Is Temer's Military Intervention a Political Game?

Predata signals suggest Brazilians are skeptical of President Temer's extraordinary security decree.


Brazilians are justifiably wary of the military. The Constitution of 1988 put to rest an army dictatorship with a dark record of torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and extrajudicial killing. 

Which makes it all the more remarkable that President Michel Temer dispatched the army to take over all security in Rio de Janeiro. The federal government has deployed soldiers to quell gang violence in Rio's favelas before. But those operations were always in support of the police. Not since the end of the dictatorship has Brazil's military been put in charge of a police force.

In announcing the decree, Temer said criminal gangs had "virtually taken over" the city and surrounding areas. Crime is indeed up, with homicides rising 8 percent last year. Yet, Predata signals that capture patterns of Brazilian digital traffic suggest violence in Rio is not as salient a concern as it was during past crime waves -- for instance, in September 2017, when nearly 1,000 soldiers deployed to quell a war between rival drug gangs in the Rocinha favela. 


As the chart shows, Brazilian attention to violence in Rio de Janeiro -- including web pages related to security forces, drug gangs, past incidents, and crime-prone favelas -- was far lower amid the current military intervention than it was during the Rocinha deployment. And that is true despite media broadcasts of gang members beating and robbing tourists during carnival. The picture that emerges is that violence in Rio is actually drawing less attention now than it was back in 2017.

While Brazilians are paying less attention to the situation in Rio, they are showing heightened interest in the military more generally. That trend may suggest residents are concerned about the implications of breaking with a three-decade tradition of maintaining the operational independence of the police. 


Critics of Temer allege the decree was a political stunt to buy time for his stalled pension reform bill. The president has reportedly struggled to whip enough votes to pass his overhaul of the state's bloated pension system. The emergency decree delays the vote, as no constitutional changes, which the bill entails, are permitted when a security decree is in effect.