Brazil’s Military Police: Calls for demilitarization

As we have noted in a series of posts on Just the Facts, there is a trend throughout Latin America of increasingly using militaries to carry out law enforcement duties.

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In the case of Brazil, the government is using established Military Police to carry out these duties instead of directly sending in the Army. And politicians, citizens and analysts have begun calling for demilitarization of the country’s law enforcement.

Each state in Brazil has two distinct police units – the Civil Police and the Miltiary Police (PM). The PM is responsible for maintaining public order and immediately responding to crimes, while the Civil Police carry out investigations, detective work and forensics. Although the PMs are military-trained and also army reserve troops, they report to their state governments, not the Ministry of Defense. There are about 400,000 active PM members and 123,400 active members of the Civil Police.

As Global Voices explains,

The debate on the demilitarization of the military police in the country is not new. Part of the legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, the military police emerged as a solution through the extinction of the Public Force and Civil Guard. After the 1964 coup, the new government abandoned the idea of creating a single, civilian police and implemented a military model.

Today, almost all urban policing in Brazil is done by military police attached to the governments of each state, and the country remains the only one in the world to have a police force that operates out of the military barracks.

The issue of demilitarizing the police has reentered the debate in Brazil after several recent episodes of PM violence against demonstrators and journalists during the massive protests that swept the country in June.

A recent article in BBC Brasil, Como desmiliarizar a polícia no Brasil?, examined this issue. Here are some key points and quotes in the article (translated):

Logistical problems:


  • Analysts polled by BBC Brasil claim that one of the main problems of having two separate police forces is that neither carries out all responsibilities in any criminal occurrence – The PM holds a suspect who has just committed a crime and turns them over to the Civil Police, which starts investigating and reports the crime to the justice sector. However, this division of responsibility and sometimes overlap of tasks inhibits coordination and cooperation.
  • In addition, both police forces have units with similar responsibilities – investigation and patrol. In most states, the division of responsibility is blurred, creating competition and lack of cooperation between the two bodies, according to the researchers.


Ideological problems:


  • For Coronel Ibis Pereira, head of the sub-directorate of teaching for Rio de Janeiro’s military police, “militarization” is defined more by how a force views its target and less by a military structure: “It’s to see a favela and identify it as a territory that has to be conquered. To see the criminal faction as an enemy that needs to be confronted with bullets,” he says. “But we are facing criminals that have rights and guarantees.”
  • “The military is prepared to defend the country. It is a different methodology than is necessary to deal with the Brazilian people,” according to lawmaker Chico Lopes. “Some military police treat people as if they were enemies. The police have to have a social role, more humane and civilian.”
  • A survey by BBC Brasil on police killings in 2011 indicated that São Paulo’s PM killed six times more people than the Civil Police.




  • Any change to this structure would need a constitutional amendment. At least three Constitutional Amendment Proposals (PEC) related to demilitarization are being considered in the Brazilian Congress. The majority of them propose unifying the civil and military police.
  • According to legal experts, a constitutional amendment would have to be approved in two rounds by three-fifths of both the House and the Senate before moving on to be signed by the president.
  • Wilson Moraes, president of the Association of Chiefs and Soldiers PM from São Paulo, Brazil told the BBC that associations of PMs are favorable to the unification of the police – among other things because it would allow for the political participation of the military in society and make it possible for them to receive overtime.


In 2012, the UN Council on Human Rights asked the Brazilian government to work towards abolishing the PM, as they have been accused of numerous extrajudicial killings and abuses. Other global organizations have also spoken out about the PM for their involvement in death squads. Last year Amnesty International reported PM and Civil Police had been, “engaged in social cleansing, extortion, as well as in trafficking in arms and drugs,” as well as in enforced disappearance. The U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights have also recognized these abuses.

Militarization of law enforcement in Venezuela

As is the case with the military in Honduras and Guatemala, both profiled in previous Just the Facts posts, it looks like troops will be on the streets in Venezuela for the next few months, if not longer. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been under pressure to reduce the high levels of crime and violence that continue to plague the country, which has the highest homicide rate in South America. In May, President Maduro deployed troops throughout the country following reports in April of a record high of 58 homicides a day. The soaring crime rate is caused by several compounded factors: a weak judicial system, a dysfunctional penal system, and rampant corruption among government officials,

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the police and the military, the latter of which has been accused of having entire branches that function like drug trafficking organizations.

