Pacifying Police Unit: Is the dream over?

In Brazil 6% of the population live in slums, about 11.4 million people[1].On the 2010 census Rio de Janeiro State had around two million people living in these conditions[2]. The Rocinha Slum is the emblematic example on the prevalence of this type of urban settlement in Rio de Janeiro. According to IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), it is the most densely populated, with around seventy thousand residents[3], a number disputed by the residents, who claim that the correct amount of people is between 180 and 220 thousand people. Always left behind on the sharing of benefits produced by the city, the slums remain with chronic social problems, especially the violence. The constant shootings between the police and the drug cartels which terrorized the residents and their neighbors were the source for countless protests and promises of change by te public authorities.

When created by the end of 2008, the new project of police intervention in the slums of Rio de Janeiro - Pacifying Police Units (UPP) - was labeled as “unique police force model and came with the promise of a radical change in the state public safety policies. The proposal inverted the established logic used but the police in the Rio de Janeiro slums: to stick around for a short time, in fast incursions with a balance of dozens of victims of shootings. After five years from the implementation of the first UPP, there is already 39 units spread around 264 slums in Rio de Janeiro.

The pacification policy, as it was known and which has the UPP as a model, is conducted through the police permanence in the slums, with the implementation of the local command in the state buildings or even in containers, in the locations strategic places. In addition, in some locations, the buildings have been taken by the state from the drug cartels, in a symbolic reference to the current police dominance over the criminals areas. With that, the police maintains permanent vigilance on the community streets and alleys, and executes arrest warrants. José Mariano Beltrame, Rio de Janeiro Public Safety Secretary, asserts that at this moment the UPP objective is “to remove the location from the drug cartel”, it will not end the drug trafficking, because it does not have this intention. Thus, what ended up happening was the continuity of the drug trafficking in the slums, modifying its drug sale and control methods, i.e., in some communities with a delivery service and certainly without the ostentation of heavy weaponry.

The UPP updates old initiatives from the so called “proximity police” and from the “community police”, but with a more amplified spectrum than the previous projects, bring within its projection the promise to eliminate the shootings that left thousands of dead per year, victims of “stray bullets”, making it possible to have enough safety for the arrival of businesses in theses locations, such as banks or commerce etc. or the distribution of water, energy and cable TV services. Light, the electric energy company, predicted that it could increase its billing in the slums from R$ 3.2 million (1 million Euros) to R$ 24 million (7.4 million Euros) annually. The CEDAE, water company, from R$ 360 thousand (111 thousand Euros) to R$ 3 million (940 thousand Euros) annually. The pacification price has also come to the slum residents. But this was also part of the dream of being a citizen. It is just that the government basic investments in  health, education and housing improvements have yet to happen, what causes suspicion to the residents.

According to a research by the Center for Studies on Public Security and Citizenship (CeSec:2012), the perception of the police officers who work at the UPPs is not very flattering: in ten, five UPP officers criticizes the training they received for the job, carried by the Military Police itself. The majority of these officers considers important to keep carrying a rifle (92%), a weapon that is not adequate to community policing. They are divided by the perception they have of the residents in relation to the work done by the UPP - 46% think that the majority of the residents has negative feelings (such as fear, suspicion or anger) and 44% think that the local population has positive feelings (such as empathy, admiration, acceptance), while 10.3% think that indifference is the predominant feeling. From the total surveyed, 33.2% are partially or completely engaged in the project, while 51.3% are neutral and 15.5% are partially or completely against the project. One of the main complaints is that a UPP police officer is not considered in the corporation as a “true" police officer, exactly due to the fact that community policing does not have an inherent value, which is at a disadvantage when compared with the armed confrontation. In some slums they are called “smurfs”, in reference to the children cartoon of the 1980s, or “the UPP” and not, the police officer.

The study “The Slum Owners”, by the researchers Ignacio Cano, Dorjam Borges and Eduardo Ribeiro[4] on the UPPs indicates that the choice of the majority of the UPPs favored locations with higher Human Development Index and target of tourist visits and not those with high rates of criminal activity. The homicides decreased in 75% and the carjackings in 50%. However, other crimes had an exponential increase, such as seriously bodily injury, threats and crimes related to drugs (comprehending arrests for trafficking, use, cultivation and sharing). The research also demonstrates that cases of domestic violence have almost triplicated, in which the researchers show the possibility of a sensation of security leading to more reports. Disappearances increased in 92%, what may mask the number of homicides in these locations.

The “marriage" with the UPP project lives highs and lows: 38 civil and 11 police officers have already been killed by the police actions in the areas with UPPs. Less than previous years, but it is still alarming. The disappearance in 2013 of Amarildo Dias de Souza, a construction worker helper, after being detained by military police officers from Rocinha UPP became a symbol of the non-stop police brutality, even after the UPP implementation. Several national and international NGOs demand the case solution and created the campaign “Where is Amarildo?”, but he is still missing. Another emblematic case was the death inside Pavão-Pavãozinho of Douglas Rafael da Silva, known as DG, a dancer of a TV show. The suspicions point to UPP police officers as the perpetrators.

