The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brazil’s federal intervention in Rio’s drug wars has an authoritarian feel — and could backfire

Brazilian President Michel Temer signed an order on Feb. 16 giving the military broad power to crack down on gang-related violence in Rio. (Joédson Alves/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A bit of craziness is normal during Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival. But this 2 a.m. newsflash was still a shocker: Brazilian President Michel Temer, at a Feb. 16 late-night meeting with his Cabinet and top congressional leaders, decided the federal government would take over Rio’s police and prison system. Although constitutional, this “intervention” is unprecedented, and possibly anti-democratic.

In Brazil, state governors control public security. But Rio Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezão — facing rising street crime, resurgent anti-state violence by the Comando Vermelho drug gang and a budget crisis so severe he cannot pay police — flew to Brasília for the meeting and signed over command to an army general appointed by Temer.

Temer is unelected and unpopular; as Dilma Rousseff’s vice president, he seized power by helping to orchestrate her 2016 impeachment. Politically, the Rio intervention is a risky gambit to salvage his right-wing coalition’s chances in October’s presidential elections. Operationally, it could amount to anything from an expensive publicity stunt to a major escalation of repression. The latter, my research on drug wars and prison gangs suggests, would be unlikely to improve the situation — and may make it much worse.

The federal takeover could save Temer’s unpopular presidency

Brazil has endured two years of “abnormal politics” since the sweeping Lava Jato corruption scandal in 2016. Upon unseating Rousseff — the Workers’ Party (PT) successor to popular left-wing President “Lula” — Temer immediately installed an all-male, right-wing cabinet and began undoing the PT’s social policies.

Corruption allegations against Temer almost brought down his government several times. He survived, partly by promising his coalition that he would corral the votes for a constitutional amendment to reform entitlements. After failing to deliver, Temer now has an excuse to table the issue: Under the constitution, amendments are not permitted while federal interventions are underway.

Corruption is not new to Brazil, so why is it threatening the presidency now?

The fall 2018 elections won’t end Brazil’s abnormal politics. Lula is campaigning as the PT’s candidate while appealing a corruption conviction that makes him ineligible; he’s likely to win if allowed on the ballot. Ultimately, that may be decided in the streets. The left is chanting “an election without Lula is a coup,” and even Temer argues that Lula should be defeated at the polls, not in court.

Temer’s coalition is in trouble either way. Its leading figures are unpopular, corrupt — or both — clearing a path for the right-wing populist (and NRA fellow-traveler) Jair Bolsonaro to make a Trump-like end run for the presidency. The intervention is, in Temer’s words, “a very risky play, but a necessary play,” which could rescue his coalition’s — and perhaps his own — electoral prospects. But, he added, “if the intervention fails, so does my presidency.”

An unprecedented military takeover of policing …

Armed forces have been sent to Rio at least nine times since 1992, generally occupying key favelas (poor neighborhoods) and thoroughfares during international events or elections. Crime and violence usually abated — until the army withdrew and gangs retook control. If this intervention is similar, it will be an expensive but popular palliative with little long-term impact.

In previous occupations, though, the governor and state secretary of public security commanded the federal troops. This time, the president’s appointed general is taking command of the state police and prison system, further militarizing Rio’s public security.

Federal officials seem eager to crack down, and hard. Brazil’s defense minister called for “collective warrants,” allowing troops to search homes throughout entire neighborhoods, arresting residents at will. The commander of the army says federal troops need “a guarantee they can act without risk of a new Truth Commission,” referring to Rousseff’s investigations into state abuses under Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The justice minister suggested that armed favela youth might reasonably be considered “enemy combatants” to be “eliminated at distance.

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Under an October 2017 law, military personnel who kill civilians are now tried by military rather than civil courts, which could increase impunity. Last year, Rio’s security forces killed an astonishing 1,124 civilians, close to 2007’s high of 1,330. It’s easy to imagine 2018 setting a grim record.

… but one unlikely to make Rio safe

Unleashing the armed forces on Rio’s drug gangs, my research suggests, could backfire. Temer calls this a “battle in which our only path must be victory,” eerily echoing the “battle without quarter” Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared on cartels in 2006.

Calderón, also facing charges of illegitimacy from the left, deployed Mexico’s federal forces en masse and captured and killed dozens of kingpins. But cartel-related killings actually increased tenfold over the next five years, plunging the country into a chaotic drug war that is still raging. Meanwhile, human rights violations and corruption allegations tarnished the Mexican army’s once-pristine image.

Brazil now faces similar risks in Rio. Since the 1980s, the state has used increasingly repressive tactics, such as rewarding extrajudicial killings by police and deploying armored vehicles in gang areas. But these didn’t cripple the CV, which escalated its attacks in return. Special police forces, once considered incorruptible, have become tainted by the arregoregularized bribery between officials and traffickers.

Moreover, Rio’s CV and its rivals began life as prison gangs, and the prison system remains their base of operations. My research suggests that crackdowns can increase prison gangs’ power on the street, by raising street-level actors’ expectations of going to prison — where gangs can reward obedience and punish defection. That helps explain the CV’s surprising resurgence since 2012, even as Rio’s prison population doubled.

Brazil’s prison massacres are a frightening window into gang warfare

It also suggests that Temer’s promise to restrict gangs’ power within prisons will be hard to keep. When Rio’s prison secretary announced stricter regulations as part of the intervention, prison-gang members with guns immediately rioted and took eight guards hostage.

And if the Rio intervention does end up hobbling the CV? São Paulo’s Primeiro Comando da Capital, the CV’s archrival and most powerful prison gang in the country, will surely reap the benefits.

Eroding democratic norms

Abnormal politics — including Temer’s intervention, Rousseff’s impeachment and Lula’s uncertain candidacy — violate norms and shared expectations, but not laws and formal institutions. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that such norm violation erodes democracy.

It certainly sows uncertainty, anxiety and anomie. You could feel this in Rio the day after the intervention was announced, as its top samba schools returned for the Champions’ Parade at the Sambadrome. The winner, Beija-Flor, dramatized scenes of political corruption and violent street crime. The upstart second-place school, Paraíso de Tuiuti, portrayed the anti-Rousseff protesters that helped bring about her impeachment as marionettes manipulated by elites — as crowds cheered “Out with Temer!” — and pointedly asked, “Has slavery really ended in Brazil?”

The magic of Carnival made even these dark visions beautiful. Now comes the hangover.

Benjamin Lessing is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of the recently published “Making Peace In Drug Wars: Cartels and Crackdowns in Latin America” (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @BigBigBLessing