Critics of Plan Patria Segura, or the “Safe Homeland Plan,” say the only thing it has done is militarize the country, pointing to some data that indicate June was one of the most violent monthsin 2013. For its part, the Venezuelan government says it is making progress and that the opposition and media are attempting to delegitimize the government by magnifying the crime rate.

However, it is difficult to obtain specific data on crime, as the Venezuelan government has admittedto keeping figures secret from the public. In an interview with InSight Crime, WOLA’s Venezuela analyst David Smilde noted that the country has a military tradition that does not promote transparency. “There is very little tradition of transparency or the people’s right to know,” said Smilde. “The military assumes it is the moral backbone of the country, and [Interior Minister] Rodriguez is a military person. From their perspective, the only reason you would release information is if it supports what you’re doing.”

The “Safe Homeland Plan,” or “Plan Patria Segura,” is part of Venezuela’s “Full Life Mission,” an anti-crime initiative launched under President Chávez in June of last year that had a budget of over five billion bolivars (US$ 1.16 billion) for its first year, according to the Venezuelanalysis blog. Marino Alvarado, director of human rights organization PROVEA (Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos), has noted that Plan Patria Segura goes against the philosophy of the mission, which promoted the armed forces “should only act under exceptional circumstances and not be used to for public order.” According to the BBC, it is the 21st citizen security plan since 1999, when Hugo Chávez first took office.

Plan “Patria Segura”

On May 13, the Venezuelan government sent 3,000 members of the Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) to the streets of Caracas, marking the start of Plan Patria Segura. The country’s minister for justice and internal affairs, Miguel Rodriguez, said the first phase of the plan was “designed to last “around six months,” at which point the soldiers would be replaced with police and members of the National Bolivarian Police.


  • So far, according to some government numbers, about 40,000 soldiers have been deployed. In total, 80,000 troops will be deployed and the military will have a presence in every state in the country.
  • In early July, 1,541 troops were sent to the Guárico state in northern Venezuela and on July 1, President Maduro announced on his Twitter account that there would be a “new stage” of the plan, which included increasing the amount of troops and implementing “intelligent patrol,” which means units now assigned to territories of about a square kilometer will use GPS technology.He also ordered more troops be sent to the Miranda state, which he claimed has double the rate of crime compared to the rest of the county.
  • Most recently 30,000 troops were deployed to the Amazonas, Apure, Portuguesa, and Nueva Esparta states on July 15.
  • WOLA’s Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog noted the government is using the plan to “to round up undocumented immigrants in poor barrios of Caracas and eventually deport them.”


The government claims there have been significant reductions in crime, such as a 200 percentdecrease in kidnappings, a 53 percent drop in homicides in Caracas, and a 30-35 percent decline in crime in areas where the plan was focused. In an interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez claimed there had been a 53 percent drop in crime in the first month of the initiative and a five percent decline in murders overall. However, last month Rodriguez claimed there had been dramatic drop in murders of just over 60 percent. As WOLA’s Adam Isacson pointed out in a previous Just the Facts podcast, the government has only presented percentages and no absolute counts, giving little credence to its claims. Smilde highlighted this tendency in the InSight Crime interview, noting, “Any given year if you add up the percent reduction in crime that the government claims, you would end up with zero crime at the end of the year.”

While human rights activists have opposed the measure, saying it marks a return to the country’s tradition of militarized policing, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez has said, “There is no militarization here.” “The National Armed Boliviarian Force is meeting with community councils. You tell people in El Valle (…) you’re going to take the Army away and they will revolt, because they love their Armed Forces.”

