Brazil’s Simmering Democratic Demise


In February, Brazilian President Michel Temer placed the country’s military in charge of security for the state of Rio de Janeiro. The move marked the culmination of a decade-long expansion of the military’s role in internal politics and security. To date, the military intervention has been constitutional, legally sanctioned, and well-intentioned on the part of the military leadership. However, the use of the military for internal security is not a good practice for the military itself or for the long-term health of Brazilian democracy.

The military cannot remove itself from this situation. The fate of Brazil’s democracy rests in the hands of the next administration, the congress, and its independent judiciary, who will have to reset to a new normal in which the police are policing and the military stands poised to defend the sovereignty of its nation.

Since the 2007 announcement that Brazil would host the 2014 World Cup, there has been a gradual increase in the use of combat troops to support police operations, secure communities plagued by violent crime, and now, direct state-level security forces. Although Rio was not the first time military troops have been deployed to support internal security, previous intervention, such as during the elections of 2002 or the 2007 Pan American games, were limited in scope and duration. Now as Brazilians become more accustomed to seeing soldiers with automatic weapons and combat vehicles patrolling their streets, the pillars of healthy civil-military relations that underpin democracy are slowly eroding. The military, which has previously been reluctant to engage in internal security and counter-narcotics missions, is occupying a void that no other state or federal agencies seems to be capable of navigating.

An old adage tells us that if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will hop right out, but throw that frog into warm water and slowly turn up the heat, and the frog will boil to death. While the likelihood of an outright military coup similar to 1964 is highly improbable, the Brazilian government should be wary that what it’s asking of its military could facilitate a slow boil that compromises military readiness and undermines the foundation of the country’s democracy.

The Water Heats Up: An Expanding Military Role

Just ten years ago, Brazilian civil-military relations were on a very different trajectory. The 1988 constitution, written after the establishment of Brazil’s Third Republic following 21 years of military rule, established clear guidelines restricting the use of the military in public security except in cases of national emergency. A decade later, in 1999, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso established the Ministry of Defense, stripping the military service chiefs of their cabinet rankings. In 2008, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Ministry of Defense published the first National Defense Strategy, and in 2012, President Dilma Rousseff’s administration published the first National Defense Policy and the White Book on National Defense.  All three of these documents — written by civilian leadership — demonstrate the consolidation of civilian control over the military throughout successive administrations. These reforms also sought to empower the defense sector as a means of promoting national economic growth — ironic, given that the efforts were undertaken by leftist administrations. By 2010, the Ministry of Defense, led by a politically appointed civilian administrator, was driving reforms to create a 21st-century, expeditionary-capable force, renowned for its peacekeeping operations worldwide. Despite these improvements, Brazil still lacks a professional civilian career track for defense-related issues. This absence of professional civilian defense officials may account for some of the shortsightedness that opened the door to the military’s expanded role in internal security.

Things began to change in 2007, when Brazil won bids to host the 2014 World Cup, and in 2009, when it was tapped to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. State and federal policymakers slowly turned up the heat in terms of military involvement in security issues. The government was already at war with two powerful drug-trafficking organizations known as the Comando Vermelho and the Primeiro Comando da Capital, which were actively vying for control of favelas (urban slums) in Brazil’s largest capital cities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Brazil had to find a way to guarantee security in its major cities to ensure that international visitors would not be subject to pervasive violent crimes stemming from these ungoverned spaces. The governor of Rio de Janeiro implemented a multi-year campaign to first pacify these favelas using state-level military police forces and then to restore essential civil services. Ultimately, the state forces were ill-equipped, undermanned, and inadequately trained to handle this mission on their own, as depicted in the award-winning film, Elite Squad, in 2007.

The state of Rio de Janeiro turned to the Brazilian Army to establish an outer cordon for some of its larger-scale operations. In 2007, the army supported the initial occupation of one of Rio’s largest and most dangerous favelas, Complexo do Alemão, in the lead-up to the Pan American Games. After this initial proof of concept, the military came back to help three years later for Alemão’s reoccupation in 2010. As the pacification campaign expanded, so too did the military’s role. In mid-2014, the military itself occupied another large complex of favelas known as Maré. Regardless of the success of this 14-month occupation, in the eyes of the local residents it established a new normal for the role of the military in internal security. The idea of soldiers manning checkpoints was no longer alien, it was comforting.

