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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.