Opinion by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Like most Carioca residents, the Curmudgeon is unsure about exactly what will happen as a result of Brazil’s military assuming the role of Rio’s primary law enforcement agency.
Today, the Curmudgeon will offer some random thoughts on the subject, including a (very) few predictions.
• Federal intervention is in large part political—the governing coalition, led by PMDB, also runs Rio de Janeiro, and it fears massive voter rejection next October because of corruption scandals. Safety and security are, for many voters, the most important issue facing Rio, so PMDB hopes voters will overlook its peccadillos.
• Federal intervention has the side effect of prohibiting any amendments to the Federal Constitution. The best-known pending amendment is the highly unpopular one that would amend government pension requirements. Temer can now leave that hot potato for the next administration and breathe a sigh of relief.
• Federal intervention means the Army now controls not only the various branches of the police, but also prison administration. It is widely known that many prison guards are corrupt, thus permitting the gangsters to run their operations from inside jail. The hope is that the Army will put an end to corruption, as well as installing cellphone blocks for prisons.
• Federal intervention is designed to support the work of the police. Brazil’s military have some experience of this in Haiti, but no one really knows whether the operations there are relevant here. The military definitely have more firepower than Rio’s police, who are completely outgunned by Rio’s gang lords. Firepower is, of course, best held in reserve, lest even more innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire.
• Rio’s favelas are controlled either by drug lord gangs or by so-called “militia”, which are gangs run by crooked cops and former cops, protected by local politicians. Straight cops have been powerless to combat the militia, who promote themselves as an alternative to the gangbangers — while continuing their extortion of residents of the communities they control. The hope is that the military will put an end to this.
• Rio’s favelas will feel the brunt of the military intervention. No tanks will appear in Rio’s Zona Sul, where the well-to-do consume the drugs they buy from the favelas. Moreover, the police will not make everyone who enters chic Shopping Leblon show valid ID cards that are checked against police rap sheets. Racial and social profiling are normal practices in Brazil.
• Violent crime will not diminish significantly in Rio — the city is simply too spread out to permit enforcement everywhere. One can expect the favelas closest to Zona Sul, Barra and Recreio to receive the most attention from the military, simply because they get the most media attention. The gangs who run those favelas will likely move headquarters elsewhere, for instance into the vast suburban blight surrounding Rio.
Withal, the Curmudgeon remains optimistic. For more than three decades, Rio’s civilian authorities have blithely neglected the security of residents and visitors, and have essentially delegated local administrative power to criminals.
We can (indeed must) hope that the military intervention will stop the rot; we can (indeed must) hope that the October election results will produce honest, well-meaning politicians to keep the rot from returning.