The recent problems, such as the drug trafficking offensive, with attacks to the UPPs left a result of injured police officers and a trail of destruction: burned buses and policer cars, impacted stations. In addition to that, it amplified the suspicions of the slum residents who already live a confrontational relationship with the UPPs, what to the specialists can represent the strain of the program in its initial format. The sociologist Ignácio Cano alerts that “the UPP remained at its inicial stage: it occupied territories and police were placed there, but it did not advance enough in the relationship changes and in the dialog between the police and the community[5]”, seen as the main deficit of the program.

Luis Eduardo Soares[6], former Rio de Janeiro public safety secretary and one of the authors of the constitutional amendment (PEC-51) which has the objective of radically altering the institutional architecture of the country public safety, asserts that public safety must be offered as 24h service, like the other social services performed by the State, what is not the logic for the poor areas. For Soares, the police demilitarization would be essential, i.e., the loss of the military nature, given by the organic ties with the Army.

The residents and critics complaints met some response from the authorities and the social UPP was created, associated today to the Rio de Janeiro City Hall. According to the city government, the social UPP coordinates projects and policies in many spheres of the Executive branch, in addition to being a channel for permanent dialog with the private sector. In this sense, the investments through the Public Private Partnerships are encouraged. The investments from 2009 to February 2014 was of R$ 1.6 billion (560 million Euros), and about R$ 1 billion of this sum went to the Program Living Carioca, a project for the urbanization of the carioca slums.

Another difficulty to analise cost versus benefits in reference to the UPPs is knowing exactly how much they cost to the State. According to the site R7, the average annual cost for the implementation of a UPP with one hundred police officers was around R$ 3.8 million[7]. Thus, keeping the financial support to the UPPs after mega events might become a problem.

Despite all the attention from the media, the skeptics inquire what would be the public safety policy for other areas of the city, since the UPP does not solve all the problems, not even within its jurisdiction. The UPP command ends up getting involved in other disputes and needing to mediate situations which are not part of the police mandate, like the regulation of the funk dance party, the motorcycle taxi service, etc. This disciplinary action inside the communities tries to inaugurate a new social order, with personal movement control, this time from the State.

But the slums regulation cannot be achieved only but military actions, because since it is not adequate to the “asphalt”, it cannot be adequate to this territories. And if this is true, there is a problem: the city of Rio de Janeiro has around 1,071 slums[8]! and controlled in its majority by the drug cartels of the militias (groups of [former] police officers, vigilantes etc who act from the extortion of business people and residents).

The residents opinion about the UPPs is divided. The decrease in the shootings and drug trafficking armed force brought relief and a sense of security. But at the same time, the promise not yet fulfilled of improvements of services provided by the State, such as basic sanitation, schools, health clinics etc, in addition to the police brutality, led the residents to frequent confrontations with the police and criticisms to the government policies. The slums are not monolithic, but fractioned by differences in eduction and housing among its residents, what to a careless observer is the same thing. This fact brings consequences, like the different perception between those who have better living conditions, in the community realities and those who do not. To the latter group, the more inclusive public polices would be vital in their life context.

Remaining after five years is what many activists and researchers already said: one cannot think of Rio de Janeiro and not think about its slums. They are distinctive marks of the city, from them there is an imagining which combines poetry, music and violence, but very little of citizenship. Zuenir Ventura, a carioca writer, is the author of a famous book that explains the feelings under which the cities disputes are involved: Rio de Janeiro is a “broken city”, between the hills (slums) and the asphalt (poor city outskirts and slums versus the middle/upper middle class). But Jailson de Souza, one of the creators of the Slums Observers, an NGO born inside the Maré slum and that keeps developing projects in this community, goes in a different direction and maintains that, in reality, it is not the city but the State which is broken, because it favors parts of the city with public services with better quality and quantity, such as the police action itself, with the objective of protecting and serving this population. And to other regions, such as the slums or the city metropolitan areas these services are not adequate.

Despite the obvious connection to the mega events, the UPPs creation also means a city project conceived by the government, i.e., to enforce and enlarge the Rio de Janeiro image as an international center for tourism and business. Therefore to establish safety standards for visitors and companies in specific areas is fundamental. Thus, areas which are distant from this objective will continue to be left behind or with inadequate public services, which is the case of part of the city West Zone and the Baixada Fluminense, practically irrelevant to this project, since most of the inhabitants have low levels of education and income, in addition to high levels of urban violence.


[4] CANO, Ignácio; BORGES, Doriam; RIBEIRO, Eduardo. Os donos do morro: uma avaliação exploratória do impacto das Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPPs) no Rio de Janeiro. São Paulo: Fórum de Segurança Pública; Rio de Janeiro: LAV/UERJ, 2012.

[8] Available at Access on 15/03/2014.