Military collects donations, teaches Rio police about phones

A military intervention in Rio de Janeiro state includes seeking private donations for cash-strapped police forces, ordering officers to put away their smartphones while patrolling and encouraging businesses to invest because security is improving, the general in charge of the mission said Wednesday.

Gen. Walter Souza Braga Netto, head of the military takeover of security in the state, made the comments in a speech during a forum on the intervention.

President Michel Temer ordered the military response in February after muggings and robberies were caught on camera in affluent parts of Rio during Carnival celebrations.

Braga Netto said 375 motorcycles had been donated to the police, and the military was repairing police vehicles and had provided three armored cars to an elite squad of officers known by the Portuguese acronym BOPE.

The general also said the military was working to change police habits. He put up a photo of an officer looking at his smartphone, then another frame of the same officer with his head high and looking in front of them.

“Police won’t let technology take away the focus of their work,” said the slide put up during his presentation.

Braga Netto said there was a “crisis of authority” in the country.

“We need authority to respect people and for people to respect authority,” he said.

Braga Netto did not take questions from reporters, and at the beginning of his presentation insisted photographers and video journalists put down their cameras.

“Nothing secret in here. (The cameras) just distract me,” he said.

The intervention has been controversial. Civil rights groups argue it does nothing to address the issues behind rising violence, such as inequality, a lack of social services, unemployment and a fiscal crisis that has engulfed the state of Rio and led to widespread late payments of public workers.

Instead, they say it could lead to more of the kinds of abuses that make people, particularly blacks in poor areas, loathe and fear the police. Rio’s police force is one of the most deadly in the world. In 2016, 925 people were killed during police operations, according to the think tank Brazilian Public Security Forum, and initial tallies by human rights groups put the 2017 number over 1,000.

Braga Neto called the efforts of police forces “heroic” given their lack of resources and said some reorganization was taking place but did not go into details.

The general’s address came on the same day as demonstrations demanding justice for Marielle Franco, a black councilwoman who was slain in March. Franco had been critical of police brutality in marginalized neighborhoods and her death reverberated around the world.

Three months later, no arrests have been made, raising the spectre that Franco becomes one of the tens of thousands of murders each year that never get solved in Latin America’s largest nation.

Braga Netto said the case was being “very well investigated,” but that leaks to the press had slowed the investigation.

Braga Netto said in the last few months some indicators of violence had come down. He cited deaths by violence, saying the number had dropped to 528 in May compared to 636 in March, the first full month of the intervention, according to state security figures. A review of that data point for March, April and May the last three years show those numbers to be fairly consistent.

Security analysts have also said it will take many months to evaluate the military’s impact on violence, and that criminal groups may simply move from neighborhoods where soldiers and police are patrolling.

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Peter Prengaman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peterprengaman