Small Wars Journal

Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 5: Brazilian Military Stability and Support Operations

Thu, 11/09/2017 - 1:35pm

Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 5: Brazilian Military Stability and Support Operations (SASO) in Rio de Janeiro’s Favelas 

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker

High intensity gang battles and endemic insecurity have severely challenged the ability of the police to ensure order and contain violence in Rio de Janeiro.  After 100 police officers were killed this year though August 2017, state authorities requested the assistance of the federal armed forces.  This infusion of military forces to establish stability and support policing demonstrates the challenges posed by entrenched gangs in the favelas and raises concerns about the militarization of policing in Brazil.

Photo: Brazilian Military on Patrol in Favela in Rio de Janeiro 

Source: Brazilian Armed Forces Eastern Military Command

Key Information: Associated Press, “Thousands of Brazilian troops sent to quell violence in Rio de Janeiro slums.” Los Angeles Times. 5 August 2017,

More than 3,500 Brazilian soldiers are occupying a series of slum communities in northern Rio de Janeiro as part of efforts to combat a spike in violence.

The troops moved into the Complexo do Lins communities and neighboring Camarista Meier in the early hours of Saturday. Defense Minister Raul Jungmann told Globo TV that the troops would stay there as long as necessary

Last week 8,500 soldiers were deployed in Rio to fight organized crime gangs, which control many of the city’s slums.

Brazilian television showed soldiers armed with automatic rifles sitting atop tanks as they patrolled the communities.

Mounting violence in Rio has led authorities to acknowledge in recent weeks that much of the city is out of their control.

Key Information: Nelza Oliveira, “The Armed Forces Return to Operations in Rio de Janeiro.” Diálogo. 1 September 2017,

The Armed Forces are back on the streets of Rio de Janeiro for Operation “Rio Quer Segurança e Paz (Rio wants Security and Peace).” Since the United Nations Conference on the Environment & Development, or Rio 92, the Armed Forces have undertaken overt police missions in Rio de Janeiro to ensure security at major events on at least six occasions (Rio + 20 in 2012, World Youth Day in 2013, the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the 2015 World Military Games, and the 2016 Olympic Games). At other times, the Armed Forces have been called in to pacify slum communities, such as Alemão complex in 2010, and Maré complex in 2014.

In these cases, the Armed Forces operate within the legal limits of Law and Order Assurance (GLO, per its Portuguese acronym) operations under presidential decrees, when the resources of traditional law enforcement agencies are stretched to the limit or in severe situations of public disorder. GLO provides military forces with temporary authorization to operate with police powers for a limited time. Although these operations are generally successful, the reality is that once the Armed Forces leave the area of operations, the initial problems quickly return. Accordingly, the federal government has promised that this time, the operations will be different. The Armed Forces will provide support to state and federal security forces in order to defeat criminal organizations…

Intelligence, integration, and surprise

For this purpose, the Armed Forces have formed a joint staff at the Eastern Military Command Headquarters, in Rio de Janeiro, to plan integrated operations to be undertaken by the three branches. An intelligence unit has been formed in the state, in which general officers from the Army, Navy, and Air Force work together with the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, the Federal Police, and other state and municipal law enforcement agencies. Under the current decree, the operation will last until December 31st, but the federal government has emphasized that this deadline was a bureaucratic requirement and that it will be extended until the end of 2018…

Key Information: Dom Phillips and Júlio Carvalho, “Brazil’s army returns to Rio favela amid clashes between gangs and police.” The Guardian. 22 September 2017,

After almost a week of intense gun battles between rival drug gangsters and the police, Brazil’s army has been deployed to encircle the sprawling Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro.

A spokesperson for military command said on Friday that airspace over the neighbourhood had been closed, and local media showed images of soldiers arriving in the community.

Fighting flared up on Friday morning and a widely circulated video showed gunmen in shorts firing machine guns, rifles and pistols in an alleyway.

Piles of garbage were set on fire on Rocinha streets, and schools, businesses and a major road tunnel closed. Residents told the Guardian they have been cowering indoors, exchanging information via social media and WhatsApp…

Key Information:  Philip Reeves, “Soldiers Descend On Rio ‘Favela’ As Shootouts Erupt.” the two-way, NPR. 22 September 2017,

…Brazil’s Defense Minister Raul Jungmann told reporters that the armed forces are deploying 950 troops to encircle the favela in response to a request from the state government of Rio de Janeiro. There have been at least four deaths because of the fighting within the favela in recent days.

