Changes in Brazilian Security Forces: Tactic or Strategy?

By Gustavo A Maranges on January 23, 2023


Several changes in the leadership of the Brazilian security forces’ were confirmed this weekend arousing great interest around not just Brazil but internationally as well. The strong shakeup in 18 different departments by the recently elected government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is meant to be enormous. Although the changes have been numerous, their real impact will depend on how as the Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti would have labeled them according to his famous poem “Tactic and Strategy.”

According to Brazilian media reports, Army Commander Julio C. de Arruda was replaced by the Chief of the Southeast Command Tomas M. Ribeiro. It came after the president stated he had lost confidence in Arruda due to his deficient performance during the attempted coup d’état on January 8. This particular change is interesting not only because it is the highest-ranking military officer involved but also because of the circumstances of the event.

Arruda took office provisionally on December 30, only two days before Lula’s takeover, even though Arruda’s almost immediate dismissal was within the transition plans. Suddenly, on January 6, when the assault on state powers’ headquarters was already in the making, he was ratified in his post by the current Defense Minister Jose Mucio Monteiro.

This decision was understandable to some extent considering that Lula is a progressive leader who won the elections backed by a broad political coalition, which implies risks of this nature. However, the real reason remains structural.

Despite Mucio being appointed by the president, he must first have had the approval of the military leadership. It is a kind of safeguard to protect a conservative military caste loyal to the oligarchy, whose role has not changed since the 1960s, when they murdered, destroyed democracy, and repressed any hint of progressivism. At the core, this caste makes up a structure designed and educated to keep politicians like Lula at bay.

The event put this procedure in the eye of the storm while demonstrating how dangerous the excessive independence and prerogatives of the military are for Brazilian democracy, something Bolsonaro did not skimp on expanding. He was fully aware of how much benefit this brought him, so he strengthened this control mechanism as much as he could. One of the hallmarks of his administration was the promotion of reserve and active military officials to head several government posts.

Lula, an experienced, skilled, and well-aware politician, announced from the beginning his intention to reduce the number of military personnel in his inner circles to favor the appointment of civilians. However, January 8’s events showed how urgent the issue was.

Therefore, 53 people linked to the president’s residence and the Planalto Palace were also dismissed. Thirteen of them were part of the Institutional Security Cabinet of the Presidency, which works as a Ministry in charge of the security of the Head of State and advising on intelligence matters.

This extensive dismissals is also related to the president’s criticism of all intelligence agencies, who did not give a single warning about what was going on previous to January 8. However, no specific changes in these bodies’ leaderships have been issued so far.

On the other hand, the heads of the Federal Police (PF) in 18 states and 26 out of 27 regional chiefs of the Federal Highway Police (PRF) were also replaced. According to government officials, all these changes were part of the transition, which suggests, in Benedetti’s words, that they are not a tactic, but part of the strategy.

In the case of the PF, most of them were from states considered Bolsonaro’s strongholds, where the politicization of law enforcement agencies has grown dangerously. Meanwhile, PRF leadership’s almost total dismissals is based on their direct or indirect involvement in the road blockades to prevent Lula supporters from voting impacting the presidential elections.

Tactic or strategy?

Everything seems to indicate that this is not a tactic motivated by the latest developments, but a strategy based on the reality and structural problems faced by Brazil and Latin America countries as a rule. Taking or not this element into account has proven to be decisive in the future of the region’s progressive governments.

For example, in Colombia, President Gustavo Petro not only dismissed the Armed Forces’ entire leadership and the National Intelligence Directorate heads, but also retired 40 generals. These transformations were an indispensable requirement to guarantee his security and to move forward with his plan for a “More Human Colombia,” which includes total peace in the country. Meanwhile, Peru is the other side of the coin. In this case, Congress took the main role, but nothing would have been achieved without the Peruvian military caste’s cooperation.

Lula chose the right strategy, but he will face big obstacles along the way. Holding together a diverse coalition like the one that brought him to power will have to be one of his priorities to promote the major structural transformation Brazil needs. On the other hand, he will also have to face a Congress where Bolsonaro’s supporters are strong and ready to make the fiercest resistance.

After the defeat of the coup attempt, Brazilians have become aware of how dangerous the politicization of the security forces and their direct participation in the government can be. But now after the change of president with diametrically opposite world views the military caste is under public scrutiny, limiting its maneuvering possibilities. On top of it, the institution is linked to the former president, whose image is plummeting by the minute while he languishes in Florida. All this happens in the context of comprehensive changes in national politics, which guarantees Lula a perfect scenario to advance his strategy of demilitarization of the country’s politics.

His success will determine the stability of one of the most important progressive governments in the region, and consequently, in Latin America as a whole.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano –  US