The temperature ticked slightly higher as the international spotlight focused more closely on the security situation in Rio. The military reinforced security for the papal visit during the 2013 World Youth Day and helped secure the stadiums and preempt disruptive civil unrest during the 2014 World Cup. Military support of such major events is not uncommon, as demonstrated by the British military’s support of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. However, in Brazil, these missions opened the door for a once-dormant military to increase collaboration, training, and information sharing with civilian intelligence agencies and state and federal police forces. This interoperability paved the way for broader participation during the 2016 Olympics, particularly in the face of potential international terrorist threats to the games.

Despite the apocalyptic warnings of mismanagement in the lead up to the Olympics, the execution of the games themselves exceeded expectations and the overall security of the games was lauded by the government, military, and international community. The military also benefited from increased approval ratings during this time. However, amidst the self-congratulation, there was little public debate about the negative side effects of creating a dependency on the military for internal security. As military participation in traditional policing operations became more and more commonplace, a 2015 poll showed that 47.6 percent of Brazilians saw a military intervention as justifiable under certain circumstances of major governmental corruption.

In fact, as the international spotlight on Brazil dimmed, the next few years did give rise to major government corruption, a shift that was unrelated to the military’s shifting role but nonetheless served to underscore it. In the midst of a nationwide scandal, Rousseff was officially impeached and removed from office on August 31, 2016. The Justice Department’s Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash) began in 2014 and continues to uncover an ever-growing, complex web of co-conspirators in fraud and the laundering of billions of U.S. dollars. One of the most infamous perpetrators was the Governor of Rio de Janeiro, Sérgio Cabral, who was imprisoned in November 2016 — only three months after the Olympics — as his state was collapsing into bankruptcy. The state could no longer afford to pay its workers, fund its police operations, or protect its citizenry. It needed federal help, and the only capable tool the federal government had to employ was its military.

The steps that followed fell under the umbrella of the law and order clause of the constitution, known as “Garantia da Lei e da Ordem.” In January 2017, Temer authorized the army to support security at state prisons following a series of inmate takeovers organized by the drug cartels across the country, which reflected the depths of the cartels’ influence nationwide. The following month, Temer sent thousands of troops to Rio’s neighboring state, Espirito Santo, following massive police strikes. By July, the president had signed another decree of GLO in Rio de Janeiro. In September, the military temporarily occupied Rocinha, one of Rio’s largest favelas just a stone’s throw away from its ritziest neighborhoods. The in-extremis constitutional clause was being used over and over again to stop the hemorrhaging of a political catastrophe, economic recession, and massive unemployment epidemic.

The water is getting pretty darn hot, yet it’s hard to imagine the frog jumping out anytime soon. The military intervention is no longer episodic — it’s official. Other states suffering from bankruptcy and police strikes, such as Rio Grande do Norte and Acre, have requested federal support from the army. In February 2018, the president announced that the military would be officially intervening in Rio de Janeiro, with Gen. Walter Souza Braga Netto assuming responsibility for overall security of the state. Braga Netto himself commented that this experiment in Rio could be used as a model for other states, particularly following the week-long trucker strike in May that paralyzed the entire nation. With presidential elections approaching this fall, there’s even more uncertainty about future use of the military in internal security. The candidate who appears in many polls to be the frontrunner, Jair Bolsonaro, is a former military officer who just a year ago was considered a fringe, right-wing candidate. As a junior congressman in the nineties, Bolsonaro allegedly called for the military to take back over, claims he now denies.

As the Frog Boils

There are two primary risks to the current trajectory of military intervention: the degradation of military readiness (the raison d’etre of the military as an institution) and the undermining of civilian control over the military (a central pillar of democracy). The U.S. military has learned over the past decade that focusing an army on security and governance missions does not translate easily into an ability to fight and win in a high-intensity conflict and defend the homeland against existential external threats. Devoting its resources toward targeting criminal organizations and conducting policing operations will detract from Brazil’s ability to man, train, modernize, and sustain a force capable of projecting power outside of its borders. These costs may be tolerable, given that Brazil has not fought in any campaign since its contributions to the Allied Forces in World War II and has no hostile adversaries or significant threats to its borders. However, as Brazil seeks to assert itself in the international community as a major player and gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council, it requires a military capable of matching its diplomatic intentions.

