The paradox of Brazil’s militarised public security

By Christoph Harig:

POST - Harig_The Paradox of Brazil's Militarised Public Security
President Dilma Rousseff visiting the military ‘Pacification Force’ in Rio’s Complexo do Alemão, 2011.

Brazilian politicians have promised that the country would inherit lasting improvements from the World Cup. Among the many contested possible legacies, it is almost certain that the Armed Forces further enhanced their capability of performing domestic missions. About 57,000 soldiers took part in the 150,000-strong security force – the largest in the tournament´s and Brazil´s history – and primarily carried out tasks such as protecting critical infrastructure or preventing terrorism.[1] The military attracted significant investments for this purpose and are meant to prepare for large upcoming events, such as the Olympic Games.[2] As the police failed to deter protestors from blocking the bus of Brazil´s squad shortly before the tournament, the government swiftly resorted to a ´contingency force´ of 21,000 soldiers, planned to be on-call in case the police were on strike or otherwise not able to guarantee public order.[3] Troops were then protecting airports, hotels and streets used by football teams, foreign government officials as well as the heads of FIFA. For the duration of the tournament, the government therefore issued a ´preventive´ Guaranteeing Law and Order (GLO) measure,[4] which enables the military to take over the operational control of the police.[5] Using Armed Forces instead of, or in addition to, an arguably unreliable police, however, is not confined to large events. It is a recurring pattern and democratic ´leftist´ Brazilian governments have even trivialised internal missions in recent years.

Since the end of the military regime in 1985, troops have not only protected elections, the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, the UN Earth Summit in 1992 and the visits of different popes, but also repressed strikes as well as manifestations and kept the landless movement from invading the farm of President Cardoso´s sons.[6] The on-going pacification programme and associated occupations of favelas in Rio de Janeiro is just one among many cases of a military-backed fight against crime. Praised for its innovativeness, Rio´s pacification strategy largely just repeats prior approaches: the idea of expelling criminals and occupying favelas with force as well as the ensuing intent to develop stronger ties between communities and the police dates back to the 1980s;[7] around 1,500 soldiers invaded as well as occupied more than 50 favelas in 1994.[8]

What is actually new about military engagements during pacification and large events is the juridical framework which has been adjusted to the Armed Forces´ demands for legal security and a wide room for manoeuvre. According to the 1988 Constitution, it is a secondary role of the military to guarantee law and order when asked to do so by any of the constitutional powers. However, detailed regulations were missing and the legal situation of internal deployments in the 1990s has often been uncertain. Today, the decision-making process has been clarified and troops have certain legal security for possible cases of ´collateral damage´.

Despite having given up their interventionism of former times, the Armed Forces still exert significant influence in this respect. Their political power does not only derive from the transitional pact that safeguarded military interests in the new democracy; there is also a lack of political will and civilian interest that grants them enormous autonomy in core institutional affairs. The fact that it took over 25 years of democracy until the government banned the Armed Forces from publicly commemorating the coup of 1964[9] – which they still call ´Democratic Revolution´ – anecdotally highlights some issues in civil-military relations.

One would expect that former regime opponents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula da Silva, or particularly the torture victim and ex-guerrilla Dilma Rousseff would be inclined to reduce the domestic significance of the Armed Forces once in presidential power. Yet, in the midst of some successful and other failed attempts to cut back military prerogatives, their respective tenures have strikingly increased the legal support and the scope of internal military actions.[10] In 2001, Cardoso decreed that the Army had the right to arrest suspects during GLO operations.[11] Furthermore, he empowered the military command to take over the operational control of state police forces in GLO operations.[12] Lula later extended the right of arrest to Navy and Air Force.[13] During the tenure of Rousseff, whose current re-election explicitly refers to her imprisonment under military rule,[14] the first draft of a framework for GLO operations sparked heavy criticism for including protestors and social movements as possible ´opponents´. Some polemical formulations were deleted in the second draft in 2014, but the Ministry of Defence made clear that only semantic alterations were to be done.[15] Blurry definitions now allow a plethora of internal military missions,[16] arguably even more than the first draft.

