“Just another gang?” Rio’s Favelas and the Pacification Police

“The State has entered, the territory is the State’s, and we’re not leaving,” said José Mariano Beltrame, Rio de Janeiro’s Security Secretary and architect of the city’s radical new security policy, on its fifth anniversary last November.

The policy in question was the creation of the first Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Pacifying Police Unit, or UPP), specially trained “community” police based in and occupying numerous of the city’s favelas, in order to wrestle power from the gangs and militias who notoriously controlled these territories. There are now 36 UPPs, across some 250 favelas, with an estimated half a million inhabitants.

This pacification of Rio’s favelas, home to one-fifth of the city’s population, seeks to reduce violence and other prevalent social ills by addressing a historic problem: the state’s antagonistic and negligent relationship with these communities, and the subsequent void filled by gangs and militias. From many angles, the UPPs appear to be very promising, bringing a significant reduction in lethal violence and the power of the tráfico (drug traffic), in a city whose murder rate was once as high as 80 per 100,000 inhabitants. The government is finally recognizing the right of favela residents to basic standards of security.

But these new police units have been marred in controversy throughout their short existence. This offensive against brutal gangs has been followed by a significant expansion of the state’s own capacity for coercion and violence, and brought with it many worrying consequences. Frequent reports and high profile cases of abuse imply that this security policy is not so much a community-based reconciliation of the state with these communities as an undemocratic, authoritarian and militarized occupation, aimed at controlling the population and selling the city during the upcoming mega-events.

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In late 2008, the state government began an experimental new strategy in dealing with the favelas. The site was Santa Marta, a favela of 6,000 people up on a hillside in Rio’s otherwise wealthy Zona Sul, with fantastic views of the ocean and surrounding landscape.

After years of conflict between gangs and the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE), the elite military police unit, invaded – though this time they didn’t leave, setting up a base within the favela itself. And so began the occupation and pacification, of Santa Marta – without any particular direction or long-term strategy beyond the reduction of violence, control of the territory and socio-economic integration of the favela into the city.

The apparent success of this experiment led the model to be refined into a four-stage process and exported to other favelas: invasion, stabilization, occupation and post-occupation. The first two stages are carried out by BOPE, one of the most bellicose police squads in the world, who take over the favela before a UPP is set up, completing the third stage. Finally, comes the “social pacification”, carried out by the UPP Social – a process of investment in infrastructure and business designed to bring the favela into economic and cultural mainstream, carried out by an alliance of the police, urban developers, NGOs, and companies.

The current 250 pacified favelas still make up only a small proportion of Rio’s total of 1,000 such communities. But the UPPs represent a new model of policing in Rio, and a significant shift in the government’s security policy. For one, it is first time that police units are being systematically set-up inside favelas, and the most important attempt at developing a model of community policing in Rio’s history. The state government is finally recognizing the right of favela residents, as citizens, to basic standards of security and social services.

And improvements are, by any standards, significant. One study amongst residents of pacified favelas[1] attested that 71 percent believed their lives had improved after the inauguration of a UPP – with 93 percent considering their community “safe” or “very safe”. This has been complemented by an extraordinary reduction in lethal violence across pacified favelas[2], with 8.7 murders per 100 inhabitants, almost a third of the national average. Santa Marta, for one, has not had a reported murder for 5 years, and, in six others, for at least one year.

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The case of Amarildo Dias de Souza, however, shattered this sanguine image of the UPPs. The builder, a married father of six, was detained by UPP officers on the July 14, 2013, near his home in pacified Rocinha. He was taken to the local UPP base and was never seen again. Now believed to have been tortured to death, his remains have still never been found.

The incident is notable more for the attention it received than event itself, by many accounts a common occurrence in Brazil. Right during the period of national protest, the initial reaction of the community soon caught the waves of revolt that were spreading around the country, and his “disappearance” received national attention.

