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Politics at play as Temer hands control of Rio police to army

Carl de Souza, AFP | A woman walks past Brazilian military on patrol in Jacarezinho favela in Rio de Janeiro on January 18, 2018.

Brazilian President Michel Temer signed a decree on Friday handing the military full control of security in Rio de Janeiro, in the wake of a rise in crime and violence in the state.


The measure comes after Rio de Janeiro’s famous annual carnival, which is considered the biggest carnival in the world, was marred by violence this week. In their Wednesday programming, broadcast network TV Globo showed videos of fighting between rival gangs and tourists being punched and falling victim to armed robberies.

Rio State Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao was forced to apologise in response to the images, saying that the 17,000 police officers who were deployed were not enough. "We were not ready,” he told media. “There were mistakes in the first days and we reinforced the patrols."

However, Joana Monteiro, the chief executive of Rio’s Security Institute, said that early data suggests that the 2018 festival was not necessarily more violent than previous years. This year, 5,865 incidents were reported by the police during Carnival week, including 86 homicides, more than 1,000 instances of pickpocketing, and 262 seizures of drugs. Last year there were 5,773 reported incidents.

This has not stopped President Temer from acting to crack down on the criminal violence across the city.

"I am taking these extreme measures because circumstances demand it," Temer said after signing the decree to combat seemingly endless waves of gang-driven violence. Congress is expected to ratify it within 10 days.

"The government will give tough and firm answers, taking all necessary measures to eradicate organised crime," he added.

He described organised crime as "a metastasis that spreads through the country and threatens the tranquillity of our people."

Army patrols are already used in Rio's gang-ruled favelas, but this decree will now give the military full control of security operations in Rio state, including authority over state police. This is the first time the country has taken such a step since its return to democracy in 1985, after two decades of military rule.

Defense Minister Raul Jungmann declared last month that "the security system is broken," but in the same speech specified that the army would not replace the police on the ground, but instead provide logistical support in their fight against the drug lords.

Military reinforcements … for political gain

But some think that the move is driven by political motivations.

A measure like this is considered a “federal intervention” in the eyes of the law, and amendments to the constitution cannot be made while a federal intervention is underway. This conveniently lets Temer off the hook from pushing through a vote on an unpopular pension reform that could damage his public reputation even further. The reform needs 308 votes to pass, and it is expected that Temer's government can only scrape together around 270. Temer is unwilling to suffer such a defeat with the general election coming up in October this year.

With his approval rating currently in single figures and general elections on the horizon, Temer is keen to avoid unpopular public policy. A poll last month showed that 38 per cent of Brazilians said public security was a major concern in whom they would vote for. Temer taking a tough-on-crime attitude would play well with voters.

Responsibility for security in Rio will now fall to General Walter Souza Braga Neto, who was the man in charge of coordinating security when the city hosted the 2016 Olympic Games.

The army's mission will last until the end of Temer's term as president, December 31.

(FRANCE 24 with news wires)

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