brutal 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Putting the military in charge could bring immediate relief from drug trafficking violence, but also spur fears about the use of strong-armed tactics.

The decree, which is already valid and is expected to be confirmed by Congress next week, was signed by President Michel Temer. He said it was an “extreme measure to get the situation back into order.”

“Organized crime nearly took over in the state of Rio de Janeiro. This is a metastasis that is spreading in our country and it threatens our people. That’s why we decided on the intervention,” Temer said at Brazil’s presidential palace in Brasilia. “Our administration will give a tough, firm answer.”

While Rio has used military staffers to help police before, the intervention marks a bigger step, with the command of all security operations leaving civilian hands. Trials will also not be conducted by civilian courts if soldiers commit crimes during policing operations.

Defense Minister Raul Jungmann said “there is no risk to democracy” with the military intervention.

The move comes as the Brazilian president’s popularity has fallen to single digits, and his push to pass pension reform looks to be failing. Many analysts and lawmakers saw the decision as a way for him to deflect attention from his political woes.

Chamber of Deputies Speaker Rodrigo Maia told journalists in Brasilia that a pension reform vote in Congress would be delayed by at least a week. Temer later said if he has enough votes to pass the reform he will suspend the intervention in Rio, get the pension’s reform through two houses of Congress and then try to reinstate the intervention again.

The intervention is a “triple jump without a safety net,” said Maia. “We can’t get this wrong. This is an exceptional measure that hopefully won’t take too long to re-establish order.”

Still, there is little denying that Rio is struggling. Rio state Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezao admitted Wednesday that security planning failed to secure residents and tourists during Carnival celebrations and that Rio police can no longer stop the war between drug traffickers in the city.

Several violent incidents took place in Rio during the world famous bash, including muggings, armed robberies and confrontations.

Temer is expected in Rio on Saturday to discuss future security operations in the city, where Public Security Secretary Roberto Sa stepped aside Friday due to the intervention.

Security consultant Paulo Storani, a former commander of Rio’s elite police force known as the BOPE, said the president’s decision “will bring a lot of challenges to the military because it will not solve a security problem of decades.”

“Rio’s problem is more complex than police management. There could be a quick sensation of security, but that will not last,” Storani told The Associated Press.

Former National Security Secretary Jose Vicente da Silva believes the military intervention “is not definitive, but helps.”

“Rio state can’t solve this anytime soon and the military could be effective in keeping some smaller groups that have operated lately off of the streets,” da Silva said.

Temer has named Gen. Walter Souza Braga Netto to lead the security intervention. Braga Netto helped with security operations at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 and runs a command with 50,000 military personnel.

At a press conference, Braga Netto did not disclose any details about operations.

Asked if the situation in Rio was really bad, Braga Netto shook his head and said “too much media.”