Militarization of public security in Rio, and around the world

The use of militarized options to deal with domestic public security is alarming, in Brazil and globally. Understanding their flaws is a key part of the fightback against violence. Español Português

Tomaz Paoliello Manoela Miklos
4 October 2017

The Armed Forces occupy the Complejo del Alemán, in Rio de Janeiro, to ensure security during the municipal elections in 2008. Image: Wilson Dias/ABr, CC BY-3.0 BR.

Soldiers are back in Rio de Janeiro, but they had not been gone for long. In the last 12 months, the military was called 4 times to intervene. Over the last decade, the state of Rio has appealed to the Armed Forces 12 times. Those who circulate the streets of the city have become accustomed to the presence of men in camouflaged uniforms, snipers, armored cars and various other characters usually associated with war scenes. 

The subject has gained an even more dramatic shape in recent days. The governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Luiz Fernando Pezão, said on September 22 he could no longer deal with the situation in Rocinha, one of Rio’s largest favelas. The dispute between two high-ranking members of the criminal faction that dominates the territory has raised levels of violence there. Once again, faced with heightened tension, the Government of Rio de Janeiro requested assistance from the Army. Approximately 950 heavily-armed soldiers arrived in the favela on foot, in armor vehicles and helicopters hours later. So far, official sources have reported 3 deaths since the military's entry; informal sources claim the number is higher. Residents of the community live in fear, schools are closed and health posts have intermittent care. 

The participation of the armed forces in public security in Rio de Janeiro can be told from two different perspectives. The first is the "local" narrative, most common among public security experts or for activists in the area. The versions constructed within this perspective highlight extreme urban violence in Rio de Janeiro, aggravated by the administrative crisis in the state. This violence is carried out by factions and by organized crime groups, but it is closely linked to the violent action of the state in the favelas and peripheries, a dynamic that results in a genocide of black populations. This process is linked to the option to treat drug policies as security issues, which encourages armed confrontation and produces enormous violence and lethality, in addition to the brutal policy of incarceration. 

The Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image: chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

It is also possible to cite the "official" argument, which justifies a military operation by formulating a supposed emergency situation of public safety in the city and the state, which would also require emergency actions. All of these narratives are true and help us understand what is happening on our streets. It is one face of the tragedy unfolding in the city of Rio de Janeiro and helps articulate the activism that seeks to combat violence. 

But this story can also be told as part of a transnational or global repertoire of militarized management of spaces and populations. The use of the Armed Forces as a tool of public security is not exclusive to Rio de Janeiro or even Brazil. Colombia offers a prominent case for understanding the war-police nexus, where the government has worked with international forces on the most explicit version of the "war on drugs". For decades, the country's security has been managed by a complex of local and global public and private actors, including the police, the national army, the United States Armed Forces, private security companies and local militias.

Mexico follows, in several respects, the same path, with a scenario of extreme violence managed and instigated by the participation of military and police in public security. The country has adopted a recipe for repressive, confrontational, and incarcerating public safety, largely formulated in global power centers, notably in the United States. This repertoire was developed through tests carried out in peripheral countries that served as laboratories. Colombia is a great example.

Cecurity forces occupy the Complexo do Alemão (a complex of favelas) in 2010. Image: Agência Brasil / ABr, CC BY 3.0 br.

A "problem-solving" perspective generally addresses the cases of Colombia and Mexico as failures of a public policy option. In this view, it is surprising that the same militarized option is repeatedly applied, despite our enormous database that would confirm its failure in the fight against crime and drugs. This type of reading is necessary for the articulation of activists who intend to bring some improvement to the living conditions of huge portions of the population. But it needs to be complemented by a critical perspective that analyzes the violent management of populations as a functional project of government alongside the repression of sectors of society, and the planning and management of certain peripheral spaces.

The streets of big cities are policed by Armed Forces in several of the global peripheries. The Brazilian military is present in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, but also in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The United States National Guard was present in Baghdad, but was also called upon to intervene in New Orleans and Baltimore. Several of the same Colombian ex-military personnel trained by the US military provide services to private military companies in conflict settings or international interventions in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Afghanistan.

To conceive the presence of the army in our cities as a dysfunctional manifestation is to interpret the army merely as an instrument of war. This means being limited to its legal or conceptual dimension, and losing sight of the function it has actually exercised throughout these locations’ history. In these places, the army is jointly responsible, along with other organizations such as the police and militias, for the violent governing of certain populations and territories. This is the case in Latin America, in Africa, or in the outskirts of large American cities. 


The Army supports the occupation of the Complexo do Alemão (a complex of favelas) in 2010. Image: Agência Brasil / ABr, CC BY 3.0 br.

The interpretation of the military as a governing force and of guarantee of order was generally concealed by the mainstream literature of International Relations. By conceptually separating international security from public security, we have created an obstacle that prevents us from perceiving ways of responding to the challenges of security and insecurity in contemporary times with punitivism and repression. We react to an escalation of violence, especially – as is customary and is the praxis of the system in which we live – in the peripheries. 

Data from the Brazilian Forum of Public Security attest that a person dies every 8 minutes in Brazil. There are almost 60,000 homicides a year. Of every 100 people murdered in Brazil, 71 are black. In Northern and Northeastern states, the link between race and violence is even more evident. In Sergipe, for example, the homicide rate among blacks is 73 per 100,000 inhabitants, while that of whites is 13 per 100,000. This is the Brazilian situation. The spirals of violence gain distinct concreteness in each country. And they are seldom perceived as they should be: as fuel for questioning the essence of a hard-hued global repertoire that materializes in a unique way in each context. The multidisciplinary approach necessary to understand this continues to be delegitimized by academic circles as an unfeasible issue for the discipline of International Relations.

The issue of violence and recurrent mano dura (“firm hand” or “iron fist”) responses and undeniably similar responses implemented around the world continues to be rejected by the epistemic communities who study global flows and could make a decisive contribution to the understanding of such issues. They also block the ability to fully understand the regional and global articulations of organized civil society, which undoubtedly represent our best shot at facing this cruel reality.

Disciplinary boundaries work along political boundaries to fragment us, prune understanding and critical perceptions, and hide the global dynamics that oppress, repress, imprison, and kill.

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