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The Brazilian Military, Public Security, and Rio de Janeiro’s “Pacification”

The editors of Anthropoliteia welcome Stephanie Savell with the latest entry in our forum Security in Brazil: World Cup 2014 and Beyond.
Army soldier addresses resident of Complexo do Alemão. Photo: Bruno Itan.

Army soldier addresses resident of Complexo do Alemão. Photo: Bruno Itan.

The Brazilian army and marines have in recent years played a more visible role in the provision of public security in Rio de Janeiro. The army currently occupies the sprawling set of informal neighborhoods, or favelas, known as Complexo da Maré, a “temporary solution” timed to accompany World Cup events in the city. The occupation, intended to repress the local control of drug trafficking gangs, will be followed by the installation of more permanent “Police Pacifying Units,” or “UPPs,” as part of Rio’s favela “pacification” program.

Between 2011 and 2012, the armed forces similarly occupied the favela Complexo do Alemão, where I lived for a year conducting ethnographic research (2013-2014). Here, based on that research, I examine the significance of the army’s participation in public security.

Many insiders and keen observers of security in Rio were quick to tell me that the army’s deployment in police pacification is not a trend – Alemão was unique, they said. But in addition to the current deployment in Maré, there are other indications to the contrary. In recent years, the constitutional clause, Garantia da Lei e da Ordem (GLO), or “Guarantee of Law and Order,” which allows for the use of the military in public security operations, has been continuously elaborated and refined. Under former President Lula’s administration, and now under Dilma Rousseff, the military has been used for an increasing number of situations, from pacification to oil auctions to the Pope’s visit and the World Cup. These are not isolated events; they invite us to question the military’s provision of public security and how it is understood, especially by security forces and by the urban poor whose neighborhoods the military patrols.

At first glance, the army’s occupation of the favela seems a classic case of “militarization,” a term used by anthropologists and other critical scholars to describe the diffusion of a military mindset and military practices to other spheres of society. Scholars such as Mike Davis and Lynn Stephen document how military-style tactics, or in some cases the military itself, are employed in repressive policing targeted at undesirable segments of the population. The use of the military in Rio de Janeiro’s pacification could be understood in this way. But even though I went looking for blurred boundaries between police and military actions, favela residents and security forces insistently brought their differences to my attention. So I investigate: what are the distinctions that different sets of people – residents, police, and military – make between the police and the army, and why is it important for them to make these distinctions?

Ordinary favela residents in Alemão preferred the military’s presence to the current UPP police.

Unexpectedly, I found that ordinary favela residents in Alemão preferred the military’s presence to the current UPP police. Current anecdotes from Maré reveal residents’ surprising respect for the army there as well. Behind this preference, I suggest, lies an overwhelming disgust with police corruption that is linked to their day-to-day presence in the streets, as opposed to the military’s temporary occupation that keeps the peace rather than enforces state regulations. Also at stake for residents, military, and police is whether a security force demonstrates a strength to match that of trafficking gangs, and whether it at least makes a display of respecting residents.

Shortly after Alemão was pacified in late November 2010, the army was put in charge of the favela’s occupation, via a “Campaign Battalion” run by an army general. Relations between the army and the military police who worked with them were rife with tensions and rivalries. To clarify, Brazil’s police force is uniquely divided between military police, charged with search and arrest, and civil police, charged with investigating and processing crimes. Because the military police are responsible for the pacification program and UPP police are military police, my research focuses almost exclusively on this branch.

Both military and military police questioned the others’ competency and ability to deal with criminals and street violence. An army officer told me, “Alemão was a myth. The police were really demoralized. Everyone thought the police couldn’t pass in those streets. And then the military did, and the police were like, ‘ok!’” The officer was saying, in other words, that the police took heart only after they could follow the army’s lead. As for the military police, their perspective is summed up in the statement, “The army hasn’t gone to war in over 60 years, but the police goes to war every day!” Members of the army and police create these distinctions out of a macho sense of being tougher than the other. This is unsurprising in light of their bellicose institutional cultures, and certainly echoes broader societal beliefs that equate public security in Rio with warfare.

Less expected, perhaps, are the lines the military and police draw around who is more morally upright and who is more valued by Brazilian society. The armed forces – like many Brazilians – view the police as hopelessly corrupt. Many accuse the police of stealing goods and money during the initial incursion into Alemão. In relation to such accusations, the military police are all too aware of the negative light in which other Brazilians view them. The police see themselves as scapegoats of the media and maligned by the public. One UPP police told me, “We joke that we are only liked by dogs, drunks, and our mothers.” The police believe that, whatever they do – whether action or inaction – it is likely to be viewed in a negative light.

Among the armed forces, there is a corresponding sense of moral righteousness. A longtime army chaplain told me, “The army provides hope for society. When everything else fails, the military system enters to save things. It is the moral reserve of society.” Such sentiments ring of the discourses that justified the military dictatorship (1964-1985). Apparently, the army still sees itself as savior and steward of Brazil.

Yet the military’s actions in the favela are not a repeat of the past. Members of the armed forces are well aware that in the context of dictatorship, militarization is not a new characteristic of policing, but something that many Brazilians want to avoid returning to. They are hyper conscious that they must avoid acting with abuse or repression. As an army officer complained, “People call for the army’s help, and then any misstep and people talk about the dictatorship!” In Alemão, the army did everything to maintain its image and prevent corruption of soldiers. One strategy was to rotate troops every three months, bringing in battalions from different parts of Brazil to take their turn patrolling the streets. They knew that if the troops had stayed longer in the streets, as the police do, then they too would have been tempted by the economic opportunities presented there.