Other critiques

In May, when the plan was first announced, Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog highlighted several reasons to question the initiative. Among them were:


  • Impunity: Deploying military to the streets does nothing to address the issue of high rates of impunity for criminals. The Economist reported in January of this year that there was 96% impunity for homicides.
  • Human rights training: In 2008, as an attempt to move away from a militarized police force, former President Hugo Chávez created the National Bolivarian Police (PNB) to create a “preventative, professional, and non-militarized citizen security force.” Before the reform, the National Guard was responsible for training the police. The PNB officers now receive training with an emphasis on human rights and deferential force from a civilian-run policing university. As the crime rate continues to climb, citizens and other police officers have accused the PNB of being “soft” for their less aggressive tactics.Deploying the military, which receives no such training, to high-crime areas gives weight to the notion that repression is more effective. Human rights organizations worry the military is not ready to handle law enforcement in a humane way. Such criticism arose recently after three people were killed in two states by the National Guard.
  • Lack of oversight: There are no mechanisms through which citizens can regulate military corruption or abuses against themselves or other citizens. The military and National Guard are not subject to the oversight bodies created by the policing university, the General Police Council and new policing laws. In some states there are citizen-run police oversight committees — some police officers have even expressed concern that the military may commit abuses against detainees and are worried that in the event abuses occur that the police would be blamed, once the detainee is transferred.


However, this is not to say that the reform has been a success. Although there has been an ongoing police reform since 2006, the notoriously corrupt force has been consistently accused of extrajudicial executions, torture, involvement with organized crime and kidnapping. Earlier this month, Transparency International published a report on worldwide corruption, which found the police to be considered the most corrupt entity in Venezuela.

Since President Nicolas Maduro took office in April, he has criticized police forces throughout the country, calling the police in Caracas “mafiosos,” alleging they were responsible for 90 percent of the kidnapping in the capital. He also has demanded several forces be investigated for corruption, and has called the force in Amazonas “a disaster,” after announcing it would be investigated for criminal activity.

Taking all this into consideration, Isacson cited several “longer-term solutions” to Venezuela’s security problems, including:


  • Improving the capabilities of the new national police force, the PNB
  • Ensuring that the PNB patrol more often and in crime-ridden areas where they often have no presence
  • Reforming the justice system and the notoriously violent prison system.


Some aspects of the above recommendations were included in recent public security reforms, however they have yet to be implemented. It will be interesting to see if any non-governmental statistics mark improvement in the midst of Plan Patria Segura and if there will be any indication that some of the foundational flaws with security see some improvement. As Isacson noted, it is “unclear at best” if the Plan Patria Segura’s goals include targeting central problems with law enforcement in the country, such as shortening response times, giving patrols real-time crime-mapping data, improving relations with communities or improving crime investigations.

Podcast: Militaries as Police

Militaries are getting involved in policing throughout Latin America. Adam talks to Sarah Kinosian of the Center for International Policy, who wrote a series of posts to the Just the Facts blog documenting this trend in GuatemalaHonduras, and Venezuela.

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Colombia: Secretary of State Kerry’s visit, and Senator Kerry’s record

Secretary of State Kerry and Colombian Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín.

John Kerry is about to make his second trip to Latin America as secretary of state. The first was in June, when he attended the OAS General Assembly meeting in Guatemala. This time, he is to go to Colombia on Sunday and Monday, and then to Brazil.

In Colombia, Secretary of State Kerry is expected to discuss with President Juan Manuel Santos the ongoing peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, for which the Obama administration has expressed support; the issue of security and Colombia’s provision of security assistance to third countries; and the state of bilateral trade two years after approval of a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement.

In his 28 years as a U.S. senator with a strong interest in foreign affairs, John Kerry has a long record of positions on U.S. policy toward Latin America. He opposed the Reagan administration’s massive aid to abusive regimes in Central America, especially aid to the Nicaraguan contras, during the civil wars of the 1980s. He has criticized the U.S. approach to Cuba as “frozen, stalemated.”

During the past 15 years, though, Senator Kerry consistently supported the aid packages that made Colombia by far the number-one recipient of U.S. military assistance in Latin America.

His support for “Plan Colombia,” however, was neither full-throated nor wholehearted. While Senator Kerry supported assistance to curtail drug trafficking, he criticized insufficient emphasis on drug treatment to reduce demand at home. He expressed concerns about the possibility that counter-drug aid could evolve into a larger counter-insurgency mission (as it did during the 2000s). He criticized the Colombian government’s human rights record, and endorsed human rights conditions that his Senate colleagues applied to U.S. military assistance. He has even at times urged the State Department not to certify improvements in the Colombian military’s human rights record, as required by foreign aid law.

Here are excerpts from Senator John Kerry’s record on Colombia, the country that Secretary of State John Kerry will be visiting in a few days.

From his 1998 book The New War, where he characterized drug cartels as a principal threat.

