Peace in Brazil's favelas? 5 challenges facing police units

After troops stormed Maré favela over the weekend as part of Rio's security strategy, Brazil's 'pacification program' is coming under increased scrutiny.

Felipe Dana/AP
Policemen patrol during an operation to install a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in the Vila Kennedy favela, in Rio de Janeiro, March 13, 2014.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

As troops stormed Rio's Maré favela on Sunday to prepare to install a permanent police presence as a part of the city's security strategy, the so-called pacification program is coming under increasing scrutiny.

The program, which began in 2008, installs permanent police stations in the city's favelas in a bid to impose a state presence where there previously had been none. Around 174 communities have been "pacified" so far.

But recently, the cracks have begun to show more clearly and the illusion of peace has frayed. [So far] in 2014, four military police have been killed in pacified favelas. And last week, three pacification police officers were shot in several pacified communities, with attacks in three different favelas. One pacification station was destroyed. Reports of shoot-outs in Rocinha, Complexo de Alemão, and Pavão-Pavãozinho favelas have once again become more common.

The Rio government has made this out to be a black and white issue involving the city's drug traffickers. Governor Sérgio Cabral said the recent attacks were an attempt by traffickers to "weaken the victorious policy of pacification that has retaken territories historically occupied by criminals to control public power." Rio Security Secretary José Beltrame commented that one of the trafficking groups, the Red Command, "is finding itself trapped, with much less territory than it had eight years ago. Of course it's going to react."

But the truth is more complex.

I've compiled some of the issues that are at play in the city's pacification strategy, including long-term challenges.

1. The branding of the strategy reveals exactly what's missing from it.

The strategy is called pacification, and the permanent police stations are called police pacification units, or UPPs. While there's an element of peace in this concept, it has to do with power and violence, and not with development or the vast majority of people living in the favelas. Inclusion is an afterthought.

Pacification was also designed leading up to the city's mega-events, and given the city's bad rep, it was an appealing sell to the international media. In its own way, the branding of the pacification strategy speaks to a [Mad Men's) Don Draper philosophy: if you don't like what's being said, change the conversation.

2. Pacification has so far failed to integrate communities into the city, because the focus has been on eliminating people rather than empowering them.

So far, the pacification strategy has sought to bring areas of the city under state control. The focus has been to establish a police presence and in theory, chase out, capture, or kill drug traffickers. While at the beginning, there were promises of social services and social programs through UPP Social, these promises have largely failed to materialize. Many pacified favelas have yet to get connected to the city's sanitation system, or even the water system, or to see any new schools or hospitals built.

One reason behind this has to do with bureaucracy and the number of state agencies involved; the other is that the government has preferred flashy infrastructure projects with questionable impact, including cable cars in Alemão and Rocinha. The one in Rocinha, which has yet to be built, is estimated at R$1.6 billion (about $705 million), while the community still has no sanitation and sewage flows openly through the community's streets. It's easier to cut a ribbon on a cable car than a collection of underground pipes.

3. While the public sector has failed to treat favela residents as citizens, the private sector has stepped in to treat them like consumers.

One of the biggest misconceptions about favelas is that they are groups of precarious, ramshackle shanties for the city's poorest. In some cases, that's true, but favelas are also huge communities of permanent homes for the city's growing new middle class. Data Popular, which studies this group of consumers, estimates that 65 percent of Brazil's favela residents belong to the new middle class.

Even though residents are improving their quality of life through better education, higher salaries, and access to consumer goods, the government hasn't done its part to provide the services that citizens require, such as health and education. Members of these communities are among those Brazilians who became consumers, but not citizens in the country's social transformation, as Brazilian philosopher Vladimir Safatle once said.

Meanwhile, the private sector has taken notice. When police first arrive to occupy a favela, businesses notoriously follow the next day, including satellite and cable TV providers. Electronics stores, banks, and other businesses have followed. Last year, plans were announced to build the first favela mall, in the Complexo de Alemão.

4. Pacification hasn't been a silver bullet to prevent violence.

In pacified favelas, homicides are down, but disappearances are up. The murder rate overall has been declining in both Rio state and city, as well as in pacified favelas. But these same communities have also seen a spike in disappearances as efforts are made to hide homicides.

And while some would like to attribute the pacification strategy to the state's decline in homicides, the truth is that the Rio murder rate has generally been falling since the mid-90s. Meanwhile, in the short term, homicides have been going up, as the state's latest numbers for January 2014 show. Citywide, violent crimes have been on the uptick in the past year.

5. The actors haven't changed.

This, I think, is the most important factor. Pacification hasn't replaced the actors responsible for perpetuating this decades-old conflict; it's simply made for faster turnover and more regular contact.

Some recent examples show exactly how that's possible.

Today, federal police arrested five military police stationed in Rocinha's pacification unit. They stand accused of providing intel to the favela's drug traffickers, giving details about ongoing investigations and upcoming operations. Considering that police have traditionally been one of the providers of weapons in favelas, it's not unimaginable that this case of police working with traffickers even after pacification is an isolated incident. Meanwhile, the preliminary investigation into the recent attack on Alemão is looking at an alliance of drug traffickers and community leaders who want to retake control of the favela. 

One of the most controversial aspects of pacification is whether it has really managed to rid favelas of drug traffickers, and the short answer is that it hasn't. While in some cases traffickers have become less visible, they're very much still there. In November, over a year after it was pacified, Rocinha was still moving up to R$10 million (about $4 million) worth of drugs every month.

And all this doesn't even bring into account the city's militias, which have prospered in areas that remain unpacified.

The big question is how to change the actors. But for that, too, there's no silver bullet solution.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

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