Twenty-five policemen have been arrested in connection to the kidnapping and murder of Amarildo, with an overhaul of Rocinha’s UPP exposing systematic and top-level corruption. And other worrying reports of police brutality from across pacified favelas are not uncommon. Currently in dispute is the death of Paulo Roberto Pinho de Menezes, who died from asphyxiation in an incident involving UPP officers in Manguinhos. Without the same public attention that Amarildo’s case received, action was less forthcoming; though now five officers have been indicted in the incident.

Indeed, another look at statistics provides a sobering counterpoint to the promise of the dropping murder rate: disappearances have doubled in pacified favelas. These shocking statistics create a huge cause for concern, and raise serious questions about what is going on in pacified favelas. However, the information could represent a number of things beyond the morbid possibility of more “Amarildos”. The rise could be reflected by an increase in reportings – which, in turn, could be a sign of more faith placed in the police system. Whatever the cause, it is essential that these figures be analyzed in order to clearly discern what is causing them, and the Security Secretary Beltrame has announced an investigation. The credibility of the UPPs is currently in the balance.

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Yet the statistics about disappearances are only the tip of the iceberg. Asked about whether the case of Amarildo surprised her, sociologist Sônia Fleury spoke bluntly: “No. Unfortunately, the model of the UPPs allows for this. It’s a heavily armed occupation of a civilian population… If the policemen are not nice guys, there’s no one to turn to.” Indeed, Fleury and others raise serious questions about the undemocratic and authoritarian nature of the UPPs: a military occupation, dressed up as a social project with pastoral language about “community,” and as she puts it, “a clear subordination [of the latter] to coercive logic.”

An astute observer might rightly be wondering to herself how is it that the situation arrived at such a point where favelas, in one of the most desirable cities in the world no less – host of the World Cup final and 2016 Olympics – are being militarily invaded, occupied, and pacified?

The issue is historical in dimension. For one, favelas typically began illegally, as temporary accommodation for displaced families and migrant workers, outside of the control – and interest – of the state. “Favelas were a solution which the poor gave themselves,” said Edson Diniz, founder of NGO REDES da Maré and a life-long resident of Complexo da Maré, one of Rio’s largest complex of favelas – as of yet unpacified. “The relationship between the state and the favela was always very tense, consisting of absence and repression – always at these two extremes.” Negligence led the territories to be run by gangs – who as well as drug trafficking, often provided basic services such as gas, electricity, and even healthcare. More recently, militias of corrupt ex-policemen, are said to control as many as 40 percent of Rio’s favelas.

The relationship of the police with favelas has always been one of extreme animosity and conflict. “I remember these scenes ever since I was a child living in Maré,” said Edson. “The police hitting and insulting people – and that’s when they weren’t shooting at them.” He recalls a shocking but telling anecdote of a police squad some years ago – before the UPPs – who would do target practice on the wall of a school. “It’s not that the policemen were monsters, and said, let’s do this on purpose – but rather, it was so normal, and the people there were so unimportant, that they did it without even realizing. For them it didn’t matter that there was a school there,” he added. “What the UPPs have done is to bring these policemen even nearer to the people of the favelas.” And indeed, we are seeing similarly worrying reports coming out of pacified favelas. According to residents, UPP officers come with the same war-like mentality, despite the fact that they are trained especially in order to facilitate previously non-existent “community relations.” The study Os Donos do Morro (“The Bosses of the Favela”), contains various accounts of residents expressing a mixed sentiment, on the one hand relief at the relative peace brought by the UPPs, but on the other, a continuation of abuse by police officers:

“Because [the officers] come to search people, they arrive beating them. I’ve already witnessed this near my house, they arrive already beating people. They say directly… “Against the wall, it’s over.” And they stay there pushing and shoving, they take your identity card and stay… looking and re-looking until they find something. They want to find something, but don’t succeed.”

It’s this mentality of occupation that needs to change if the UPPs are to have long-term, sustainable success. “The UPP officers feel inferior to other policemen, because they’re trained for war. So if there isn’t conflict, it’s as if they were football players who didn’t play,” said Edson.