Drugs have made Colombia rich; the nation is awash in profits earned by the export of cocaine to the US and the rest of the world.

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But the country has been all but stolen from its people, virtually taken over by the drug cartels. … A willing army of young Colombians enlist with the cartels, dreaming of easy money, while some young Colombians join the police, army, and customs department just to make money by cooperating with drug criminals.

From the June 22, 2000 Senate debate on the “Plan Colombia” aid appropriation, where he supported the aid package as a flawed but necessary option. Here, he raised concerns about counterinsurgency entanglements, displacement, human rights, and insufficient attention to domestic drug demand. He said he expected Europe to counter-balance the U.S. aid package’s lopsided emphasis on military aid. This did not happen.

Colombia’s situation is bleak, and this may be its last chance to begin to dig its way out. If we fail to support aid to Colombia, we can only sit back and watch it deteriorate even further.
… My first concern is the fine line that exists between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations, particularly since they are so intertwined in Colombia. It is impossible to attack drug trafficking in Colombia without seriously undercutting the insurgents’ operations. We must acknowledge that the more involved in Colombia’s counternarcotics efforts we become the more we will become involved in its counterinsurgency, regardless of our intentions to steer clear of it. But, because the drug trade is the most destabilizing factor in Colombia, our cooperation with the government will over the long run, advance the development and expansion of democracy, and will limit the insurgents’ ability to terrorize the civilian population. But our military involvement in Colombia should go no further than this. Efforts to limit number of personnel are designed to address this.
I appreciate the concerns expressed by my colleagues that the United States contribution to Plan Colombia is skewed in favor of the military, but we must keep in mind that our contribution is only a percentage of the total Plan. … As part of our contribution, and to balance military aid, the United States must continue to support Colombian requests for additional funding from international financial institutions and other EU donors. We must also continue to implement stringent human rights vetting and end-use monitoring agreements, and make sure that our Colombia policy does not end with the extension of aid.
Second, I am concerned that even if the Plan is successful at destroying coca production and reducing the northward flow of drugs, large numbers of coca farmers will be displaced, worsening the current crisis of internally displaced people in Colombia.
My third major concern with respect to this aid package is that it does not adequately address Colombia’s human rights problem. … I would like to commend my colleagues on the Foreign Operations Subcommittee for bolstering the human rights component of this legislation.
Despite my reservations, the potential benefits of this plan are too large to ignore. In light of the changes made by the committee, I believe the plan can help advance United States interests by reducing drug trafficking and thereby promoting stability and democracy in Colombia. We must now work to ensure that our concerns do not become realities.
… Increasing funding and expanding drug treatment and prevention programs are absolutely imperative if we are to coordinate an effective counterdrug campaign, particularly if we are to expect any real improvement in the situation in Colombia.
… As we support Colombia’s efforts to attack the sources of illegal drugs, we need to make sure we are addressing our own problems. … It is clear that drug treatment works, and there is no excuse for the high numbers of addicts who have been unable to receive treatment. As we increase funding for supply reduction programs in Colombia, we must increase funding for treatment to balance and complement it.

A July 26, 2004 letter to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe from 23 U.S. senators, including Senator Kerry, expressing human rights concerns and supporting the work of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

We remain deeply concerned about the continued levels of violence directed at the civilian population. There are reports of increased violations, such as extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, attributed directly to Colombian security forces. In addition, guerrillas continued their indiscriminate use of explosive devices against civilians while paramilitary forces carried out assassinations and massacres despite the existence of a cease fire. We believe that an adherence to UNHCHR’s recommendations will help to establish the “democratic security” for all Colombians to which you are personally committed.

The most urgent of UNHCHR’s recommendations is to cut ties between the army and paramilitary forces engaged in abuses, by suspending, investigating and vigorously prosecuting officials engaged in such collaboration.

… We remain concerned about the commitment of the Attorney General’s office to investigate high-level officials implicated in human rights violations and links to paramilitary groups.

The United Nations also raises important points regarding the vulnerability of human rights defenders, journalists and union leaders. Your government’s protection program for human rights and union leaders is important. However, progress investigating and prosecuting threats and attacks against such leaders is essential.

