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Opinion, by Michael Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – An army can be a terrible thing to waste. That’s particularly true in many Latin American countries, where the threats from outside often fall far short of the threats from within. So what’s a national army to do if it doesn’t need to worry too much about guarding its country’s borders?

Michael Kerlin
Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.

International peacekeeping and humanitarian work is a start. That’s what got the Brazilian army so involved in places like Haiti, and reminded everyone that Brazil was the second great military superpower of the Americas.

Domestic humanitarian work makes sense too. Up in Mexico, soldiers have spent time vaccinating children, helping with flood recovery, and engaging in other good deeds. 

Mexico was the first country in recent years to realize, however, that the army might need to fight wars at home. In so doing, Mexico offers a case study in domestic military operations to which Brazil needs to pay close attention.

That’s because the last twelve months have seen a dramatic expansion in the activities of the Brazilian military in domestic peacekeeping. First, soldiers in armored personnel carriers rolled in to the favelas in the Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro last November, when the military police felt it couldn’t manage on its own.

Residents largely welcomes the “men in green” because they trusted them more than “men in black,” police officers and military police forces. Too much corruption and blurry lines with violent, extortionist militias left the police with damaged credibility. Plus, they couldn’t muster alone the dramatic show of force that the military could provide.

Then the soldiers stuck around in the Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro. Groups of three, carrying machine guns, began to guard each major entrance to the favelas, with lists of drug trafficking suspects at hand.

Next came Rocinha, where the national military rolled in last month, as if marking an annual tradition, in a bloodless operation that many thought offered more show than actual keeping of the peace.

The three full-scale occupations can make Rio’s favelas feel more like Iraq than Brazil. But casualties have dropped, civic confidence and engagement have returned, and property prices have risen. So far, the military occupants have steered clear of the corruption that plagued the police forces.

Brazil doesn’t seem prepared to get too carried away with the domestic military mission—all of the Rio forces will hand over their favelas to UPPs, or Police Pacifying Units. That said, UPPs have shown themselves vulnerable to corruption.

Earlier this year, one UPP was discovered to be receiving monthly payments to turn a blind eye to local drug traffickers. So an expanding military solution could be tempting.

That’s where Mexico comes in. Back in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón decided he could only fight Mexican drug cartels with the Mexican army. State, local, and federal police had submitted themselves to the temptations of corruption.

Generous bribes from drug leaders gave major boosts to their middle class incomes. Over time, the cartels were escalating their battles with one another and drawing the front lines of their fight in Ciudad Juárez, where the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua meets the U.S.border.

So in March of 2008, Calderón launched Joint Operation Chihuahua, and sent 2,500 soldiers, 180 military trucks, and 6 helicopters up to Ciudad Juárez. If it weren’t for his decision to add three C-130 airplanes to the mix, Mexico’s drug operation would sound a lot like the Brazilian operations that have gone into Rio’s favelas.

The similarities end there. Many estimates suggest that the number of murders in Mexico actually increased after the military got involved in the drug war.

Worse yet, residents of Juárez have filed more than a thousand human rights complaint against the Joint Operation Chihuahua. Complaints range from theft to illegal searches to kidnapping (echoes of Latin America’s “disappearances” during earlier decades of military rule) to torture.

To be sure, it is too early to tell whether the Mexican army has done more good than bad in that country’s drug war. The adversaries are also far more organized, better armed, and more vicious than Rio’s drug gangs.

But Mexico does offer important lessons: The military should be for intervention as last resort. It should not attempt to replace corrupt, ineffective police forces, which need to be cleaned up and built back up as the long-term solution. It should also have crystal clear rules of engagement.

The relatively limited mandate in Rio’s favelas of Brazil’s “men in green” seems to be the right start. But the national military needs a limited mandate, in scope and time. Otherwise, it faces the same risks that the Brazilian police and Mexican police and army have faced.

If security leaders aren’t careful, Rio’s people may find themselves wistful for the days when Nem rules Rocinha and Pezão ruled the Complexo do Alemão.

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Michael Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.

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