Brazil’s public safety depends on its Armed Forces

. Jan 03, 2018
rio armed forces Armed Forces in Rio. Photo: Tomaz Silva/ABr
rio armed forces

Armed Forces in Rio. Photo: Tomaz Silva/ABr

On December 30, General Eduardo Villas Bôas, who commands the Brazilian Army, said on Twitter that he is worried about the “constant employ of army interventions” in Brazilian states. This wasn’t an overstatement. Unable to ensure an efficient public safety system, Brazilian states have relied on the country’s Armed Forces to help fill a role not properly satisfied by the police. According to a study published by Estadão, the number of operations involving the military has tripled since 1990.

On the same day Villas Bôas asked for more actions to curb crime rates, the governor of Rio Grande do Norte, Robinson Faria, transferred control over the state’s law enforcement institutions to the Brazilian Army. After the police decided to go on strike, the state observed a wave of violence. Police were asking for better working conditions, as well as payment of their salaries – most haven’t received their November paychecks.

Between December 19 and 30, the local government registered 87 violent deaths (a rate 40 percent higher than average). During New Year’s Eve, however, with the army positioned in the state capital of Natal, non-lethal crimes were cut by 29 percent.

This was the second major wave of violence in the state since August 2016, when criminal gangs launched a series of attacks in Natal. It was a reaction to the government’s decision to jam cellular coverage in a local prison. Public transport came to a halt, curfews were imposed and shots were fired across the city. The federal government then sent 1,200 troops to contain the spread of violence.

</p> <p>Most operations involving the Armed Forces follow police strikes. During the 1990s, this pattern was observed at least ten times in the states of Sergipe, Ceará, and Bahia. Now, as most Brazilian states are on the cusp of financial collapse, the problem has resurfaced.</p> <p>Even to conduct prison raids in search of smuggled cell phones and weapons, state forces require help from the army. Such operations found on average one knife for every two prisoners.</p> <h3>Rio de Janeiro: a chronic problem</h3> <div id="attachment_2007" style="width: 2058px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-2007" loading="lazy" class="size-full wp-image-2007" src="" alt="rio armed forces favela" width="2048" height="1285" srcset=" 2048w, 300w, 768w, 1024w" sizes="(max-width: 2048px) 100vw, 2048px" /><p id="caption-attachment-2007" class="wp-caption-text">Armed Forces in Rio&#8217;s Rocinha neighborhood. Photo: Fernando Frazão/ABr</p></div> <p>No other state, however, demands more operations involving the Armed Forces than Rio de Janeiro. The first of these operations to take place after the reestablishment of democracy was in 1992, when Rio de Janeiro hosted the United Nations Earth Summit.</p> <p>Last week, Brazil&#8217;s Minister of Defense, Raul Jungmann, declared that the Armed Forces will remain to assist the city&#8217;s police forces throughout 2018. The National Security Forces arrived in Rio back in June, after President Michel Temer sent thousands of troops to help local police fight rampant crime.</p> <p>However, many in Rio believe that the Armed Forces did little to solve the problem. That&#8217;s why Minister Jungmann says he wants the Armed Forces&#8217; objectives to be clear. &#8220;[The army] is not a savior &#8211; and we were never meant to lead, but rather to follow guidelines established by Rio&#8217;s Military Police.&#8221;</p> <p>Brazil can turn to Mexico for an example of a similar country that turned to the military to fight organized crime – which backfired. Mexico decided to employ both its army and navy to fight drug cartels. Yet that strategy simply led to more corruption within the institution, and the reputation of the forces suffered major hits.</p> <h3>Complete failure</h3> <p>Over the course of 2016, Brazil registered 61,619 murders. It’s the highest number in our history, and translates into 7 murders every hour. Another 71,796 have gone missing. Experts comment that Brazil focuses more on reacting to crime than it does on preventing it. Back in November, Daniel Cerqueira, from Brazil’s Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea), discussed Brazil’s current public safety crisis.</p> <p>“We need to structure a model to finance public safety that will render states’ actions effective. How can we do it? By creating a national system of monitoring and evaluation.”</p> <p>“We shouldn’t treat public safety as an ordinary expense, to be slashed according to economic policy,” says Elissandro Lotin, a member of the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety. He refers to the austerity agenda pushed by President Michel Temer and Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles. Expenditure with public safety (among other areas) has been slashed by 10.3 percent. Despite the escalating violence in Rio de Janeiro, only 1.2 percent of federal funds meant to be used on security issues were actually spent.</p> <div class="infogram-embed" data-id="f2f0ff29-54a7-4ad0-a78a-76f0279bd667" data-type="interactive"></div><script>!function(e,t,s,i){var n="InfogramEmbeds",o=e.getElementsByTagName("script"),d=o[0],r=/^http:/.test(e.location)?"http:":"https:";if(/^\/{2}/.test(i)&&(i=r+i),window[n]&&window[n].initialized)window[n].process&&window[n].process();else if(!e.getElementById(s)){var a=e.createElement("script");a.async=1,,a.src=i,d.parentNode.insertBefore(a,d)}}(document,0,"infogram-async","//");</script> <h3>So, just how did this situation get so bad?</h3> <ol> <li><em><strong>Vague legal framework:</strong> </em>Brazil&#8217;s Constitution only briefly mentions public safety, and doesn&#8217;t define it. That leaves the country with an antiquated concept of public safety dating back to <a href="">colonization</a>.</li> <li><strong><em>A brutal prison system:</em></strong> Earlier this year, over 130 inmates across the country were killed during several riots. They exposed the inhumane conditions of our prison system, which is often dominated by gangs. Since 2000, Brazil&#8217;s prison population has doubled.</li> <li><strong><em>No reforms:</em></strong> Public safety has been an issue in Brazil for decades, and few improvements have been made. Today&#8217;s pending national plan for public safety is similar to an agenda presented in 2002, but not enforced.</li> <li><strong><em>Lack of money:</em></strong> Brazilian authorities have slashed their security <a href="">budgets</a>, despite mounting violence across many urban centers. In Rio de Janeiro, 70 percent of residents want to leave the city to escape violence.

Read the full story NOW!

The Brazilian Report

We are an in-depth content platform about Brazil, made by Brazilians and destined to foreign audiences.

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at