Are Brazil's Police Reformable?

There are signs that Brazils already hyper-militarized culture of public security provision is becoming even more securitized. Nowhere are the risks more evident than in Rio de Janeiro where 4,000 federal forces were deployed this month to occupy the city´s most violent favelas, including Maré. The expectation is that they will secure the area in advance of the World Cup and to stay at least until it ends. Meanwhile, images of heavily armed special forces training the newly created pacification police units, or UPP, is also grounds for alarm. There is a danger that the return to repressive law enforcement will undermine important gains in proximity policing since 2009.

Rio de Janeiro´s state government and military police say they have good reasons to call in reinforcements. At least 19 military police officers have been killed since January 2014 in what many believe were coordinated attacks by armed factions, more than all of those assassinated in 2013. Over the past six months there appears to have been an escalation in murders, revenge killings and attacks which is triggering talk of war between the police and the gangs. What is more, the police, and the UPP in particular, are exhausted as they seek to spread their program into some of the most challenging urban settings in the world. It is for these and other reasons that the commanding general called in some 100 elite police into the Alemao slum - and 20 more in Rocinha - to "improve" the training of the UPP. Their operations are described ominously as likely to be extremely "tough."

With the government calling for more repressive policing, there is the sound of history repeating itself. In 2010, at the request of Governor Cabral, then President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva authorized the deployment of more than 800 heavily marines to pacify Alemao. But the legacy of Brazil´s militarized approach to policing dates back more than one hundred years. Before independence, most law and order duties were the preserve of separate state armies. In the 1930s, President Vargas mandated the Brazilian army to extend control over the country´s 27 state-based armed forces and convert them into police. Article 144 of the Constitution directed the newly created military police entities to serve as a "conspicuous police force and preserve public order", subordinate, together with the civil police, to state governors.

For the next fifty years the military police served as the heavy fist of the Brazilian state. During the dictatorship era (1964-1985), the military police were consolidated and routinely deployed to crush opposition. As in other Latin American countries under authoritarian rule, they were used to repress communism and suppress left-wing dissent. Steeped in martial traditions, many of them were expert in clandestine operations involving targeted killings, torture and disappearances. The destruction of the enemy was a mantra, and they discharged their duties with ruthless efficiency. By the beginning of the twenty first century, the military police were implicated in thousands of "auto-resistance" killings a year. And the legacy endures. Each year the Brazilian police are responsible for roughly 2,000 killings.

The models adopted by the military police throughout the past century are antithetical to the most basic precepts of today´s democratic policing models. Although the "tough on crime" rhetoric is welcomed by the country´s elite and middle classes - especially during periods of instability - it does nothing to end the cycle of violence. If real security and safety is to be achieved in Brazil´s states, a fundamental transformation of the country´s policing institutions is required. This will require rethinking the ethos and education of the military police, with a greater investment in the UPP which has generated important results. It will also demand the merging of the military and civilian police forces so they cooperate, rather than compete. And reducing the spiraling violence between police and gangs will require fixing the broken penal system. It is not with more military-style training and repression that the police will promote lasting safety, but by reinforcing their commitment to protecting the lives of all of the country´s citizens.