SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazilian leaders said Monday that the use of the military to combat rising violence in Rio de Janeiro could serve as a model for other violent areas of Brazil.
The armed forces officially took over Rio’s police on Friday under a decree signed by President Michel Temer.
The measure still requires congressional approval, and the lower Chamber of Deputies began debating it late Monday. It is expected to pass both the lower chamber and Senate within a few days.
“We are in a war against crime,” said Speaker Rodrigo Maia in opening the session. “Our weapon is the constitution” for the federal government to intervene.
Temer’s extraordinary decree came after Rio’s governor asked for federal help following an exceptionally violent Carnival. During the holiday, there were several muggings, armed robberies and violent confrontations.
Temer met Monday with ministers and lawmakers to discuss the intervention.
“It’s important to understand that Rio de Janeiro is a laboratory,” Institutional Security Minister Sergio Etchegoyen said after the meeting. “It’s the outward manifestation of a structural crisis.”
According to the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, Rio de Janeiro isn’t the most dangerous state in Brazil: In terms of violent intentional killings per 100,000 people, it ranked 11th in 2016. But Rio is in many ways Brazil’s face to the world and carries major weight within the country as home to much of its media and entertainment industries.
Secretary-General Wellington Moreira Franco, a key Temer adviser, said what happens in Rio will hopefully spread throughout Brazil.
“I believe that this is one more step along the road of being able to restore security, order and, above all, confidence to residents of Rio de Janeiro state,” Franco said. “This spirit is being mobilized so that … this conversation, this methodology can spread throughout Brazil.”
The security situation in Rio has been deteriorating for at least two years as the state experiences a deep fiscal crisis, often resulting in late or no payments to its police officers. The slide began just before the city hosted the 2016 Olympics, ahead of which it had ramped up policing. Those efforts, which focused on the hillside slums that are often controlled by drug traffickers, had some success.
But since the Games, battles among gangs and between gangs and the police have intensified. Major avenues are occasionally blocked for hours in shootouts and the number of people killed by stray bullets has risen dramatically.
But putting the military in charge also raises concerns about the heavy-handed tactics police have used. Amnesty International has already said that the decision to use soldiers would reinforce past mistakes by police. Rio is already the state with the most deaths during police operations.
Those concerns were fanned Monday when Defense Minister Raul Jungmann said that the authorities would seek a broader kind of search warrant that, instead of specifying an address, might list an entire street or even neighborhood where a suspect is believed to be living.
Hours before Congress was to take up the measure, an opposition party asked the Supreme Court to suspend the vote, saying Temer had not followed the rules for issuing such a decree and saying the move had “political and electoral motivations.” No ruling had come from the top court by the time the session began.
Temer and his ministers have gone to great lengths to emphasize that the president is ultimately in charge of the operation, providing civilian oversight of the military. That reflects deep unease in a society where many still remember the 1964-1985 military regime.