Jungmann is proposing the creation of a federal task force to combat what he describes as “a parallel state that exists today in Rio,” according to Brazil's UOL News.

Rio’s police launched a “pacification” program as part of a drive to push out drug gangs from the favelas, and establish peace ahead of the 2014 soccer World Cup and last year's Olympic Games.

This has unraveled. Analysts say it's partly because the state government is bankrupt and has failed to pay police salaries on time, but also because of a political crisis in which a large number of Brazil’s political leaders have been exposed as corrupt.

Shootings—usually drug-related—have become a daily event in some of the city's favelas, and are a major reason that the murder rate in the state of Rio de Janeiro last year was over 6,200. Violence has also this year claimed the lives of 103 police officers…

Third Generation Gang Analysis

Brazil’s favelas are contested zones.  This is especially the case in Rio de Janeiro where residents are caught in the crossfire between the police and gangs.[1]  Rio’s murder rate is the highest in decades with over 5,000 murdered in 2006 alone.[2] Gun battles rage between heavily armed police, drug trafficking groups, gangsters, and militias as gains made by UPPs (Police Pacification Units or Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora) ebbed after the 2016 Rio Olympics.[3]  Police corruption and brutality—when combined with a lack of resources, endemic crime and gang violence linked to the drug trade—has led to a hyper-violent situation where gangs and the police compete for control of the streets.  The result is a deadly, high intensity turf war or criminal insurgency.

Photo: Gun battle involving drug gang in Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro

Source: Social Media (Twitter), 22 September 2017   

Over 100 police have been killed in 2017.[4]  The police—Rio’s Polícia Militar, a state paramilitary force serving as uniformed preventive police—are severely challenged and state authorities requested federal military support to help restore order.   Federal troops were deployed to support the police with patrols, assistance at special operations, and by developing intelligence capabilities.   This infusion of federal capacity is designed not only to stabilize the endemic crime and resurgent state of gang warfare and insecurity but also is intended to help restore confidence in the police.[5]  Rio’s police, after a brief adoption of community policing tactics and UPP pacification/stabalization efforts, lost control of the situation as warring gangs returned to the once-pacified favelas, rival gangs resumed skirmishing and turf battles, and police returned to repressive tactics.[6]

The infusion of military forces into civil policing raises several concerns.  First it signals a weakness and lack of capacity among civil police that could led to the erosion of normal policing that can, in turn, challenge state legitimacy in contested areas.  This lack of capacity/legitimacy among civil police could strengthen the perceived legitimacy and actual freedom of action among gangs (specifically, third generation gangs) performing proto-state functions such as local security, conflict resolution and street taxation.[7]  The use of militarized public security options has been criticized as being repressive and for exacerbating the exploitation of the poor in favelas (slums) in a manner that encourages armed confrontation and stimulates violence.[8]

While the deployment of military forces to support police in the restoration of order (essentially SASOs) is often a necessary measure to limit insecurity and enable the reform of civil police capability, it can also raise several challenges.  First military forces often lack in-depth training for conducting prolonged community policing operations, especially in urban areas.  They are also prone to criticism for human rights violations that can arise due to the complexities (especially the lack of distinction) when operating in areas where armed groups are closely situated with civilians and can be corrupted by gangsters seeking to avoid justice.[9]  A recent case in point is the live Facebook streaming of the engagement of a carload of suspected drug gang members in Rio by semi-automatic fires from a police helicopter killing three of them.[10]

Concerns about the corroding effect of corruption are a significant concern in Brazil’s urban conflict.  In Rio, the Polícia Militar (PM) have been linked to indiscriminate violence and endemic corruption.  Most recently they have been accused by Brazil’s federal justice minister of colluding with organized crime, including performing a recent gang style execution of a PM battalion commander.  Accordingly, a recent opinion piece by Michael Royster in The Rio Times stated that  “declaration astonished all local Rio politicians, from the Governor right on down through state and municipal legislators. Why? Because the PM are entirely civilian—NOT military—organizations, and PM commanders are (theoretically) controlled by the state governor and his Secretary of Public Safety.”[11]  

This corruption, insecurity, and policing crisis contribute to Rio’s insecurity.  It has also fueled to the rise of vigilante militias that are closely linked to former PM, military, and prison guards.  That same op-ed on Rio’s situation observes, “Everybody in Rio has long known that, although originally thought to be a form of combating the drug lords, the militias are now identical to the gangs—offering “protection” while demanding rake-offs from local businesses, not to mention making deals with organized crime, dividing up the favelas among themselves rather than fighting over territories.”[12]  Such vigilante militias form during vacuums in effective policing of communities when impunity levels rise—historically, they emerged in both Colombia during the 1980s and much more recently in Mexico when the state has lost control over its monopoly on internal coercive violence vis-à-vis emergent criminal insurgents.     

