In Rio, military intervention leaves behind a troubled legacy

Multimillion-dollar operation exacerbated ‘confrontation, shootings’ and fuelled surge in police killings, critics say.

Rio Banner Image [David Child/ Al Jazeera]
Rio Banner Image [David Child/ Al Jazeera]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – It was naptime at the nursery school in Complex da Penha favela, and teacher Thuany Farias da Silva was cautious not to disturb the dozens of toddlers who were sprawled out asleep on the floor around her.

They slept in a building surrounded by walls pocked with fist-sized bullet holes, the scars of an ongoing conflict between Rio de Janeiro’s security forces and the powerful drug gangs which control many of its poorest areas.

As in other similar neighbourhoods scattered throughout Rio’s impoverished northern zone, civilians living here have often been caught in the middle of the violence.

“Even if you’re not the one being shot at you are still susceptible to it,” da Silva, 21, said quietly. “But we have to have hope for the children.”

Penha’s hilltop nursery sits inside walls riddled by bullet holes [David Child/Al Jazeera]

In Penha, people become familiar with conflict from a young age.

But last year, da Silva suggested, an already precarious situation deteriorated further in February when then-Brazilian President Michel Temer launched a military intervention in Rio in response to a spike in crime during the city’s annual carnival celebrations.

Unheard-of since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985 after 21 years of military rule, the move saw army generals replace civilian authorities in top security posts, soldiers deployed on the streets and military operations in the favelas become commonplace.

“Even if the intervention in itself was aimed at ending conflict, it was not done in the right way and the end result is not good,” da Silva said.

On December 31, the intervention ended. The following day, Temer ceded office to new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who has promised to head a brutal crackdown on violent crime.

Despite the policy’s conclusion, police killings have continued to escalate amid pledges by Rio de Janeiro state’s new governor to “slaughter” criminals, prompting questions about the repercussions of the intervention and what, if any, lessons have been learned from it.

‘The intervention was completely wrong’

Down the hill from the nursery, in a small classroom he helped set up, local activist Zen Ferreira said the military intervention was a disaster.

“The way that the intervention was done was completely wrong,” Ferreira, 40, told Al Jazeera.

His community-run youth group, Heroes of the Complex, helps young people in the area finish school and find work.

Those issues, he argued, should have been the focus of authorities’ attention in Rio’s favelas, where unemployment and poverty are widespread.

“The intervention should have been for culture, education and health – not the way that it has been conducted, which is through aggression, slaps in the face and beating down doors,” Ferreira said.

“Instead, they used a method of extermination of human beings – executions.”

Local activist Zen Ferreira says the intervention was disastrous [David Child/Al Jazeera]

Last year’s military intervention coincided with a record high number of people killed in police operations in Rio de Janeiro state, according to Rio’s Public Security Institute (ISP), with 1,375 such fatalities between February and December.

The data revealed a nearly 34 percent jump from the same period in 2017 and ensured that 2018 became the bloodiest year on record since the ISP began collating figures two decades ago.

From March of last year onwards, as the intervention kicked into gear, nearly one in every four people killed in Rio died at the hands of the state, prompting New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) to slam the “trail of death” carved out by the military’s deployment.

“These killings make communities fear the police and much less likely to collaborate with the police in the fight against crime,” said Daniel Wilkinson, HRW’s Americas managing director, in a December report.

‘Confrontation, shootings and crossfire’

Other observers suggested the intervention was only the latest and most glaring error in a series of public security policy mistakes in Rio, however.

“Rio is not a lost cause, Rio is a case of wrong security policies repeated over and over … this accelerated and got worse under the military intervention,” said Silvia Ramos, a coordinator for the Intervention Observatory monitoring group.

According to the Observatory, authorities spent about 1.2 billion reais ($320m) on the intervention.

The result was a well-financed failure, Ramos said, amounting to a “policy of confrontation, shootings and crossfire”.

Rio’s favelas are home to more than a million people [David Child/Al Jazeera]

In Ferreira’s classroom, 20-year-old student Leonardo Soza de Lima supported Ramos’s assessment.

