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Rio de Janeiro polishes its police ahead of Olympics

As Rio de Janeiro celebrates Carnival, the city looks ahead to the bigger show of the 2016 Olympics. 

By Taylor BarnesCorrespondent / February 20, 2012

Maj. Eliezer de Oliveira Farias, a police trainer on weekdays and evangelical pastor on Sundays, shouts to 100 police recruits: ‘What are our objectives?’ ‘Promote peace and calm!’ they respond.

Taylor Barnes

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Rio De Janeiro

Maj. Eliezer de Oliveira Farias, a police trainer and evangelical pastor, shouts to 100 police recruits in a muggy classroom: "What are our objectives?"

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They chant back: "Reduce lethal violence! Promote peace!"

"Not our objectives?" Oliveira Farias asks next. "To get rid of narcotrafficking! To get rid of criminality!"

Welcome to the Units of Pacifying Police (UPP) project, which these recruits will join.

The pilot program, part of a broader push for police reform, has won international praise for Rio de Janeiro as Brazil polishes its image ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It is aimed at reducing the police's reliance on violence to address Brazil's high levels of crime.

"Despite Rio not being [at] war, [the police training] had a culture of war," says Juliana Barroso, a security ministry official tasked with reforming the police academy. Ms. Barroso's proposed changes – including human rights training – will extend beyond the 3,500 officers in the UPP program to the entire 39,000 military police, the main force that patrols Brazilian streets. "I want all the police to work from the perspective of attending [to] the citizen – no longer on combating the enemy, but instead protecting society," says Barroso.

The UPPs have made important headway in establishing a 24-hour law enforcement presence and inhibiting armed drug dealers from walking freely in the streets of select favelas, or slums, that have seen years of lethal shootouts between drug traffickers and the police. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has promised to spread the model nationwide, with similar programs already taking root in two other cities.

But policing in Brazil is still far from perfect. As the size of the police force grows leading up to 2014, recruitment requirements have been relaxed. Some say low pay and long hours compromise performance. And as Rio makes gains against armed traffickers, another side of the battle – reforming violent and corrupt practices within the traditional police – is far from over.

Just 10 years ago, Rio police received bonuses for killing alleged criminals in shootouts. Rio state police admitted to killing a record 1,330 people in 2007 in these armed confrontations.

Though the bounties are gone, killings by police remain high, averaging three deaths a day since peaking in 2007. And militias formed by off-duty or former policemen are on the rise, moving into low-income areas, extorting protection money from residents, and killing those who oppose them.

Militias now control more favelas than the largest of Rio de Janeiro's three main drug-trafficking factions, according to research from the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

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