Humanitarian Issues

Peacekeeping in Haiti: A Laboratory for Pacification in Rio de Janeiro?

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A Brazilian soldier stands security during a walking tour of downtown Port Au Prince, Haiti. Image: Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by Strife on 28 May 2015.

With contingents of up to 3200 soldiers, over twice the number of the country’s current contribution to the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the Brazilian Armed Forces are at present occupying large parts of the favela agglomeration Complexo da Maré in Rio de Janeiro. After the mission in Alemão and Penha (Operação Arcanjo, November 2010 – June 2012), this is the second occasion on which the Armed Forces have significantly contributed to the Pacification programme.

Critics as well as proponents have argued that Brazil’s leading role in MINUSTAH served as a ‘laboratory’ for tactics used in such internal military deployments. Some even claim that ‘Armed Forces’ actions in the hills of Rio cannot be comprehended without the prior experience in Haiti [1]. Yet these interpretations of the ‘Port-au-Prince-Rio connection‘ often fail to recognise that domestic experiences, doctrines and tactics significantly shape actions in Haiti.While the Peacekeeping mission clearly serves to test and refine existing techniques, deployments in Rio also prepare soldiers for being sent to Haiti.

Whatever the case about the origins of certain approaches, the more important question is whether these military operations contributed to sustainable improvements in the area of public security.

Brazil has dominated the military component of MINUSTAH since its inception in 2004, being the largest troop contributor and constantly providing Force Commanders. Under pressure from the USA, Canada and France,[2] the mission hesitantly increased robust measures against gangs in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince.

Numerous civilians died during the first violent incursions into neighbourhoods such as Cité Soleil. Still, MINUSTAH subsequently managed to significantly reduce civilian victims while progressively occupying gang-controlled areas by the end of 2007.[3] The Brazilian contingent has taken most of the credit as its battalions were in charge of Port-au-Prince’s most critical areas.[4]

Moreover, a Brazilian Force Commander introduced the tactic of establishing pontos fortes (strongholds), whereby troops try to conquer strategically situated buildings in gang-controlled neighbourhoods. These strongholds then serve as bases for establishing a permanent presence in the area and are widely considered as a crucial factor for MINUSTAH’s military success.[5]

Rio’s Polícia Militar reportedly sent a delegation to Haiti in order to assess the potential use of pontos fortes and then implemented this counterinsurgency-inspired approach in the very first occupation of the Pacification campaign.[6] So far, this would support the idea of Haiti as a laboratory for Rio. But a less widely known military occupation of the favela Parque Roquete Pinto, part of the Complexo da Maré, between 1994 and 1995 already employed comparable tactics.[7] Moreover, Brazil’s dominant role in MINUSTAH is intrinsically linked with its military’s prior experience of dealing with gang violence in poor urban environments.[8] Examples include Operação Rio in 1994, when approximately 1500 soldiers invaded and occupied more than 50 favelas for about two months.

Aside from similarities in counterinsurgency tactics, the legal status of soldiers in current internal missions seems to be inspired by the participation in MINUSTAH. Referring to alleged abuses of soldiers during Operação Rio, Defence Minister Jobim later proposed that future internal missions should take place under comparable juridical protection for troops as during UN Peacekeeping. Fittingly, some suggest that the Army only consented to Operação Arcanjo in 2010 after being legally assured that possible cases of soldiers’ misbehaviour would not be tried by civilian courts.[9] This is another – if more debatable – ‘Port-au-Prince-Rio connection’. Internal military missions in pre-defined areas and limited timeframes are constitutionally allowed. Federal governments had crucially expanded the legal scope for such ´Guaranteeing Law and Order´ (GLO) operations before MINUSTAH commenced.

Apart from a diverging legal framework for respective rules of engagement, most would agree that military “tactics, techniques and proceedings”[10] in the MINUSTAH and GLO operations are essentially the same. Yet claims regarding the use of Haiti as laboratory for Rio tend to focus on the combat-intense early stages of MINUSTAH. In fact, the Brazilian contingent mainly focused on police tasks like patrolling or establishing checkpoints after ending gang domination in 2007. Despite MINUSTAH having the second largest police contingent of all current UN missions, Brazilian troops are often visibly policing their area of responsibility.[11]

With planned cuts to the military component of MINUSTAH from June 2015, this regular presence of soldiers cannot be maintained. Nevertheless, most Brazilian contingents have gained extensive experience in patrols and through interaction with the civilian population.

