Blurring the Lines Between Military and Police Missions in Brazil and Mexico


Anaís Medeiros Passos is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology and Political Science, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil. Her research focuses mainly on the blurring of lines between police and military missions on national territories. Anais is currently a visiting scholar at the CERI. We are interested in knowing more about her research, past and present. Interview.

You defended your PhD entitled “The Military Mystique: Democracies and the War on Crime in Brazil and Mexico” in 2018 here at Sciences Po. Could you present us the main thesis of your work, and what methodology you chose to follow during your field work?

My thesis analyzed the causes and consequences of deploying the military as police forces in Brazil and Mexico. I selected military operations that transpired in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Tijuana to provide an in-depth account of military intervention in anti-crime activities. These operations aimed to dismantle drug trafficking networks in violent regions located at the cities’ outskirts. To give you a little bit of context, in spite of their limited efficacity for countering violence in the medium and long terms, the armed forces have expanded their scope of action in public security in Latin America in the last years. Globalization has accentuated the issue of transnational criminal actors operating within national borders. State and local police forces have proved to be insufficient in different places to respond to contemporary security challenges. As a result, armies are filling the gap left by civilian agencies. My PhD thesis explored the popular and elite support to such operations, as well as the political motivations behind deploying the military on the national territory.

My research demonstrated that military intervention might stabilize violence in the short-term by means of dissuasion; however, crime levels are likely to return to prior states once the operation ends if broad police reforms are not introduced. In Tijuana, a consequence of the arrest of high-level members during a military operation, other drug trafficking organizations expanded their activities in the city. The same happened in some favelas in Rio de Janeiro, as rival gangs attempted to seize control over the territory following the retreat of military forces in Alemão and Penha slum complexes. Furthermore, deploying the armed forces amidst citizens entails negative consequences for the quality of democratic regimes at the local level, including extending the reach of military justice and undermining civil liberties. These are among the reasons why politicians should not overuse the military to respond to domestic public security issues.

During my fieldwork, I chose to interview actors who were close to military operations in Rio de Janeiro and Tijuana in one way or another. As my thesis asked big questions concerning the “why” and the “how” of military participation in security, interviewees ranged from actors involved at the higher-level of negotiation to street-level agents as well as citizens particularly impacted by these decisions (in favelas for example). I interviewed high-ranking military officers (active-duty and retired); politicians from the federal, state, and local levels; middle-ranking military officers; members of the Judiciary; police officers who cooperated in these operations; NGO activists, civil society leaders, and residents from areas where a military operation had occurred.

Furthermore, I checked the consistency of data sources by comparing information I was given in interviews with other documents. Because the data I collected came from various social groups, I was able to provide a detailed account of the operations once they started, which instead of providing a single narrative, highlighted the differences between the armed forces’ and citizens’ perspectives.

Tijuana Mexico Copyright: Shutterstock

The city of Tijuana in Mexico. Photo by Fernando Cebreros, Shutterstock

Academic freedom is an issue that we have been increasingly made aware of and that needs to be defended and encouraged. Were you faced with any particular difficulties during your fieldwork, in relation to the issues you focused on (drug trafficking and organized crime for instance)?

I encountered multiple challenges during my research, but academic freedom was, fortunately, not in question. Researching the armed forces anywhere is acknowledged by experts as particularly problematic since this is an institution that shares a culture of secrecy, and distrust of outsiders.

My experience in interviewing military officers in Brazil was different from what I had been led to expect. As a Brazilian researcher, I only had to pass through formal channels for making an appointment with them in rare cases. Many active-duty officers were helpful and cooperated with my research whether it was responding to my questions, providing insights about useful documents or putting me in contact with officers directly involved with the operations I was researching.

Mexico was a harder case, as I had no prior contact in the country. Military respondents only accepted to respond to my questions outside military institutions and did not refer me to other military officers, which limited the number of interviews I was able to conduct within military circles. In both countries, respondents were interested to know about my research findings and how I would use them. To preserve a relationship of trust with my sources (particularly, military officers), I paid special attention to quotes and reference to sources in publications. Finally, instability in areas where military operations occurred was a challenge, I had to cope with to interview citizens affected by those interventions. As residents from Rio’s favelas experience daily, my freedom for circulating in those areas was limited by violence. I had to be particularly aware of the time and place my interviews would occur, as gunshots between the police and traffickers, or strife between rival drug gangs, are frequent.