It will require a thorough overhaul and democratization of the UPP policy in order to move away from this paradigm. Yet critics are often accused by supporters in government and in the mainstream press of wanting to reinstate the power of the gangs – either we accept the UPPs in their current form, or we have to bring back the gangs. As Beltrame himself said, “Whoever defends the end of the UPPs in the near future either has bad intentions or lives in another world.” “Why does it have to be put to the population as these two alternatives?” asks Sônia Fleury. “A coercive and violent armed force, on one side of the law or the other? I don’t want [the return of the traficantes], but I don’t want the current form of coercive and arbitrary power either.”

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It has not escaped anyone’s notice that so far pacified favelas are all, with the exception of Jardim Batam, situated strategically around the wealthy Zona Sul, which also receives the bulk of Rio’s visitors, or tourist magnets such as the Maracanã football stadium. In light of the upcoming global mega-events of the World Cup and the Olympics, in which all eyes will be on Rio, this raises the obvious question of the government’s motives in selecting and pacifying favelas.

Is the whole pacification process simply a cynical attempt to create a façade of peace, allowing the events to run smoothly, and the often-valuable property, in which many of the Zona Sul’s favelas are located, to be appropriated by visitors and tourists? It is doubtfully so simple, but equally none but the most naïve would suggest the policy is simply to help the poor folk who live there. “There is a logic, a logic of the mega-events, a logic of control,” suggests Sônia. “It’s designed to sell Rio… as a pleasant, touristic city, which isn’t violent.”

Indeed, many pacified favelas are already being gentrified as the business-minded alliances of the “UPP Social” facilitate the entrance of the formal economy into these communities, all while middle classes and foreigners take advantage of the cheaper property value in fantastic locations, such as Santa Marta. As the prices rise, with more and more landlords letting out to a wealthier demographic, the original residents are forced to move.

“What will the favelas become? Just part of the neighbourhood? Or will they maintain their character as favelas? Many residents say: we are favelados and we need to be accepted as favelados, with our culture, respecting our form of thinking and socializing,” says Sônia. The current gentrification, facilitated largely by the entrance of the UPPs, is threatening to entirely change this.

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Reflecting upon the case of the upcoming pacification of Maré, scheduled for sometime in early to mid 2014, is useful in understanding the complexity of the process.

Maré’s location on the Avenida Brasil, which runs from the airport to the city center, has made it a priority on the list of places to be pacified. It is currently considered one of the most dangerous places in Rio, with a climate of fear created by regular shootouts between rival gangs, after some escaped pacified favelas and made their home there. Unsurprisingly, residents are agreed that this violence needs to stop. “People want the conflicts to end,” said Edson.

Yet many are fearful of what a police intervention would bring. After a BOPE officer was killed there in June 2013, the squad responded with a vengeance, killing 10 residents in a subsequent mission. They are concerned that a UPP will simply bring more problems, and will not provide a long-term, sustainable solution to the question of security; rather, that the relationship between police and residents will continue to “be one of prejudice, of authoritarianism, of controlling the population of the favela.”

Ultimately, it is this authoritarianism, and logic of control and coercion, that needs to be reworked. Success will only come with a fundamental democratization and de-militarization of the state’s relationship with the favelas. Edson sums this up eloquently: “The favela has a right to security like any part of the city. It won’t do to find it normal, and even better, to have armed gangsters circulating and dominating these territories… But the best way to guarantee rights to these people is the major question. And in this, the UPPs need to advance a lot.”

[1] Study by the Instituto Brasileiro de Pesquisa Social, 2010 – 77% of those interviewed came from two communities, Batam and Cidade de Deus, which of course creates significant potential for misrepresentation. Nevertheless, other studies generally affirm similar sentiments.

[2] Figures, released by the Instituto de Segurança Pública, only include 18 UPPs, those with at least two years of existence in order to give more consistency to the results – and therefore not including recently pacified communities, some of which have much higher murder rates, such as Rocinha.