Can soldiers solve Brazil’s crime problem?

By Christoph Harig

15 September, 2019

Governments across the globe try to counter violent crime by deploying military forces. European countries such as Belgium and France have stepped up their armed forces’ internal anti-terror and policing role. Only recently, South Africa deployed troops in order to ‘help the police “restore law and maintain order”’ in Cape Town. Across Latin America, the military regularly supports or even replaces police forces that are struggling with rampant homicide rates. Particularly in Brazil, the military has been frequently deployed in ‘Guaranteeing Law and Order’ operations.

However, it is widely acknowledged that internal military deployments rarely lead to sustainable security improvements. Without comprehensive approaches for addressing root causes of crime, these deployments are often futile. Sending soldiers to the streets usually does not disrupt the political economy of organised crime. In countries such as Mexico, the military’s engagement in the war on drugs is even credited for contributing to an increase in homicide rates. This article wants to highlight issues at the micro-level of implementing internal military operations: that of soldiers performing police roles.

Military operation in Rocinha favela, Brazil, 22 September 2017 ©Fernando Frasão/Agência Brasil

Soldiers and the gradual use of force

It is widely suggested that soldiers are not adequately trained for police roles. The military’s purpose is to ‘break things and kill people’, the critics say. Given policing’s supposed focus on the gradual and appropriate use of force, it appears sensible to leave law enforcement to specifically trained police forces. Although the use of reasonable force arguably distinguishes police from armed forces, the boundaries between policing and soldiering have always been blurred and enforcing the law often includes a hardly restrained use of coercion. 

This holds particularly true in the case of Brazil: state police forces responsible for patrolling the streets are militarised and notoriously violent. Certain units are known for their confrontational approaches or for including trigger-happy officers. Residents of marginalised neighbourhoods, in particular young, black, poor, male citizens, are most at risk of becoming victims of police killings. Against this background, one could ask whether deploying the military in police roles would really make matters worse. After all, some suggest that, as soldiers are often better drilled and trained for the use of firearms in critical situations than police, they are thus less prone to abusive behaviour. In Brazil, some residents of poor areas at times even preferred their neighbourhood being occupied by the military over regular police operations.

Peacekeeping at home?

The Brazilian armed forces claim that their troops are well prepared for law enforcement roles. There are dedicated training centres for UN peacekeeping and ‘Guaranteeing Law and Order’ operations. The military further justifies the supposed suitability of soldiers with their experience in internal missions and the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), for which they have been ordered to use force gradually and proportionally. But has training for, and experience in, these kind of missions actually made soldiers suitable for police roles? Which lessons do they learn in these operations? How does this affect law enforcement practices in Brazil?

In the 1990s, after the end of the military regime in 1985, Brazil’s armed forces became regularly involved in ‘Guaranteeing Law and Order’ operations. These missions were limited to short-term operations until 2010, when President Lula da Silva authorised troops to support Rio de Janeiro’s then promising ‘pacification’ programme. In preparation for sporting events such as the Football World Cup 2014, the military was sent to support and replace police forces during the occupation of marginalised neighbourhoods. Troops deployed to favelas in Rio wore attire that deliberately mimicked that of UN peacekeepers, underlining the strategy of marketing these deployments as a sort of peacekeeping at home. 

The military’s official narrative continues to spin Brazil’s participation in MINUSTAH as a ‘success story’ – despite the many failures of the mission and the recurrence of violence in Haiti. Diplomats tried to distinguish the behaviour of troops from other contingents by invoking a ‘Brazilian way’ of peacekeeping, which arguably promotes development-orientated interventions in violent areas. Indeed, social projects helped Brazilian troops maintain close connections to the population and thus facilitated some police tasks. Yet, they were also under intense pressure from the United States and the UN bureaucracy, who called for more ‘robust’ operations against gangs. In the end, Brazil’s initially reluctant military spearheaded UN peacekeeping’s turn towards peace-enforcement. In several raids against gangs in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, they were accused of using a disproportionate level of force which led to the deaths of dozens of bystanders.