Rio de Janeiro Favela and Army. Copyright: Shutterstock

Brazilian Army patrolling in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, 2018. Photo by Antonio Scorza, Shutterstock

In a recent article co-authored with Igor Acacio, entitled “The militarization of responses to COVID-19 in Democratic Latin America,” you have investigated how political leaders use the military in the management of the global pandemic in Latin American countries, and what discourses they use to justify indeed this mobilisation of armed forces—rather than the police. What risks does this present, and has this mobilisation of the army been effective indeed in terms of public health?

We are part of a larger project1, still unpublished, with the University of California about the deployment of the military forces in Latin America during the pandemic, as well as the consequences of such intervention on a human rights level. As it has happened in other situations, the armed forces filled the void left by civilian agencies during the pandemic in a range of tasks. When armed forces are prepared to certain missions, they are most likely to implement them without putting at risk democratic institutions. Tasks such as distributing medical supplies and food, repatriating citizens abroad and building field hospitals lean on the military’s prior capabilities and know-how. Therefore, they should not entail further complications.

In contrast, countries as Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru have deployed their military in policing tasks to ensure that citizens respect the lockdown, including being in charge of multiple checkpoints within national territories, patrolling streets and controlling detention centres for those who violate sanitary recommendations. Getting the military in policing missions that require a close contact with citizens is risky, since those tasks require a higher level of individual autonomy for making decisions. Additionally, states of emergencies have been enacted in the region allowing the suspensions of civil liberties and the repression of political opposition. Besides endangering the protection of human rights, the pandemic can affect the civil-military balance, since military officers have been assigned to crisis-management positions— Brazil is an extreme example of such drift.

Has the Brazilian democracy become illiberal?

Democratic institutions are being undermined at a fast pace. The Brazilian state lacks a leader that is committed to democratic values: the president has publicly praised the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985, as well as the use of torture to fight so-called communists. During his government, there were multiple attempts of curtailing civil liberties, including the use of the National Intelligence Agency (ABIN, Agência Brasileira de Inteligência) to monitor intellectuals who have criticized the government. The president has appointed an unprecedented number of military officers as ministers as a means of legitimizing his own power, which puts at risk the civil-military balance, the stability of which is crucial for any democratic regime to last. Academic circles are now back to a 1960s discussion about the feasibility of a military coup in Brazil, as extreme pro-military intervention groups have gained space in the public arena supported by the government. Although the possibility of a military coup is low, there is a risk that Brazil’s next presidential elections in 2022 will be marked by political violence.

Rio de Janeiro COVID NGO Protest. Copyright: Shutterstock

NGO protest against bad management of coronavirus. Rio de Janeiro, June 2020. Photo by Andre-MA, Shutterstock

What are your current fields of interest?

I am working in multiple projects that relate to my area of study—the armed forces deployment within national borders, in Latin America. Currently I study the international circulation of doctrines between military elites, and how this phenomenon may impact military deployment domestically. I am interested in identifying how the revival of the counterinsurgency doctrine following western countries’ war on terrorism can shape policies to combat drug trafficking networks in Brazil and Mexico. I use constructivism to grasp how concepts are shared among military institutions and how they are introduced in national doctrine. During my stay at CERI, my plan is to consult bibliographical references and military documents to characterize the exchanges between western European countries’ military institutions and those housed in Brazil and Mexico.

Further reading

Amorim Neto, Octavio; Acácio, Igor. (2020). De Volta ao Centro da Arena : Causas e Consequências do Papel Político dos Militares sob Bolsonaro. Journal of Democracy em português, 9(2), 1-29.

Diamint, R. (2015). A New Militarism in Latin America. Journal of Democracy, 26(4), 155-168.

Pion-Berlin, D. (2016). Military Missions in Democratic Latin America. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sampó, C. and Alda, S. (2019) La transformación de las Fuerzas Armadas en América Latina ante el crimen organizado. Real Instituto Elcano, Centro de Estudios Estratégicos: Madrid.

Works by Anais Passos Medeiros

Passos, A. M. (2020). Breaking the Law to Ensure Order: The Case of Tijuana (2007-2012). Bulletin of Latin American Research, Early View, 1-16.

Martinez Trujillo, M. T. and Passos, A. M. (2019) ‘Militarisation et multilatéralisation des tâches policières. Regards sur le Brésil et le Mexique’ in O. Dabène (ed.) América Latina 2018: el año político. Les Études du CERI: Paris, 95-106.

Interview by Miriam Perier, CERI.

Illustration copyright: Shutterstock

Back to top