The endemic insecurity and corruption enabling the violence and stressing civil policing and governance is a threat to democratic processes and the rule of law.  Brazilians are increasingly skeptical about the ability of the judiciary to rout out corruption and the police to secure the streets.  When combined with criminal enclaves (gang dominated areas), economic inequality, and a stagnant economy, authoritarian and populist tendencies start to become attractive.[13]

Finally, the militarization of policing also begins to become attractive when gang and organized crime (criminal cartel) activity and violence spirals out of control and gangsters actively confront the state and attack police.  This has led to the introduction of the military into policing in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.  As previously mentioned, this is often because the police are outgunned and the military is the only viable tool for stabilizing the situation.   In Rio, the situation has been described as one where police acted like occupying armies and “Often clashes between Rio’s gangs and the police resemble an open war, like Syria, rather than a policing action. In response to the militarisation of Brazil’s police, Rio’s infamous drug gangs increased their firepower, arming themselves with machine guns and rocket launchers—even shooting down police helicopters.”[14]  Some analysts would now agree that such high intensity gun battles as are taking place in Rio should be considered ‘armed conflict’ even though the causalities are listed as homicides rather than wartime military deaths.[15] 

Yet, military approaches—even in circumstances approaching de facto low intensity Non-International Armed Conflict (NIACs)[16]—are unable to solve endemic social problems.  They can establish the stability needed to enable the institution of community policing and civil governance but they can’t do so on their own.  This challenge is not unique to Brazil (nor Mexico and Latin America); extreme gangsterism in Cape Town, South Africa has led to calls for introducing SANDF (the South African National Defence Force) as a stabilization force.[17]  Addressing the security concerns of crime wars, criminal insurgency is a salient and global issue.


Associated Press, “Thousands of Brazilian troops sent to quell violence in Rio de Janeiro slums.” Los Angeles Times. 5 August 2017,

Manoela Miklos and Tomaz Paoliello, “Militarization of public security in Rio, and around the world.” democraciaAbierta (openDemocracy). 4 October 2017,

Manoela Miklos and Tomaz Paoliello, “Militarização da segurança pública no Rio e em todo o mundo.” democraciaAbierta (openDemocracy). 4 October 2017,

Nelza Oliveira, “The Armed Forces Return to Operations in Rio de Janeiro,” Diálogo. 1 September 2017,

Dom Phillips and Júlio Carvalho, “Brazil’s army returns to Rio favela amid clashes between gangs and police.” The Guardian. 22 September 2017,

Philip Reeves, “Soldiers Descend On Rio 'Favela' As Shootouts Erupt.” the two-way, NPR. 22 September 2017,

End Notes

[1] Intentional homicides (homicídios dolsos) in Rio de Janeiro reached 5,033 in 2016, a 20% increase from the year before. “RJ registra mais de 5 mil homicídios em 2016, pior índice em 6 anos, aponta ISP.” G1 (O Globo). 1 February 2017,

[2] Robert Muggah, “Caught between police and gangs, Rio de Janeiro residents are dying in the line of fire.” The Conversation. 4 September 2017,

[3] Ibid.

[4] The police death toll rose to 100 in August 2017 when a police sergeant was attacked by armed gangsters in Baixada Fluminese, a violent favela; “Brazil buries 100th police officer killed in Rio de Janeiro in 2017.” ITV Report. 28 August 2017,  As of 28 October 2017, 112 police were killed in Rio according to the Policia Miltar (the state preventive police); “Brazilian army and police conduct joint operation to seize weapons and drugs in Rio favelas.” Xinhua, 28 October 2017,

[5] Still, local citizens have little choice in the matter; see Mike LaSusa and Tristan Clavel, “Citizens Lack Trust in Rio Military Police but See Few Alternatives.” InsightCrime. 3 November 2017,

[6] Ricardo Moraes, “Death toll mounts in Rio de Janeiro as police lose control of the city—and of themselves.” The Conversation. 17 July 2017,

[7] See, for example, John P. Sullivan, “From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency: Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America. Implications for Global Security.” MSH-WP-2012-09.  Paris: Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme,

