Military takes over safety in Rio

Brazilian Armed Forces members patrol in the Jacarezinho slum during an operation against drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro in January. (Reuters Photo)

RIO DE JANIERO: Brazil’s president has defended putting an army general in charge of Rio de Janeiro’s security forces to contain a rising tide of violence, saying the circumstances required extreme measures.

In a televised address on Friday evening, Michel Temer explained why he signed a decree that puts the state’s police forces under military control. The intervention, which requires congressional approval, will last until the end of the year.

“We will not accept passively the deaths of the innocent,” he said. “Our prisons will no longer be offices for thieves, our public squares party halls for organised crime.”

The move, the first of its kind since Brazil returned to democracy in 1985, is a response to growing demands ahead of the October general elections for a crackdown on crime and violence. It may also provide an excuse not to vote on an unpopular pension bill, because by law changes to the constitution can’t be made while a military intervention is in effect.

Indeed, Lower House Speaker Rodrigo Maia said the decree that would be put to a vote in both houses of Congress over the next few days would make a vote on pension reform more difficult. The government still lacks the votes needed for the bill that investors had hoped would put public finances back on track, Maia said.

“It’s an extreme moment and this is a very serious decision,” Maia said. “Under those circumstances, that’s the way to reestablish order,” he said in reference to a growing sense of insecurity.

Violence and crime have been soaring in Rio de Janeiro in the aftermath of a deep recession that has left the state lacking funds to invest in its police, and to pay salaries. Public opinion surveys show security to be among Brazilians’ main concerns.

Jair Bolsonaro, a Rio de Janeiro legislator and former army captain with a hard line against crime, is currently running second in opinion polls ahead of the October elections.

‘It’s part of Temer’s effort to find a positive agenda in the elections, something he can point to to show the people he’s doing something,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the Rio de Janeiro State University. “Bolsonaro has grown a lot in the polls among other reasons because of insecurity.”

Shootings and mass robberies plagued Rio during the recent Carnival celebrations, when throngs of tourists visit the city. Rio de Janeiro Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao admitted the state’s security had failed and asked for federal help, according to local media. The rate of violent deaths in the state jumped to 40 per 100,000 residents, the highest since 2009.

Brazil returned to democracy in 1985, after 21 years of military dictatorship, and intervention remains a sensitive topic in the country.

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