RTÉ World Report, Sunday 25th February 2018
Locals in Rio de Janeiro had barely shaken off the annual Carnaval hangover, when it was announced that the army would be taking over until the end of the year. A presidential decree ordered that armed forces would take control of security of the state, historically blighted by gangs, corruption and street crime.
Images of mass robberies during the five-day Carnaval party are thought to have pre-empted the decree. However, statistics show that incidence of street crime during this year’s Carnaval were lower than in previous years. No one saw this coming, not even the army, who were not consulted in advance.
While all of this was going on, Rio’s mayor, Evangelical bishop Marcelo Crivella was nowhere to be seen. He escaped samba city during the holiday, on what he said was an official trip to Germany to analyse urban security solutions. He later conceded that his trip was personal, when media reports contradicted him.
Critics query the real reason behind this intervention, which was approved by an overwhelming cabinet majority in a late night vote last Monday. Once Federal rule is in place, no changes can be made to the Brazilian Constitution. In other words, the highly controversial pension reform bill that president Temer has spent the last several months trying to push through, cannot be voted on during his current presidency, a title he earned after the impeachment of Dilma Rouseuff two years ago. Many say this new intervention is the part two of that coup. Temer currently enjoys a 5% public approval rating, the lowest of any sitting president in Brazil’s history.
New presidential elections are due in October, and while Temer had previously suggested that he would not run again, now, it seems he’s may have changed his mind. Some suggest military rule in Rio is part of his pre-election campaign to stamp out violence in Brazil.
A week later, it’s still not clear what this intervention will mean. Many locals have rose tinted memories of the last time the military were in charge in Brazil, a time when kids stayed in school, and law and order were guaranteed.
Realities of summary arrests, mass imprisoning, and torture, seem skewed in collective memory, despite the findings of the Brazilian Truth Commission in 2014 which listed mass human rights violations during the dictatorship that ended in 1985, after 21 years of military rule. Impeached President Dilma was just one of the many militants that were tortured under that regime. In fact, last week, army general Eduardo Villas Boas said the army needed a guarantee that there would not be another truth commission. Under a law passed last year, crimes committed by the army may only be tried in a military court, a process that takes years, thereby offering veritable impunity to soldiers on the streets of Rio.
There have been several military operations in Rio in recent years, but statistics do not point to any real crime reduction. Residents in neighbourhoods like Maré, in Rio’s north zone, where a recent army occupation continued for 14 months, said they did not feel any safer with the army at the helm.
Those with most to fear are Rio’s poor, especially those with dark skin. Several guides circulated on social media last week, directing young black men to take extra precautions – always carry your ID and work card, always let people know you are going and when you arrive, always have a charged phone on your person. No one knows what to expect. One resident last week said she hopes that the army doesn’t instill a 9pm curfew across the city like in the 80s.
Rio is not Brazil’s most violent city, there are many in worse situations. But, they don’t hold the same level of glamour, the same international media interest, or the same tourism levels as Rio. Resident’s opinions are divided. The rich applaud loudly. About time, they say, while the poor fear what is to come.
For World Report, this is Sarah O’Sullivan, in Rio de Janeiro.