Brazilian troops storm favelas of Rio de Janeiro to combat rising drug violence

March 6, 2018

Just last week, Brazilian President Michel Temer signed a decree to allow the military to take over as the primary security force in the state of Rio de Janeiro as an extreme attempt to crackdown on rising gang violence in the region’s poor shantytowns, or favelas. The upper and lower houses of Brazil’s Congress both voted overwhelmingly in favor of this decision, in spite of rising public criticism and concern over the protection of human rights under the military’s control.

This decree, effectively giving the Brazilian army full control over the city’s police force, has triggered painful memories of the country’s 21-year long military dictatorship that ended in 1988. This action takes effect immediately and is expected to last until the end of the year (The Guardian).

The army has previously operated in Rio during major world events, such as the Summer Olympics in 2016 and the World Cup in 2014. However, after Carnival celebrations earlier this month were met with robberies and shootouts, it is increasingly apparent that the city is quickly slipping out of the control of the state. Last week, Rio’s state Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao admitted that the city’s security planning was unable to secure residents and tourists during Carnival celebrations, and that Rio’s police force is no longer in control of the ‘war’ between drug traffickers in the city (The Independent).

Critics suggest that this action could be a strategic move to stall the upcoming vote on Temer’s controversial pension reform bill that is due to be voted in Congress in the coming weeks. With the president’s current approval rating in the single digits, it is unlikely that his party will win the vote. However, with Rio’s military intervention at play, Congress cannot legally make any changes to the Constitution, putting the bill on temporary hold until the end of the year.

There is also speculation that this step in the fight against drug violence could be a strategy to improve the president’s low approval ratings in the wake of an upcoming general election this October. Temer, however, has denied these claims, stating Friday that he does not intend to be a candidate for his party this fall (Reuters).

Temer was previously the Vice President but took office in 2016 when leftist Dilma Rousseff was impeached due to charges of corruption and criminal misconduct. Since taking office, he has held consistently low approval ratings, and has been plagued with allegations of corruption himself.

Supporters of this decree hope that the military presence will bring a heightened sense of security, at least keeping smaller groups off of the streets. However, even most of the most prominent defenders of the president’s decision acknowledge that this is—at best—a temporary solution to the decades-long security problem in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Rio’s metropolitan area, which is home to 12 million of the state’s 17 million people, has been plagued by a worsening pandemic of gang violence for several years. Although violence in Rio is not actually as severe as many other parts of the country—it only ranked 11th among Brazilian states in homicide rates—crime in the state has received international attention given its popularity as a tourist destination and its hosting of major world sporting events (Business Insider).

After receiving news in 2008 that they would be hosting the 2016 Olympic games, Rio’s state government invested in security, implementing ‘Pacification Police Units’ meant to crack down on gang violence and reincorporate poor communities into the city. However, over the years the pacification program was hindered by budget cuts that left the police units with few to no resources to continue the process.

Along with this pacification initiative, the Brazilian government has taken similar but smaller-scale military action in the past in the effort to combat drug violence in Rio’s urban areas. In 2014, ahead of the Rio World Cup, the government ordered a costly 15-month long military occupation of the large and notoriously violent favela of Mare. These armed forces reportedly seized large quantities of drugs and weapons in the shantytown (The Atlantic); however, the occupation ended in June 2015, apparently failing to establish a legitimate solution to the city’s gang violence.

During this time, thousands of residents rose up in protest against the occupation and the problem of police brutality in the occupied favelas. Many criticized the pacification program, claiming that it intentionally targeted the favelas to appease upper-class Rio residents who feared that violence would spill over from poorer communities (The Guardian). Many also denounced the inadequate training of the officers, noting that reports of abuse and killings by the police force had increased, while the levels of gang violence had yet to see improvement.