[8] Manoela Miklos and Tomaz Paoliello, “Militarization of public security in Rio, and around the world.” democraciaAbierta (openDemocracy). 4 October 2017,

[9] For a discussion of these issues in a similar case: Mexico, see John P. Sullivan, “Police-Military Interaction in Mexico’s Drug War.” Air & Space Power Journal-Spanish Edition, Third Trimester 2009,

[10] “VIDEO: La Policía de Brasil tirotea a cuatro jóvenes mientras transmitían en vivo por Facebook.” El Salvador Times. 06 de Noviembre de 2017,

[11] Michael Royster, “Opinion: Rio’s Beleaguered Military Police.” The Rio Times, 3 November 2017,

[12] Ibid.

[13] See Chayenne Polimedio, “Brazilians are losing faith in democracy and considering a return to military rule.” Vox. 19 September 2017, for a discussion of discontent and the attractiveness of military rule.

[14] Bejamin Fogel, “From Cape to Rio, we need political solutions, not military ones.” news24. 12 October 2017,

[15] Robert Muggah, “Rio de Janeiro:  A War by Any Other Name.”  Small Wars Journal. 25 April 2017,

[16] The existence of a state of Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) as opposed to situations of internal disturbances and isolated sporadic acts is ambiguous and contentious.  The determination is derived from an assessment of Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions based upon the intensity of the violence, the character, and degree of territorial control exercised by the armed groups involved, civilians feeing conflict zones, etc.   The inability of the police to manage the situation and the introduction of military forces could be an indicator of the existence of a NIAC.  For a pertinent discussion, see Carrie A. Comer and Daniel M. Mburu, “Humanitarian Law at Wits’ End: Does the Violence Arising from the ‘War on Drugs’” in “Mexico Meet the International Criminal Court’s Non-International Armed Conflict Threshold?” In: Terry D. Gill (ed.) Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, Volume 18, 2015. The Hague: T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague, 2016.

[17] Jason Felix, “SANDF ready to take on Cape’s gangs,” Independent (IOL). 12 October 2017,; Nic Anderson, “Will bringing in the SANDF really help stop Cape Town’s gangs?” The South African. 12 October 2017,; Tom Head, “SANDF General says his men are ‘ready to donner’ SA’s gangsters.” The South African. 2 November 2017, [n.b. ‘donner’ means to forcefully hit someone].

For Additional Reading

Becky Kohler da Cruz and José de Arimatéia da Cruz, “Brazil’s Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) and its National Security Implications.” Small Wars Journal. 26 November 2013.

Robert Muggah, “Rio de Janeiro:  A War by Any Other Name.” Small Wars Journal. 25 April 2017.

Carlos Frederico de Oliveira Pereira, Gangues Territorias e Direito International dos Conflitos Armadas. Curitiba: Juruá Editora, 2016.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is Director of Research and Analysis, C/O Futures, LLC, and an Instructor at the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico. Dr. Bunker has well over 500 publications—including about 40 books as co-author, editor, and co-editor—and can be reached at   

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at


Statements like the one below concern me, because more often than not they're reflexive statements void of context.

"and raises concerns about the militarization of policing in Brazil"

While civil countries certainly don't want their military to replace their police as a matter of course. The main concern should be re-establishing security and control where criminal organizations and gangs have overwhelmed the ability of the police to effectively enforce the law. Bringing the military in to impose law and order is a rationale decision in these cases, unlike the irrational decision of employing heavily armed SWAT teams in the U.S. to take down relatively small fry criminals.

It is also true, that in situations where the criminals outgun the local police and outspend the local government, that local law enforcement frequently becomes corrupted. Again bringing in the military or federal police is a rational decision. Simply hiring more police is not the answer, because most developing nations do not have the resources to maintain adequate defense and police forces. Furthermore, more arrests simply overwhelm an already overburdened justice system, and one must question what percentage of these thugs are actually prosecuted successfully?

The last sentence in this article is the key take away in my view, "Addressing the security concerns of crime wars, criminal insurgency is a salient and global issue." Having worked in a lot of countries where the criminal and terrorist threat far exceeds the capacity of law enforcement, it is frustrating to see the U.S. Department of State blindly attempt to impose a law enforcement solution as though they are advising the governments of Utah or Nebraska, instead of the governments in the Philippines, Nigeria, or Mexico as examples. New thinking is required to address this threat, not simply imposing failed legalistic paradigms based on our ideological bias of what we think right looks like.