A greater threat to the Brazilian military’s long-term readiness is the likelihood that this intervention will become protracted, marring its esteemed reputation and impacting its future budget allocation. The rise in murders of police officers in the state of Rio de Janeiro, totaling 126 in 2017, foreshadows how criminal organizations will likely respond to continued military presence in their territory. When soldiers are inevitably targeted by the local population, military patrols will struggle to exercise restraint, leave behind civilian collateral damage, and slowly jeopardize their trusted image amongst the populace. Incidents such as the murder of activist Marielle Franco have already begun to sow doubt about an organization that has thus far remained above the fray of the moral crisis plaguing other government entities. These instances will only be exacerbated by the 2017 Senate decision that military personnel who kill civilians will be tried in the military justice system instead of in civilian courts.  Despite relative public confidence in its armed forces, certain segments of the population have yet to reconcile with the military since the end of the dictatorship. For this vocal minority, reports of soldiers using authoritarian methods against their own people in the name of security will cast a long shadow that will take decades to overcome.

The second risk is to Brazilian democracy itself. While an outright coup remains improbable, the slow militarization of Brazil’s domestic policy would be just as unacceptable.  Brazil’s Western allies would be wary of encroaching military influence and might pull back their support for Brazil as a regional leader in the Southern Hemisphere. The country would lose credibility at the United Nations along with any lingering chance it had of gaining a seat at the Security Council. An increasingly militarized government would shake the confidence of foreign investors, further devaluing the Brazilian currency in world markets and worsening its economic crisis.

Brazilian military leadership understands these intolerable costs just as well as they understand that, although they may be a decent Band-Aid, they cannot fix the systemic issues that plague Brazilian democracy — namely, corruption of political and police actors and the violence and criminal network activity that led to military involvement in the first place . The military has no intention of taking over and is wary of being wrapped up in the corruption and moral ignominy that has plagued the political class. For instance, every senior officer who spoke at Brazil’s Command and General Staff College over the past year echoed similar concerns about the military’s esteemed reputation being tainted the more it got involved in internal security. However, good intentions will not spare the institution.

How does the frog — in this case, Brazil’s democracy — survive? Who will be willing to assume the risk of returning the military to its rightful mission? The military cannot pull itself out of the ring. It is following legal orders, and like any good armed force, it will do everything it can to make the best of this messy, complex situation. The current president is hanging on by a thread and has no other immediate option. The state governors could ask the military to leave, decline federal support, and restore and bolster existing police forces, but many states, including Rio de Janeiro, do not have the resources or political capital to do so. This task will likely fall to the next administration, whoever that may be.

The next administration will have to end the current intervention in the short term. In the long term, it must examine how to avoid relying on the military during the next crisis while simultaneously addressing the drivers of instability. It must consider all options for restructuring the state-level military police, from federalizing the police force to demilitarizing it completely. It must consider how to guarantee adequate funding and training for local security forces, likely by making significant, unpopular cuts to Brazil’s costly pension system. Employing data-driven strategies may help eliminate fraud, waste, and abuse and better target areas of highest concern. The administration should also develop a campaign to grow a larger professional caste of civilian defense and security experts and employ those in the Ministry of Defense, in the state and federal security services, and as professional staffers in the executive and legislative branches, to better evaluate the short- and long-term consequences of military intervention. Lastly, the political leadership must relentlessly fight to root out corruption in government to restore the confidence of both the people it serves and the military of which it demands loyalty.

As it turns out, the old adage about the frog boiling itself to death is a myth. The frog will jump out when the water gets too hot. Brazil’s civil-military balance and its democratic ideals will likely survive as well. But how hot does the water need to get before someone recognizes the risk and turns it down? And will the military be able to get out unscathed? The fate of civil-military relations, and, more broadly, Brazil’s democracy, hinges on the answers to these difficult questions.


Katie Hillegass is a major in the United States Army, currently serving as an Assistant Professor of Military Science at the University of Virginia. Katie is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and the Brazilian Military Command and General Staff College, and a former fellow on the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group.

Image: Ministério da Defesa/Flickr