Brazil's 'peace police' turn five. Are Rio's favela's safer?

Brazil's pacifying police units have brought 36 favelas under their control since 2008. But some slums are seeing an uptick in violence and many have been ignored.

Pilar Olivares/Reuters/File
Children play soccer at a square at a favela in Rio de Janeiro, February 22, 2013.

Brazil’s first police pacification unit (UPP) was installed in the Santa Marta favela, or shantytown, in Rio de Janeiro five years ago this month. But new research reveals that peace is still a long way off for some of the most violent communities across this coastal Brazilian city, with recent controversies creating further setbacks and challenges for the specially trained forces.

Created by Rio’s leading politicians, the UPP’s are viewed as a new breed of law enforcement that involves policing recovered territories, commonly in favelas, after Rio’s elite police battalion (BOPE) has cleared them of drug traffickers and violent criminals.

Reclaimed lands previously inaccessible to the authorities are permanently occupied by the UPPs to maintain security. The force aims to take a preventative and protective approach to policing, breaking the cycle of reactionary police raids and shootouts. A total of 9,000 newly trained officers – set to rise to 12,000 by 2016 – combine policing duties with social service programs.  

But, some of the pacified favelas are seeing an uptick in violence despite the UPP presence, and a recent scandal where dozens of UPP officers were arrested for the murder of a construction worker in the Rocinha favela has put some power back into criminal hands as locals look at the pacifying initiatives with renewed skepticism.

“The pacification of communities is about changing the way society works, reforming the way violence is combated, and transforming the way the state interacts with the informal settlements,” Professor Ignacio Cano from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) says.

“If we don’t manage to reform public security policies and the police themselves, then in 2017 when there is reduced funds and reduced visibility [after the World Cup and Olympics are completed in Brazil] there is a risk that we will go backwards and the violence will increase again,” Mr. Cano says.

'Reduce local violence'

UPP-occupied territories include 36 favelas out of 763 across Rio and its surrounding suburbs. The goal, when the program launched, was to pacify 40 of these informal hillside neighborhoods by 2014, in time for the start of the FIFA World Cup.

Rio's favelas are made up of a series of smaller communities. There are no official figures but an estimated 1,001 communities, or comunidades, make up the 763 favelas, home to roughly 1.4 million residents, according to a 2010 census.

In a report released this month by the Institute of Social and Political Studies (IESP) a non-profit research unit based at the UERJ, the majority of these comunidades are still dominated by organized criminals and drug gangs.

An estimated 45 percent of low-income comunidades, or 450 of the 1,001, are under the control of criminal syndicates, typically made up of corrupt current and former police officers.

According to the IESP report, drug gangs rule a further 37 percent of comunidades, or 370, with the UPPs stationed in just 18 percent, or 181.

“The UPPs have reduced local violence in many of the communities and brought a number of significant benefits to the people living in these areas where police stations now exist,” says Cano.

But the strategy has been “very selective geographically and socially.” Its focus on pacifying areas expected to be visited by tourists during the World Cup in June has meant that “other parts of the capital, which are ... the most violent areas of the state, have been neglected and forgotten,” says Cano who is also a member of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence at UERJ.

Analysts argue that Rio is now not just a city divided along socioeconomic lines, where poverty sits side-by-side with extreme wealth, but along sociopolitical lines as well, due to the UPP initiative. Select communities have benefited from pacification, while more sweeping reforms are put on the back burner.

According to figures released this month by the Public Safety Institute of the State of Rio de Janeiro marking the UPPs fifth anniversary, homicide rates in the first 29 favelas to receive UPPs is 8.7 per 100,000 residents. That compares to the rest of Rio de Janeiro, where the figure is 18 per 100,000 residents, and across Brazil, the murder rate is 24.3 per 100,000. There has not been a single murder in Santa Marta since the police arrived, the report notes.

“The reality is that the state [of Rio] does not have the resources to deal with these other areas as effectively as we would like,” says Col. Frederico Caldas, coordinator of Rio’s UPP force. The priority has always been to reach 40 pacified favelas by 2014, but beyond that, no formal long-term strategy has been released, Mr. Caldas says.

While many say the pacification strategy must continue in order to maintain progress, critics argue that only after the 2014 general elections will favela residents get a clearer picture as to how the pacification program will move forward.

'Whatever it takes'

Despite the progress lauded by public officials, the UPP’s aren’t viewed as a success everywhere in Rio. In two of the biggest favelas, Rocinha and Complexo do Alemão, both under UPP control for more than a year, shootings have picked up between rival drug syndicates. 

Last month, Rio’s security secretary, José Mariano Beltrame, announced the deployment of the elite BOPE forces to quell the outbreak of violence in Rocinha and Alemao as backup to the UPPs.

“Even if I have to bring the army back in I will do whatever it takes to maintain the pacification process in these areas and prove that the state is stronger than the criminals,” Mr. Beltrame said in a statement.

However, Cano warns that this is impractical, not only in terms of budgetary costs, but because of the social implications as well.

“We already feel as if we are under military rule in the favelas with the heavy-handed approach taken by many of the UPP officers,” says Carlos de Souza Nacida, secretary of the Rocinha residents's association. “Bringing the military in would only serve to alienate the community, which is still struggling to deal with the criminal actions of the police following the death of Amarildo,” he says, referring to the October arrest of 25 UPP officers for allegedly murdering construction worker Amarildo de Souza in Rocinha.  

In moving forward with the pacification process, Caldas says: “We are putting officers through more rigorous training on how they deal with people when they search for drugs or guns. We’re teaching them they must act with respect and restraint.”

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