Now that President Temer has ordered another much larger military intervention into Rio’s favelas, many are concerned that the same gang violence will continue, but with the added hostility and violence of the military forces. Just a few days after the decree was ordered, a video online went viral advising favela residents on ‘How Not to Get Killed by Brazilian Police’ during the military crackdown. The video specifically warns afro-Brazilians, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community to avoid any type of confrontation with the police, as they are the most vulnerable during such an occupation (TeleSur).

Messages such as these convey the severe extent—and disturbing sense of normalcy—of violence by police and military forces in Brazil. According to a report by the Brazilian Public Safety Forum, the number of civilians killed in police raids last year was as high was 4,224—more than a 25% increase from 2015. In Rio de Janeiro alone, police were responsible for over 11,000 homicides between 2009 and 2013. Of these homicides, a huge majority were young afro-Brazilian men (TeleSur).

People and residents are especially worried about increased police violence due to the sheer scale of this particular intervention. This is the first time that the military will be completely in charge of the city’s police force since Brazil established its new constitution in 1988 following its military dictatorship (The Guardian).

Given the large scale of the occupation allowed by Temer’s recent decree is that the military has considerably more power than it has had in past interventions. The most controversial and potentially dangerous element of this decree is that it allows the Brazilian army to authorize search warrants for entire communities. These ‘collective warrants’ allow troops to search homes throughout entire neighborhoods at a time, arresting residents as they see fit.

The use of these—potentially illegal—collective warrants has been harshly criticized by leaders around the world, including former President Dilma Rousseff, who posted a public message denouncing this action as a ‘violation of civil rights’ of the poor Brazilians ‘most in need of justice’ (TeleSur). The country’s Association of Judges for Democracy also released a statement claiming that the nature of this military intervention is in direct violation of the 1988 constitution.

Several activists and favela leaders throughout Rio have joined in protest against these warrants and the danger that they pose. The incredible power that this gives the military to arrest innocent favela residents en masse can easily threaten the freedom and justice of the city’s most vulnerable populace.

Regardless of the constitutionality of this decree, its familiarly militaristic feel to it is understandably putting city residents on edge. At best, this aggressive occupation will provide temporary security to these neighborhoods that have been plagued by drug violence. The issue in Rio’s favelas is not a temporary fix but is a decades-long security problem that will require thorough and long-term reform.

As Vagner Freitas, president of the Unified Workers’ Central, has said, what Rio de Janeiro needs is not a military or police intervention that will only further endanger the residents of the city’s poorest residents—rather, it needs “social intervention” (TeleSur) and one that focuses on public education, employment, and youth development programs that can actually foster long-term economic and social development for the city.



  1. Dom Phillips. (2018 Feb 16). "Brazilian army to take control of security in Rio as violence rises". Retrieved Tuesday, February 20, 2018.
  2. Mauricio Savarese. (2018 Feb 17). "President calls in army as murderous gang crime threatens to overwhelm Rio de Janeiro". Retrieved Tuesday, February 20, 2018.
  3. staff. (2018 Feb 23). "Brazil's Temer says he will not run in October presidential election". Retrieved Sunday, February 25, 2018.
  4. Lucy Westcott. (2015 Mar 31). "Brazilian Police Invade Rio's Slum Ahead of This Summer's World Cup". Retrieved Tuesday, February 20, 2018.
  5. staff. (2018 Feb 21). "Video Goes Viral: 'How Not to Get Killed by Brazilian Police'". TeleSur TV. Retrieved Sunday, February 25, 2018.

About Author(s)

kristen.gugerli's picture
Kristen Martinez-Gugerli
Kristen Gugerli is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science, pursuing a BPhil in International and Area Studies, minoring in Religious Studies, Spanish, and Quechua, and earning a certificate in Latin American Studies. She studied abroad in the summer of 2017 in Cusco, Peru, and then conducted research abroad in Valladolid, Mexico in the summer of 2018 through the Center for Latin American Studies' Seminar and Field Trip program. She is particularly interested in issues involving indigenous and women's human rights in Latin America, and has tried to incorporate these interests into her studies. She is currently writing her senior thesis about existing trends in the political participation of indigenous peoples in Mexico.