Yet, why do former opponents of military rule intensify the domestic use of the Armed Forces? A serious security problem is part of this paradox. 2012 figures indicate 29 intentional homicides per 100,000 Brazilian inhabitants.[17] As a comparison: in Haiti, where the Brazilian military´s experience in domestic issues and urban conflict is used prominently in a peacekeeping operation,[18] the figure usually oscillates between 5.1 and 6.9.[19] This is combined with a severe problem of policing. Worst of all, police forces are major perpetrators of violence and have been responsible for killing many citizens.[20] State-level Polícia Civil (responsible for criminal investigations) and Polícia Militar (used for patrols, arrests and control of public order) suffer from corruption, bad education and poor salaries. As a legacy of the last military regime, the Polícia Militar is intimately linked to the Armed Forces in terms of ethos, guidelines, and education, which many commentators see as a major reason for their violent misbehaviour.[21] Nevertheless, police-military relations are tense as governments frequently send the Army to stand in during the many constitutionally forbidden police strikes,[22] or eventually to end them by violent means.[23] Brazilian governments have tried to increase their influence on security issues by circumventing state authorities, e.g. by creating the Força Nacional that follows federal commands. However, constitutional issues as well as numerous veto players are a huge impediment in this regard.[24]

Federal administrations are thus in a dilemma over how to tackle the security problem. In spite of undertaking an admittedly complex, but necessary police reform, they pragmatically opt for the regular use of Armed Forces. This may even appeal to voters, as the public perceives the military much better than the police: Figures for 2013 show that 70 percent of Brazilians distrust the police, while over 65 percent do trust the Armed Forces.[25] Still, it is highly questionable whether the further militarisation of public security is going to solve Brazil´s problem of policing, not to speak of crime: the military is aware that not all soldiers may be immune to corruption, and troops are usually not trained for police tasks such as collecting evidence. It is particularly troublesome that GLO operations fall under military jurisdiction.[26] As military courts in Brazil usually ´protect police and military personnel accused of human rights abuses against civilians´[27], impunity is one of the major problems in the relationship between police and population. GLO operations are therefore prone to the same accountability issue. Be that as it may, the Armed Forces adjust to their ´semi-permanent´ role in public security.[28] The Army´s dedicated training centre for GLO operations was due to be extended in order to satisfy the high demand and is likely going to host plenty of soldiers in the years to come.[29]



Christoph Harig is a PhD student at King’s Brazil Institute at King’s College London. He is researching the militarisation of public security and the consequences of police tasks carried out by Brazilian troops in peacekeeping and internal pacification missions.