Estimates suggest that between 60 and 90%[12] of soldiers deployed in Rio’s Pacification have also been to Haiti. However, synergies between MINUSTAH and Pacification do not only go in one direction: soldiers first participating in Pacification perceived it as intense training for the tasks they would later face in Haiti.[13] The Brazilian Army fittingly emphasised that selecting personnel for the mission in Maré not only took soldiers´ previous experience in MINUSTAH but also Operação Arcanjo into account. In both types of missions, soldiers are predominantly carrying out tasks such as patrolling, arresting suspects, searching for drugs and weapons or stopping and searching vehicles as well as persons. Combined with sophisticated preparation in dedicated training centres (CCOPAB and CIOpGLO), this not only creates capabilities related to combat in urban environments but also in typical police tasks.

But episodes of soldiers actually instructing Rio’s Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) in the proper treatment of citizens in the Maré are not necessarily proving the military´s policing skills. They rather demonstrate the lack of adequate training for Rio´s notoriously violent Polícia Militar.

From a strictly military perspective, the mutually related actions in Port-au-Prince and Rio have arguably been quite successful. Both MINUSTAH and Operação Arcanjo have significantly restricted overt gang rule in urban areas.[14] Yet the population in both places occasionally accused soldiers of misconduct. Moreover, the frameworks in which military operations are embedded so far have not overcome the problems they sought to solve. Armed groups in Port-au-Prince remain a constant threat to Haiti’s stability. The ill-prepared, insufficiently equipped and understaffed National Police frequently abuses the population and will probably not be able to provide security after the withdrawal of MINUSTAH.

In addition, civil society groups increasingly perceive the extended presence of foreign soldiers as an occupation which does not serve the locals’ interests. In Rio, the recent surge in fatalities from shootouts in the Complexo do Alemão and other ‘pacified’ favelas is evidence of the Pacification programme’s many shortcomings.

Using soldiers in police roles may have enabled robust short-term security measures in the run-up to large events such as the Football World Cup 2014 and the Olympic Games 2016. Yet these attempts will be futile without the authorities´ commitment to establishing a state presence that goes beyond repression and serves elementary needs of the population.


[1] Marcos Cintra cited in Mateos, Simone Biehler, “Ajuda ao Próximo e ao Distante,” Desafios ao desenvolvimento 8/65 (2011)

[2] Fernández Moreno, Marta, Carlos Chagas Vianna Braga, and Maíra Siman Gomes, “Trapped Between Many Worlds: A Post-Colonial Perspective on the UN Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH),” International Peacekeeping 19/3 (2012): 385

[3] For a detailed overview on the use of offensive measures and a discussion of its consequences, see Cockayne, James, “The Futility of Force? Strategic Lessons for Dealing with Unconventional Armed Groups from the UN’s War on Haiti’s Gangs,” Journal of Strategic Studies 37/5 (2014): 736–69.

[4] Sotomayor, Arturo C., The Myth of the Democratic Peacekeeper. Civil-Military Relations and the United Nations. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 137

[5] Dorn, A. Walter, “Intelligence-Led Peacekeeping: The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), 2006–07,” Intelligence and National Security 24/6 (2009): 814

[6] Skype conversation between Tenente Coronel C.A. de M. Cavalcanti (Doctrine Advisor at the Brazilian Peacekeeping Training Centre) and staff/students of King’s Brazil Institute, 20.11.2014.

[7] Interview with General Glaucio Lucas Alves, conducted by author´s PhD supervisor Dr. V. M. de Carvalho, 4 October 2014

[8] Kenkel, Kai Michael, “South America’s Emerging Power: Brazil as Peacekeeper,” International Peacekeeping 17/5 (2010): 653

[9] Amorim Neto, Octavio, “Democracy and Civil-Military Relations in Brazil.” Paper presented at Meeting of the Brazilian Political Science Association, Brasília, 6 August 2014: 19.

[10] Pinheiro, Alvaro De Souza, “A Segurança Pública, o Exército Brasileiro e as Operações de Garantia da Lei e da Ordem,” Estudos e Pesquisas 322 (2009): 6

[11] Skype conversation between Coronel Vinícius Ferreira Martinelli (Commander of the 20th Brazilian military contingent in MINUSTAH) and staff/students of King’s Brazil Institute, 13.11.2014.

[12] Kenkel, Kai Michael, “Securing South America’s Peace Operations Acquis Post-MINUSTAH,” in South America and Peace Operations. Coming of Age, ed. Kai Michael Kenkel. (London: Routledge, 2013): 194

[13] Q&A‑Session with Major Garcia during visit to 4a Brigada de Infantaria Motorizada, Juiz de Fora, 26.02.2014

[14] Cockayne 2014, 764; Hoelscher, K., & Norheim-Martinsen, P. M., Urban violence and the militarisation of security: Brazilian “peacekeeping” in Rio de Janeiro and Port-au-Prince. Small Wars & Insurgencies, 25/5-6 (2014), 966

Christoph Harig is PhD student at the Brazil Institute, King’s College London. He tweets @c_harig. His recent article ´Synergy effects between MINUSTAH and Public Security in Brazil´ provides a more thorough discussion of some of this blog post’s topics.

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