Implications for public security in Brazil

As I have argued in recent articles in International Peacekeeping and Policing & Society, the experience of overpowering gangs in Port-au-Prince has strongly influenced the conduct of internal military operations. Within Brazil’s multidimensional way of doing peacekeeping abroad, combat operations have probably had the most tangible consequences for soldiers’ performance of law enforcement tasks at home. This is particularly relevant for troops’ perception of the utility of using force in crime-fighting. Both in Haiti and in internal missions such as those in Rio de Janeiro, soldiers were operating in areas where armed actors had de facto taken control. Those soldiers who had participated in ‘stabilising’ Port-au-Prince by means of force perceived that it would be possible to achieve similar results in Rio – but only if they were allowed to act under similar rules of engagement as in Haiti. In MINUSTAH’s early years, these rules allowed patrolling troops to decide whether a suspected criminal had hostile intentions. If they judged a person in this way, soldiers were allowed to use lethal force. In the military’s perspective, such rules allow troops to react immediately against a threat to themselves. Moreover, they facilitated ‘effective’ military operations in Port-au-Prince as troops were allowed to kill armed gang members. Facing more restricted rules of engagement during law-and-order missions in Brazil, troops felt frustrated that they were not able to confront armed groups as they did in Haiti. Using lethal force against suspects in densely populated environments obviously comes with a trade-off between protecting the lives of residents and achieving tactical success against armed criminals. For the sake of ‘effectiveness’, soldiers and officers appear to be willing to accept the risk of ‘collateral damage’ in their own country.

Legal constraints have so far prevented the military from acting in Brazil in similar ways as in Haiti. However, the armed forces use soldiers’ demands and the lessons learnt in MINUSTAH for lobbying for a more permissive legal framework. Having become increasingly reluctant to get drawn into law enforcement tasks by previous administrations, the military’s upper echelons managed to use their outsized influence on the government of Jair Bolsonaro to put a brake on ‘Guaranteeing Law and Order’ operations – at least as long as soldiers could end up being tried for killing civilians. Bolsonaro had already campaigned on supporting legal changes that would ban criminal prosecutions for security agents who kill suspects – a longstanding demand of the military leadership which claims that troops needed ‘legal security’ in internal operations. The president justified his proposed change of the law with the supposed effectiveness of the military’s ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach in Haiti.

An incident from earlier this year highlights the risks of the ‘shoot first’ policy propagated by Bolsonaro and his allies: while patrolling the perimeter of military barracks in Rio de Janeiro, army soldiers mistook a family in a car for criminals. They clearly did not rely on a gradual use of force, as they fired over 200 shots. Two innocent citizens died as a result. The 24-year-old lieutenant who was commanding 11 soldiers during the patrol ordered to shoot and fired 77 rounds himself. The MINUSTAH-influenced narrative that considers forceful actions as ‘effective’ against criminals as well as the current government’s political backing of heavy-handed security policies might have encouraged this group of soldiers to act as judge, jury, and executioner. Killing criminals enjoys high popularity in a society where roughly 50% agree that ‘only a dead criminal is a good criminal’. General Heleno, former MINUSTAH force commander and now Head of the government’s Institutional Security Office, supported the use of snipers against criminals. He argued that rules of engagement for the use of snipers, as in Haiti, would not lead to indiscriminate killings. However, a few years ago, Heleno himself admitted that he allowed snipers to shoot Haitians who were recovering bodies of killed gang members because he ‘lost patience’ with the crisis in Port-au-Prince. If a general and force commander of a UN peacekeeping mission lacks emotional self-control and takes such liberties in interpreting rules of engagement, can young sergeants and lieutenants be expected to act with more restraint?

In Brazil’s current political climate, these appear to be second-order concerns for politicians who won elections on promises of iron-fisted security policies. Hence, they cannot be expected to attach importance to preventing ‘collateral damage’ in the fight against criminality. President Bolsonaro propagates the view that criminals should ‘die like cockroaches’; the penal populism of Rio de Janeiro’s governor Witzel has sparked a rise in police killings and numerous deaths caused by stray bullets during police operations. In this context, enabling the military to transfer lessons from ‘stabilising’ Haiti to the domestic context will make already highly confrontational public security policies even more violent.

Dr. Christoph Harig is a Research Fellow at the Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg.
You can follow him on Twitter at @c_harig

Latest Posts