On June 30th, 2017, a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy was seriously injured during a crossfire between the police and drug trafficking gangs in the Favela do Lixão neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro. After doctors performed an emergency C-section, the baby was found to be in critical condition with serious injuries to his lungs and spine that paralysed him from the neck down. A day earlier, Maria da Conceição and her daughter Ana Cristina were shot and killed in the Mangueira favela while picking up Cristina’s son from school. These are just a few stories out of 181 shootings that took place in Rio during the last week of June according to Huffington Post.
Since the 2016 Summer Olympic Games hosted in Rio, the city has been plagued with an increasing amount of violence, particularly due to the ongoing battle between drug trafficking gangs and police officers in favela territory. While not at war by conventional terms, many favela residents feel as if they are living in a constant war zone, one that has only been intensified by rising unemployment rates and sharp budget cuts to public security. The city had made substantial progress to security during the games through the deployment of 80,000 soldiers and police officers, but despite such efforts, Rio’s homicide rate has actually increased by over 20 percent this year according to Reuters.
Since the 1980’s, when Brazil gradually moved away from military rule and toward democracy, the favelas increasingly became an important export node for illicit drugs and a territory entirely controlled by drug trafficking gangs. The dynamics began to change however in 2008 when the government launched the Pacifying Police Units program (UPP)–a state-run operation aimed at disarming the drug trade and reclaiming the favelas. The program was piloted in a handful of small communities where they began patrolling the streets by foot and getting involved in community policing initiatives sought to end violent confrontations between rival gangs and between police and gangs. They also rolled out a series of state operated social programs, including health clinics and daycares, creating a unique fusion of security and social welfare. The idea was to make the favela community more connected to the rest of Rio, bringing self-esteem and prosperity to communities historically linked to the stigma of violence and poverty. Although far from perfect, the program had great success in the years leading up to the 2016 Olympics games, as violent crimes, robberies and police killings significantly decreased.
After starting off with relatively “easy” favela communities, the UPP attempted to tackle Complexo de Alemao, a collection of 22 favelas home to at least 100,000 people. This area was under the control of the Comando Vermelho, the most dangerous and violent criminal organization in Brazil. When UPP officers ventured into Alemao, they were faced with an intense resistance, something that they had not yet encountered. As the days passed, it became more and more apparent that the Comando Vermelho were not willing to share the streets and it was only a matter of time before a battle erupted. Tensions reached an all time high in 2013 when a favela bricklayer went missing while in the custody of the UPP, who was later found to have been tortured to death by UPP officers. Citizens of Rio were outraged by the events, but no action was taken by the police to change the program’s policing strategies.
Nine years later into the experiment, the initiative, like everything else in Rio at the moment, is broken and virtually all progress made in reclaiming territory for the state has been lost. One contributing factor to the failure of the UPP is Rio’s economic crisis dating back to 2014. Brazil is currently in its worst recession since 1930, one that has put thousands of government workers’ salaries and pensions on hold and resulted in a 32% security budget cut according to the Globe and Mail. The government even had a hard time paying its police officers to the point where some couldn’t afford to fill a tank of gas for their police cruisers. With little funding for their basic duties, UPP officers have reverted to the plague of corruption. In fact, earlier this month, arrest warrants were issued for nearly 100 officers accused of taking bribes from drug dealers according to Al Jazeera.
There was also a significant disregard for intelligence, for young captains of the UPP often lacked crucial information and data, forcing them to rely on intuition to make decisions. Feeling frustrated and scared, police officers frequently shoot irresponsibly, resulting in stray bullets killing innocent people. This problem has always been inherent to the UPP program, but it was only brought to light when drug traffickers began to resist. In addition, officers have reverted to old policing techniques out of desperation, such as torture and excessive force as a form of intimidation, according to Amnesty International. They also kidnap and overlook crimes, giving way to powerful drug traffickers to grow their network and increase their grip on the favelas.
Lastly, there seemed to be a lack of dedication and follow-through for social services initiated during the launch of the UPP. Many clinics and community centre were built, but there were no staff to manage or operate these facilities. There was also a lack of coordination between the public security aspect and the social program aspect. For example, a new soccer field was built in Alemao, but it was never used because the UPP-stationed officers right in front of it and people were too scared of getting caught in the crossfire.
Moving forward, there are a few strategies to consider that may help revive the UPP and regain the respect of favela residents. The most important step of action is for the police to stop engaging in shootouts with drug traffickers. It is too often that we see innocent people killed when it could have been easily prevented. The UPP may think that they are fighting to reduce violence, however, they are only making it worse. Rio officials also need to invest in intelligence and training operations for young officers in order to skillfully target and arrest drug trafficking leaders instead of blindly engaging in warfare. It is possible that the alarming homicide rates could spark the interest of Rio’s officials to reexamine the current UPP policy, however considering the ongoing economic crisis, these suggested changes will be very difficult to implement without the funding to back it.
Another component to consider improving is the social programs that were essentially abandoned. If the UPP refrains from engaging in shootouts, perhaps citizens will feel safer using the social services that are in operation, such as sports facilities. The government could also partner with non-governmental organizations to manage facilities and provide opportunities for the youth to get involved, especially boys who are often recruited by gangs. For example, Doctors Without Borders, which employs local doctors, nurses, and engineers to provide medical aid actually closed all operations in Alemao by 2009, could prove to be useful in the conflict zone. Perhaps the organization would reconsider locating some of its efforts back to Rio’s favelas considering the recent cry for help.
If the government can manage to find funding to re-examine UPP policing strategies as well as partner with non-governmental organizations to revamp social programs, the UPP could really make an impact in the favela communities once again. Unfortunately, as of July of this year, the government announced that they would escalate efforts to ensure the safety of Rio residents by deploying 10,000 troops to the areas with recent clashes between police and gangs. This suggests that authorities are continuing to rely on heavy-handed policing tactics to deal with crime, a strategy that has contributed to the demise of the UPP in the first place.
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