That the military made such an extensive effort suggests that its notion of itself as more moral is in part preserved by the fact that most of the time, the army does not act on urban streets. Short rotations preserve the military’s public image at the expense of building a knowledge base and contact network that would, at least in theory, allow for the more meaningful provision of public security. In contrast, the police are ordinary presences in the lives of favela residents, especially now with UPP. The everyday nature of residents’ interactions with police promotes the circulation of stories about their disrespectful behavior, discriminatory actions, and corruption.

So how do favela residents distinguish between the two forces? In many ways this distinction does not matter to them. What does matter is that they are witnesses to, and victims of, a war between state security forces and drug traffickers. Indeed, policing in favelas has been militarized for decades, and military police are broadly criticized for entering favelas shooting guns, as if in battle, and endangering residents. The police already treat favela residents as enemies in the war on drugs, and many residents view the military as doing the same.

Despite this important qualification, it is revealing how some residents do differentiate between military and UPP police. Some, especially those in leadership positions at NGOs, neighborhood associations, or churches, reflect approvingly on how the army created spaces to hear residents’ views and at least made a display of listening to them. This is viewed as especially positive in comparison to the UPP police, who are in theory supposed to host regular community meetings, but in practice rarely do so, and if the meetings happen at all, are not inclusive of the whole community.

Residents also draw an important distinction between the corruption of the police and the moral behavior of the military, just as members of the military do. For example, a religious leader said, “The majority of moto drivers don’t have licenses, and police ask for $5, 10 Reais ($2.50, 5 USD), a hamburger [to let them pass]… You would never see the army doing that! People believed in the army because they saw credibility, and that’s everything!” Traffickers draw this same line as well. Several residents told me how traffickers were eager to have the army leave and the UPP police enter, so they could go back to their regular business of selling drugs. A local politician explained, “With the army here, things were a lot slower, it was very difficult for the traffickers to operate. So they [the traffickers] started to confront them.”

Emerging from such discourses is a sense that, at least when reflecting on the past, people preferred the army’s occupation to the current UPP police. (Both state security forces, however, are still considered less adept than the traffickers in providing order and “protecting” residents from crimes like robbery and rape.) I see several explanations for this rather counterintuitive observation. First, favela residents feel an affinity towards soldiers in the army, because many soldiers are also from peripheries and low-income areas. Many of Brazil’s poor serve the obligatory months in the military that more privileged classes easily dodge, and the army is widely perceived as a decent source of upward class mobility. Though many police, too, come from the lower classes, police are held in such low regard that the same cannot be said for them – theirs is not a move upwards, but downwards, in residents’ esteem.

Additionally, the dictatorship lingers in people’s imaginings of what a security force should look like. Despite a collective distaste for the dictatorship, Brazilians nonetheless trust the military more than any other public institution (Cunha et al. 2012). The urban poor are even more prone to hold respect for authoritarianism, and “respect” is often accorded to those whom people fear. A male resident told me that when the armed forces were in Alemão, “it was the Marines, the Parachute Troop, the Army…. it was the country. It was respect, understand?” The military’s strategy was to flood the favela with soldiers and heavy weaponry, “suffocating” traffickers through sheer presence. Simply put, the military was fearsome.

My point here is not to say that the military should replace police in favelas; far from it. Indeed, any true comparison between army and police is impossible, because the conditions under which they operate are very different. Everyone knows the army’s occupation is temporary, whereas police are there indefinitely, and this has clear implications for traffickers in their struggle to continue their own dominance. This temporal distinction is also crucial to positive feelings towards the military. In the favela, a security force charged with enforcing state regulations over the long term (in this case, the police), and not merely keeping the peace temporarily (the military), incurs resentments.

However, the fact that favela residents prefer the military over police does push us to question some of the fundamental assumptions of Western liberal democratic thought, as Beatrice Jauregui has pointed out in a totally different context, about what kind of security force has the most moral legitimacy in the provision of order. It also begs us to look at the qualities that people appreciate in the military, as a way to understand the elements of public security that are seen as desirable. Undeniably, the army’s display of listening to and caring about the population, even if a tactic to win hearts and minds, is noticed and appreciated, especially in contrast to UPP police’s failure to do the same. Additionally, as I have shown, favela residents appreciate the force of the military, because the ability to generate fear means it is the army, and not the police, who can match traffickers at their power plays.

In contrast, police are seen as corrupt and corruptible, and therefore scorned. I often saw favela residents laughing at police’s attempts to enforce regulations, and flaunting their disobedience as soon as the police turned a corner. Residents condemn police corruption and a notion circulates that the military is more moral and orderly. This distinction is also significant for traffickers, the army, and the police themselves, even though it may largely be based on the different situations in which they operate. The reality might be that residents’ disgust with the police is as much about their greater contact with police on a day-to-day basis as it is about any profound differences between the two forces.

What these insights point to is that favela residents care about having a security force in their neighborhoods that provides functional law and order, tailored to their needs. So far the traffickers have done the best job of providing this, but as protectors they are often seriously flawed. In favela residents’ experiences, state and non-state security forces exist on a continuum of repression and abuse. But that does not negate a fundamental desire for safety, protection, and order – what some favela activists are calling their unmet “right” to public security.

Stephanie Savell is a PhD candidate in the anthropology department at Brown University. Her dissertation examines Rio de Janeiro’s police pacification program. This research was funded by the Social Science Research Council and the National Science Foundation.




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