Military Interventions in Policing in Brazil and Mexico

By Anaís Medeiros Passos

January 10, 2023

Democracies at War Against Drugs” provides an in-depth account of military operations against drug gangs and organizations in two of the biggest countries in Latin America: Brazil and Mexico. It offers an empirical and theoretical examination of the issue of the role of the military on national soil – the army being generally devoted to interventions abroad, and the police to law enforcement domestically.

The book responds to the following questions: why do democratically elected authorities decide to use the military – rather than the police – for policing activities? Under which conditions do military commanders accept it? What are the consequences of military interventions on national soil for democratic regimes? I focus on the military operations that transpired in Tijuana (2007-2012) in the state of Baja California, and in Rio de Janeiro (2010-2015) in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

To respond to those questions, I conducted exhaustive fieldwork research in Brazil and Mexico with government elites, ordinary citizens, human rights activists and military officers. I obtained access to key actors involved with the design and implementation of counter-drug policies, which are normally not open to researchers. My book is the first work to look at high-level negotiations between military and civilian elites that define the conditions for the use of force during military operations. It uncovers how the war on drugs impacts the everyday life of ordinary citizens in violence-affected communities.

The book is split into six chapters. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the existing theoretical and comparative research on militarized security interventions in Latin America. Chapter 2 compares the trajectories of civil-military relations from 1960 to 2000 in Brazil and Mexico. In this chapter, I provide a historical account of the role of the military in both countries with regard to three aspects: a) politics, b) security and c) regime transitions (from authoritarianism to democracy). Whereas in Mexico civilian and military elites’ goals were wedded in a single post-revolutionary party with populist ideology and without the necessity of military intervention in politics, Brazil is a typical case of Armed Forces’ politicization culminating in a 21-year-long military dictatorship. Yet, in the following decades, both countries prescribed a major military role in a wide range of tasks in domestic security, including ensuring order in the countryside, providing services to the poor and countering drug gangs.

Chapter 3 analyzes the context in which state governors from Baja California (2007-2012) and the state of Rio de Janeiro (2010-2015) requested military help. The previous chapter shows that a militarized public security system is inherited through legislation, Armed Forces’ and police bodies’ missions, doctrine and training. Chapter 3 then explains how authoritarian legacies can endure and expand within the presence of electoral competition. It describes the political and social conditions that were common in Tijuana and Rio de Janeiro prior to the operations. They are: political alignment between the federal sub-unities and the federation; availability of resources; and a change in the perception of fear among middle classes.

Chapter 4 shows how the military mystique, which is a set of beliefs about the Armed Forces’ superiority to civilian agencies, supports the choice of militarizing public security. The overlap between institutions inherited from authoritarian periods and traditional beliefs creates incentives for politicians to pursue the strategy of militarizing security. Not only the myth about the honorability and efficiency of Armed Forces delimits the set of options that ordinary citizens envisage for responding to a spike in insecurity, but also stimulates the extension of military activities beyond the initial realm of action once an operation starts. Such a dynamic is manifested in a context where other security bodies face limited legitimacy and capacity levels vis-à-vis non-state armed groups to respond to citizens’ demands for safety and order. Therefore, in parallel to their security actions, this chapter uncovers military initiatives for ensuring social order, such as medical and dental health consultations, small repair services, organization of soccer games and running competitions to strengthen bonds with the population.

Rio de Janeiro – Brazilian Armed Forces operating in a law enforcement role on Copacabana beach (Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil – Wikimedia Commons)

Chapter 5 acknowledges the interaction of the armed forces with the judiciary and police. I demonstrate how the military in both countries maintain their capacity to define the conditions for military deployment, including professional norms, legislation and the scope of military justice. As military forces typically face fewer constraints than police for using lethal force, these actions create the necessity of producing specific professional norms to regulate the use of legitimate force internally. Military behavior towards legal systems is underlined by the intent of ensuring legal safety for its members and avoiding that military members be charged for deaths or human rights violations that may occur during combat against crime.

Chapter 6 analyzes the use of violence by military personnel. It demonstrates how informal practices undermine institutions of control over the armed forces. I analyze cases of confrontation with citizens or excessive use of force, based on narratives of citizens, soldiers and civil society, as well as legal processes and documents provided by civil society organizations. I demonstrate the tension of deploying the Armed Forces internally and the military’s belief of being the ultimate guarantor for states to sustain monopoly over organized violence.

Institutions of control over the armed forces are intersected by social and political conditions. As counter-drug operations transpire in slum areas, the military operates with autonomy from those institutions. The use of force to show who “is in command” in the area was a common feature in Rio de Janeiro. In Tijuana, all legal and illegal means were utilized to ensure the elimination of traffickers. The case studies demonstrate that military intervention might stabilize violence in the short-term by means of dissuasion; however, crime is likely to return to its earlier levels once the operation ends if broad police reforms are not introduced.

In Tijuana, the weakening of the Arellano Félix Organization (AFO) helped its competitors. Following the arrest of high-level members during the joint operation Baja California (2007-2012), other drug trafficking organizations expanded their activities in the state. Groups such as the Cartel de Sinaloa, los Zetas, los Güero Chompas, and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación are now blatantly disputing Plaza Tijuana with remaining cells of AFO. In Rio de Janeiro, in the Maré slum complex, gangs have wielded a grip over the territory after the 2,500-man operation to ensure law and order ceased in 2015. Since then, the military and civil police have continued to perform aggressive operations during daylight that often victimize innocent bystanders, such as the boy João Pedro de Mattos Pinto who was killed inside his home in May 2020, or the 22 deaths a police operation left in Vila Cruzeiro two years after. In conclusion, the book demonstrates that the deployment of the military might stabilize violence in the short-term by means of dissuasion; however, crime levels are likely to return to prior states once the operation ends if broad police reforms are not introduced.

Anaís Medeiros Passos is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Political Science of Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil.  She was a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Institute of International Relations, University of São Paulo (IRI- USP). Anaís holds a PhD degree in Comparative Political Sociology from Sciences Po Paris. Her research interests are democratization studies, armed forces, and civil-military relations.

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