Michel Temer, the unpopular Brazilian president installed by the coup against Dilma Rousseff, has just done something without precedent since twenty-one years of military dictatorship ended in 1985. He has issued a decree which gives the army direct control over public security in Rio de Janeiro, thereby removing all control from the elected state governor and elected state congress. General Walter Souza Braga Neto will now command Rio’s military and civil police, corps of firefighters, and overcrowded prison system, all massively overstretched by budget cuts. He will answer directly to Temer as federal president and General Sérgio Etchegoyen, the head of Temer’s Security Cabinet. Etchegoyen is notorious for publicly attacking the report of the National Truth Commission created by President Rousseff to investigate crimes committed under the dictatorship.
Sending the military in to support the police is no novelty in Rio de Janeiro. Temer himself has done it before, quite recently sending troops into the vast Rocinha favela after violence broke out between factions for control of the drugs trade. So did former presidents Lula and Dilma, in the context of the various sporting mega-events that have been hosted by the city as it has tried to reinvent itself economically over the last decade. But this latest move is something completely different, because it hands over governmental power to a military “caretaker” (interventor) and removes rights from the state authorities, against the grain of the 1988 Constitution’s efforts to restore and enhance democracy and accountability. Furthermore, the Temer government also wants to end another provision of the 1988 Constitution, which subjected soldiers accused of crimes to trial by civilian juries. Congress has already approved a draft law to make the judgement of soldiers the exclusive preserve of military tribunals when they are accused of unjustified killing or abuse of civilians.
Temer has tried justify the new measure by arguing that robbery and violence during this year’s carnival had revealed a continuing deterioration in Rio’s public security that demanded an immediate response. But there is another, probably more plausible, explanation for the timing of this announcement. The Temer regime has faced increasing difficulty in constructing a majority in congress for its deeply unpopular pension reform proposals. While this intervention in Rio is in place, no changes can be made to the constitution. Changing the pension system requires constitutional amendments. Temer has suggested that he could “suspend” the Rio de Janeiro measure temporarily to allow a vote on pension reform, but that would appear to require the declaration of another state of judicial exception.
So the real motivation of this measure is probably not the welfare of the residents of Rio de Janeiro or even placating the middle and upper classes with a gesture of being “tough on crime”. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the incidence of street crimes will be what most Cariocas remember about the 2018 carnival, although crime and violence did figure in the symbolic representations of the samba schools. This carnival will be remembered for its directly political statements. Michel Temer appeared on the streets in the image of a vampire in the extraordinary critique of the 2016 coup offered by Paraíso do Tuiuti, which also presented those who had demonstrated in support of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff as puppets (manifestoches) manipulated by the hands of the mainstream media and big business. This school’s “samba plot” connected the coup’s so-called “labour reform” to the reproduction of the logic of slavocracy, pointing its finger at the elite behind the coup as the root cause of Brazil’s problems. Many who supported Rousseff’s impeachment have in fact become completely disillusioned with the Temer government. Another worry is that this extension of the militarisation of internal security could have negative consequences for democracy and freedom of expression in a very difficult election year from the point of view of the forces behind the coup. The intervention is intended to last until the end of the year, and will therefore be in force during the election campaign and post-election scenario.
What is absolutely clear is that militarising security in this way is not the way to go in terms of having greater success in combating crime, reducing violence, and avoiding further catastrophic violations of the human rights of poorer citizens and their families. I will not write any more about that here, since I have done so in many other places, including the article Securitization, Mafias and Violence in Brazil and Mexico, which has just been published online in the journal Global Discourse.