An October 15, 2004 statement from the Kerry for President campaign

President Uribe has achieved deserved popular support for his efforts to make Colombia more secure. I have been encouraged by declining levels of murders, massacres and kidnappings and progress in addressing the challenges of drug trafficking, guerrillas and paramilitaries. I am further encouraged that the Colombian government has agreed to use the recommendations of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a framework for achieving the just peace that all Colombians deserve.
A persistent cycle of violence, such as that occurring in Colombia, can ultimately be broken only by combining greater security efforts with ending impunity, strengthening the rule of law and the defense of human and labor rights. For Colombians, that means condemning and putting a stop to the kidnappings, killings, and extortion practiced by outlawed guerrilla groups and by paramilitary groups who continually violate international humanitarian law. It also requires severing all links between the security forces and the paramilitaries; punishing those in uniform who have perpetrated these links and engage in extrajudicial killings and abuses; and better protecting judges, prosecutors, journalists, human rights activists and unionists from intimidation, violence and murder.
In Colombia, we must focus on the fight against narco-trafficking and counterinsurgency at the same time as we support the rule of law, alternative development, and the expansion of legitimate state authority to achieve a durable peace. As a Senator I have consistently supported Plan Colombia; and, as President, I will work with President Uribe to keep the bipartisan spirit in Washington alive in support of Plan Colombia, while insisting on progress on ending the violence against civilians.

A July 1, 2005 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 22 U.S. senators, including Senator Kerry. The letter urges the secretary of state not to “certify” that the Colombian military’s human rights record is improving, thus freeing up a portion of military assistance. This letter includes an early mention of a practice that, three years later, would erupt in Colombia as the “false positives” scandal of extrajudicial executions.

We believe there has been insufficient progress in suspending from the armed forces, investigating and vigorously prosecuting security force members who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights, or who have aided or abetted paramilitary organizations. Even some of the highest-profile cases have not advance.
… Greater progress in breaking links between the army and paramilitary forces is
imperative. The United Nations notes “continued reports… of cases in which
coordinated operations have been carried out by members of the security forces and
paramilitary groups, and cases in which the victims had been detained by members of the paramilitary forces and subsequently reported by the army as having been killed in combat.”
… We believe that it is time for the State Department to make clear to the Colombian government that further progress regarding its own security forces is necessary prior to certification. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Statement on World Refugee Day, June 20, 2012

In Colombia, where conflict has displaced an estimated 4 million people, our partners are helping the government to provide reparations and land restitution to affected individuals and families.

September 4, 2012 statement upon the announcement of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC

Colombians have suffered for far too long from the violence and insecurity associated with its decades-long internal armed conflict. President Santos has taken the difficult steps toward negotiating a political solution and has indicated that lessons learned from prior peace talks will be taken into consideration. This is an important and welcome sign. Any negotiation that helps strengthen Colombia’s democracy, promote the respect for the rule of law and human rights, and bring peace to the country is a good thing and deserves support.

Senator Kerry at his January 24, 2013 confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

One of the great stories of Latin America is Colombia … President Uribe stepped up in a critical moment and began the process of rescuing that nation, President Santos is now doing an amazing job, we strengthened the relationship by passing the economic trade agreement. We have to build on that. And that is an example for the rest of Latin America of what awaits them… [Also] hope to bridge the gap with some of the other countries.

Murders of human rights defenders jump sharply in Colombia

study by Somos Defensores, a non-governmental protection program for human rights defenders, reveals shocking growth in murders of Colombian human rights defenders.

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The chart below illustrates that in 2012, the number of murders was nearly 14 times what it was in 2006. And 2013 is on a pace to be even worse.

The number of murders, although still high, remained relatively consistent around 30 per year between 2008 and 2011. But in 2012, the year after Colombia’s government passed a land restitution law encouraging displaced victims to come forward and claim stolen property, the number more than doubled to 69. The chart posted here, compiled by the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, puts the horrifying jump in context.

The first half of this year exhibited a 27% increase over the same time period in 2012. Thirty-seven human rights defenders were killed between January and June, a rate of one every five days. Of these 37, 12 reported receiving threats prior to their murder, suggesting the “evident institutional weakness for the security and control of the implementation of public policy in human rights,” reports Somos Defensores.

Podcast: The Week Ahead, August 2, 2013

Adam looks at the foreign aid bill that’s moving through Congress, the state of the gang truce in El Salvador, and Venezuela’s latest effort to fight crime by sending soldiers into the streets.

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