“Gunshots are like music here, they happen all the time,” he said as other students nodded in agreement. 

The military intervention, they claimed, intensified pre-existing violence and made everyday life increasingly unpredictable.

“You never knew what was going to happen … sometimes you could be walking down the street and then gunfire would break out, there would be a shooting on your way to school,” said 19-year-old Julio Cesar Figueiredo.

Schools, not soldiers

Rio has sometimes been described as a city “at war”, with frequent conflicts between competing gangs and police forces making shootings and armed robberies common.

Ferreira’s students suggested there’s only one way to end the violence.

Using guns is not the solution, you have to first start from the base and better education, then you can start talking about public security,” de Lima said. “At the moment, there are zero opportunities here, everybody agrees.”

Unemployment is pervasive in Penha, the knock-on effect of high school drop-out rates being markedly higher than in other more affluent parts of Rio.

More than 21 percent of Brazilians who fail to complete high school are jobless, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Unemployment among those who complete university studies, by comparison, is 6.3 percent.

High school dropout rates are markedly higher in Penha than other more affluent parts of Rio [David Child/Al Jazeera]

From his simple classroom chair, Figueiredo was quick to clarify how dire the consequences of this reality can be.

“My two cousins are dead and my brother is involved in the drug trafficking … and if I don’t go after things myself then I, too, will be at the mercy of them [the gangs] – it’s basically every man for himself here,” he said.

Listening to his students’ accounts, Ferreira’s lingering anger over the intervention bubbled up again.

“Nobody lives in the favela because they want to, they live here because they have to,” he says. “You have people from all walks of life here and you can’t just reduce them all and think they are all criminals.”

Public security successes

Supporters of the intervention reject accusations that it was a failure. 

The general in charge of Rio’s state forces for its duration, General Walter Souza Braga Netto, claimed his team had “fulfilled its mission” to lower Rio’s crime rates and that Temer had praised the “brilliant work” carried out by the intervention team before leaving office.

Rio’s Secretary of Public Security during the intervention, General Richard Nunes, declined to comment on the military’s deployment when contacted by Al Jazeera, however.

ISP figures indicated there were some improvements in public security during the military intervention.

From February to December last year, for example, the number of intentional homicides dropped by about eight percent compared with the same period in 2017, falling to 4,468.

Armed robberies of cargo-carrying vehicles also fell in the final 11 months of last year compared with the corresponding period in 2017. Drug seizures, meanwhile, went up.

Police killings rose nearly 34 percent from February-December last year compared to the same period in 2017 [File: Silvia Izquierdo/AP]

Police killings rose nearly 34 percent from February-December last year compared to the same period in 2017 [File: Silvia Izquierdo/AP]

The ISP figures play into arguments made by Rio’s new governor, Wilson Witzel, who has indicated he intends to follow on from the example set by the intervention and take a hard line against the drugs gangs and crime.

Witzel has pledged to “slaughter” criminals by using helicopter-borne snipers to target and kill anyone carrying a rifle, even if they were not shooting their weapons, and warned that Rio would “dig graves” for criminals under his watch.

His rhetoric aligns with Bolsonaro’s, a former Rio congressman, who sees more guns as the answer to reducing crime in a country where a record high 63,880 homicides took place in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.

The 63-year-old is keen to give police “carte blanche” to kill suspects and said during his successful storm to office in October’s election that a “good criminal is a dead criminal”.

‘Violence generates violence’

Although Bolsonaro’s and Witzel’s tough-on-crime messages found favour with millions of Brazilian voters worried about their safety, in Penha they have caused concern.

Still wearied by the state’s heavy-handed intervention, many fear they will continue to suffer on the front line of an ongoing battle between security forces and the drug gangs – a conflict which shows little signs of slowing despite the ending of the military’s deployment.

In Penha and neighbourhoods like it, da Silva said, tomorrow’s threats are often worse.

The people who live here know just how hard it is … [and] it ends up affecting them because they grow up with trauma,” she adds. 

“Violence only generates violence.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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