On 26 April, Rio de Janeiro’s Federal Intervention Committee decided to close half of the state’s 38 Police Pacification Units (UPPs). Rio’s UPPs were a key element of ‘pacification’, a public security policy targeting favelas in the city and state of Rio de Janeiro implemented in 2008. Their dismantling marks the definitive end of a policy that had already been deemed a failure, less than a decade after it was launched.

Brazil’s favelas have always stood apart from the cities to which they belong, a distinction entrenched both geographically and socially. In Rio de Janeiro, the first of these informal communities sprung up on a hillside nestled amongst middle and upper class neighbourhoods, a pattern that has been reproduced countless times, although many of Rio’s largest favelas can also be found on the peripheries of the city.

They are perceived as hotbeds of insecurity, crime and violence, and have been the target of a variety of public policies over the decades. These have changed over time, spanning attempted eradication to military occupation, and integration through urban planning.

Pacification: a new approach?  

While it is true that Rio’s favelas suffer from high levels of violence and many are controlled by drug trafficking gangs or militia, popular imagination and media accounts have frequently inflated the problem and distorted reality. Introduced in 2008 with great fanfare, pacification aimed not only to eradicate violence but also contribute to favelas’ socioeconomic development and curb police corruption – thus improving the image of favelas that is projected to the formal city, Latin America and to the world beyond.

Brazilian troops in a favela
In the Complexo do Alemão, the Brazilian army are perceived incredibly negatively by the population. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Described as “one of the most important public security programmes implemented in Brazil in the last decades”, pacification was to unfold in three phases: invasion of the favela by the military police to seize weapons and arrest criminals, followed by a period of police occupation and, finally, the permanent implementation of a police pacification unit to guarantee security through community policing.

Accompanied by slogans such as “UPPs are here to stay” and launched at a time of relative economic prosperity, pacification fitted in to a wider discourse of optimism, as Rio prepared to host first the FIFA World Cup, in 2014, then the Olympic Games, in 2016.

Some measured progress

This optimism was not entirely misplaced; in its early years, the policy of pacification recorded some successes. Homicide rates dropped dramatically, with an 85.5% reduction in the number of police-related deaths and a 76.3% drop in lethal violence in pacified favelas between 2008 and 2014. Accounts from favela residents spoke of an increased sense of security due to the end of shootouts, and of a gradual improvement of the notoriously bad relationship between the police and locals.

Overall, the programme received little criticism during its first few years, and even after cracks began to show, retained some of its credibility with the successful pacification in late 2011 of the Rocinha favela in the South Zone – Brazil’s largest – and Complexo do Alemão in the North Zone, notoriously large and violent favelas.

An imperfect policy

Yet from the beginning, there were limitations to the policy. It never went beyond its original aim of installing 38 UPPs, which served only 264 favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Although it is difficult to establish exact figures, there are certainly over 1,000 of these informal neighbourhoods in Greater Rio, home to an estimated 23% of its population. The number of favelas and individuals affected by the programme was therefore limited.

During the implementation of pacification, the emphasis was on the armed occupation of the favela, continuing the tradition of ‘war’ against them, rather than on the third stage supposed to bring public services to these neighbourhoods. Critics also noted that pacification benefited private corporate interests above all, as the formalisation of services such as electricity and internet came at a prohibitive cost for the local population.

The unravelling of the programme

A turning point for the pacification policy was the murder of bricklayer Amarildo de Souza in 2013. De Souza was disappeared and tortured to death by military police from the UPP of Rocinha – those responsible were eventually found guilty in 2016. His death sparked a backlash against Rio’s UPPs and became a symbol of the extent of police repression and violence in Brazil.

After 2014, the number of police-related homicides in Rio’s pacified favelas began to rise again. Outbreaks of fighting between rival drug factions, which had never ceased in many of the city’s favelas, returned to some of the pacified ones.

Pacification was further weakened by budget cuts (Rio’s public security budget was cut by 32% in 2016), and by the resignation of José Mariano Beltrame as Security Secretary for Rio de Janeiro state, a man widely considered to have been one of the architects of the policy. By the end of 2016, UPPs were effectively believed to have failed, another symptom of the inadequate post-Olympics legacy in Rio.

Rising violence

As violence continued to rise, concern over spiralling crime prompted President Michel Temer’s controversial decision to put the army in control of public security in Rio de Janeiro state last February. Although the army has intervened in Rio in the past, this move placed the state’s police force under federal military authority.

Rio’s heavily militarised Policía Militar has often come in for criticism for its treatment of favela residents. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Fears that this would only serve to exacerbate violence in favelas seem to have been justified, as the number of shootings have continued to increase, according to data collected by Fogo Cruzado, a collaborative digital platform which records incidents of armed violence in Rio state.

The murder of city councillor Marielle Franco on 14 March, as-of-yet unsolved but believed to have involved military policemen and members of a paramilitary group, has drawn more attention still to violence in Rio – and also to the voice of the favelas. A favela resident and human rights activist, Franco was an important spokesperson for these neighbourhoods’ overwhelmingly black, poor and marginalised populations.

Next steps

Perhaps the formal end of Rio’s UPPs will open up the space for the development of a new approach to security in the favelas, more inclusive of the local community. A pessimist might argue that they will simply remain pockets of lawlessness and danger absent from the public eye, except when the violence sporadically spills across the invisible border that separates favelas from the formal city, prompting calls for police intervention.

However there is opportunity for change to come from within. Speaking to Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil last year, community leader from Complexo do Alemão Raull Santiago emphasised that the favelas and peripheries can provide the solution to the crisis they face, a sentiment echoed across the city.

Favelas may be rife with violent crime and drug trafficking, but they are also fertile breeding ground for innovative projects and community organisation. Residents come together to bring security and social development where Rio’s UPPs failed. With the approval by Rio City Council of five bills put forward by Franco before her death, her legacy lives on, giving hope to those who believe that positive change will come.


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