[1]MercoPress. 2014. “Ejército blinda Brasil con 150.000 hombres, fragatas, radares y misiles antiaéreos.” MercoPress. Notícias del Atlántico Sur. 12.06.2014. (04.07.2014).
[2]Ministério da Defesa do Brasil. “O Ministério da Defesa na Copa do Mundo FIFA 2014.”
[3]Naddeo, André. 2014. “Hotel e ônibus da seleção são cercados por manifestantes.” Terra Networks Brasil. 26.05.2014.,e231c706cb836410VgnVCM3000009af154d0RCRD.html (09.07.2014).
[4]Werneck, Antônio. 2014. “Militares também vão atuar nos centros de treinamento da Copa.” O Globo. 28.05.2014. (July 4, 2014).
[5]Centro de Estudos Estratégicos do Exército. 2007. “As Forças Armadas e a Segurança Pública.” Coleção Meira Mattos – Revista das Ciências Militares 15: 20–40, p.33.
[6]Mathias, Suzeley Kalil, and Andre Cavaller Guzzi. 2010. “Autonomia na Lei: As Forças Armadas nas constituições nacionais.” Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais 25(73): 41–57, p.53; Zaverucha, Jorge. 2008. “The «Guaranteeing Law and Order Doctrine» and the increased role of the Brazilian Army in activities of public security.” Nueva Sociedad (213).
[7]Moulin Aguiar, Carolina, and Ludmila Mendonca Lopes Ribeiro. 2013. Old Problems and Old Solutions: An analysis of Rio de Janeiro ’s public safety policy and its impact. Rio de Janeiro: HASOW – Humanitarian Action in Situations other than War, Discussion Paper 7, p.27.
[8]Bertazzo, Juliana. 2012. “Brazilian security and defence policy under President Dilma Rousseff: transition and initial challenges.” Critical Sociology 38(6): 809–21, p.814; Reames, Benjamin Nelson. 2007. “Neofeudal aspects of Brazil’s public security.” In Comparative Policing: The Struggle for Democratization, eds. M R Haberfeld and Ibrahim Cerrah. London: SAGE, 61–95, p.73.
[9]Bertazzo, Juliana. 2012. p.817.
[10]Macaulay, Fiona. 2012. “Deepening the federative pact? The Dilma government’s approach to crime, justice and policing.” Critical Sociology 38(6): 823–34, p.830.
[11]Bertazzo, Juliana. 2012. p.814.
[12]Centro de Estudos Estratégicos do Exército. 2007. p. 33.
[13]Zaverucha, Jorge. 2005. FHC, Forças Armadas e Polícia. Entre o autoritarismo e a democracia (1999-2002). Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, p. 150.
[14]In the video to campaign song “Dilma Coração Valente”, the mug shot of Dilma´s arrest as well as other pictures of her imprisonment are shown. (04.07.2014).
[15]Cantanhêde, Eliane. 2014. “Após críticas, Defesa irá alterar manual para tropas.” Folha de São Paulo. 14.02.2014. (04.07.2014).
[16]Ministério da Defesa do Brasil. 2014. “Garantia da Lei e da Ordem.”
[17]Waiselfisz, Julio Jacobo. 2014. Prévia do “Mapa da Violência 2014. Os jovens do Brasil.” Rio de Janeiro: FLACSO Brasil.
[18]Kenkel, Kai Michael. 2010. “South America’s emerging power: Brazil as peacekeeper.” International Peacekeeping 17(5): 644–61, p. 653.
[19]United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2012. “Intentional homicide, number and rate per 100,000 population.” (05.04.2014).
[20]The police have long been accused of being responsible for a high number of extralegal killings, particularly of young, male and black favela dwellers (Perlman, Janice. 2009. “Megacity´s violence and its consequences in Rio de Janeiro.” In Megacities: The Politics of Urban Exclusion and Violence in the Global South, eds. Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt. London: Zed Books, 52–68, p.54.). Between 2007 and 2012, Brazilian police annually killed between 1,729 and 2,031 people. In the same time the USA, with a similar number of inhabitants, has between 378 and 414 fatal victims of confrontation with the police (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública. 2013. Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública. São Paulo, p. 125).
[21]Costa, Arthur Trinidade Maranhão. 2011. “Police brutality in Brazil: authoritarian legacy or institutional weakness?” Latin American Perspectives 38(5): 19–32; Da Silva, Jorge. 2000. “The favelados in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” Policing and Society 10(1): 121–30.
[22]Zaverucha, Jorge, and Flavio da Cunha Rezende. 2009. “How the military competes for expenditure in Brazilian democracy: arguments for an outlier.” International Political Science Review 30(4): 1–23, p. 17.
[23]Gosman, Eleonora. 2012. “Sube la tensión en Brasil: choques en Bahía entre militares y policías en huelga.” Clarin. 06.02.2012. (04.04.2013)
[24]Constitutionally, the role of the Força Nacional is inconsistent with single states´ large authority in issues of policing (Pereira, Gerson da Rosa. 2008. “A constitucionalidade da Força Nacional e o papel das Forças Armadas na Segurança Pública.” Faculdade de Direito de Santa Maria). A proposal for a constitutional amendment (PEC 195/2012) has been designed to change Article 144 and to establish the Força Nacional as one of the regular security forces. If approved, the Força Nacional would be trained and maintained by federal authorities and would no longer depend on significant co-operation of different states (Barros, Ciro. 2014. “Pela Ordem.” A Publica. (May 31, 2014)). However, it is unclear whether and when PEC 195 is going to be approved, as PECs require a lengthy legislative process and broad majorities in both chambers of Congress. Due to Brazil´s federal institutional structure, any reform of the security architecture depends on many stake-holders and veto-players, e.g. the military, state politicians, state police forces (Macaulay, Fiona. 2012. p.826) and politicians are particularly aware of the large voting potential of police unions (Wells, Miriam. 2013. “Why do Brazilian police kill ?” InSightCrime. (10.07.2014)).
[25]Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública. 2013. Anuário Brasileiro de Segurança Pública. São Paulo, p.104. Since the return to democracy, Brazilian levels of trust have been much higher in the military than in the police. In general, Brazilian trust in the military is among the highest in the whole of Latin America and is accompanied by very positive attitudes towards military interventions in politics (Harig, Christoph. 2012. “Die zivile Kontrolle der Streitkräfte in Argentinien und Brasilien.” Die Friedens-Warte 87(2-3): 89–110, p.105).Even favela residents that experienced the pacification process show significantly more trust in the military than in the police (Brähler, Verena. 2014. “Oligopoly of Security Providers in Rio de Janeiro.” Presentation at LINKSCK Conference, 19.06.2014, Brussels).
[26]Brasil. Presidência da República. 2010. Lei Complementar N° 136. Brasília: Casa Civil. Subchefia para Assuntos Jurídicos.
[27]Pereira, Anthony W. 2001. “Virtual legality: authoritarian legacies and the reform of military justice in Brazil, the Southern Cone, and Mexico.” Comparative Political Studies 34(5): 555–74, p. 561.
[28]Speech of Army General Alberto Mendes Cardoso in 2003, cited in Klinguelfus Mendes, Carlos Alberto. 2012. “Considerações sobre a Força de Pacificação empregada no Rio de Janeiro.” Military Review (Julho-Agosto): 19–27, p. 19.
[29]Stochero, Tahiane. 2012. “Para Exército, ocupar Alemão é mais difícil que guerra e missão no Haiti.” G1 Globo. 15.08.2012. (23.01.2014).




1 thought on “The paradox of Brazil’s militarised public security”

Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan