ISSN 2330-717X

Patrolling Rio’s Favelas: From Pacification To Police State? – Analysis


Rio de Janeiro’s new Police Pacification Units, designed to take back the city’s favelas from drug dealers, represent a doctrinal and operational revolution away from police business as usual. The widely praised program, however, is not without its critics, who worry that it will turn each newly pacified neighborhood into a quasi-police state.

By Albert Souza Mulli for ISN Insights

Despite being hailed as Brazil’s most beautiful city, Rio is notorious for the relentless violence of its decades-old war on drugs. The ubiquitous sense of insecurity that permeates the daily lives of cariocas, Rio’s native inhabitants, is a result not only of drug gangs’ violent territorial rule of the city’s poorest communities – a consequence of decades of neglect and poor governance by public authorities – but also the police’s repressive militaristic approach to containing and confronting the drug trade. In fact, most of Rio’s residents have come to see the state, not the drug dealers, as their greatest source of insecurity.

However, when Rio featured in international headlines on 28 November 2010, this conception of the police as the enemy appeared to have been turned on its head. In staging a 2,600-man strong raid on the Complexo do Alemao the city’s biggest, 13-community favela, known for being the drug trade’s headquarters – the police encountered a local population with an unprecedentedly sanguine disposition. As police officers and federal military troops made their way through the jagged streets of the Alemao, jubilant crowds cried out in support of the police operation. Those normally used to taking refuge during the traditionally brutal police raids instead headed into the streets and onto rooftops bearing handwritten signs and waving Brazilian flags, chanting in gratitude to the police. The forceful takeover of the Alemao seemingly transformed the image of Rio’s police, in less than two hours, from one of villainy to one of heroism.

What catalyzed this notable change in the popular perception of Rio’s historically violent and corrupt police force? Colonel Mario Sergio, general commander of the Rio state police, said that “the residents kn[e]w that we came here to bring peace to the population,” a direct allusion to the Rio state government’s newly-developed favela pacification program – UPP.

UPPs – revolutionizing community policing

Known simply by the acronym UPP, the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacification Unit) program is, according to the state government, aimed at reclaiming favelas currently controlled by Rio’s various drug factions in order to establish peace and return full citizenship to these long-neglected sections of the population. Even the most skeptical acknowledge that the UPP does indeed mark a doctrinal and operational departure from usual police strategy.

Rio’s traditionally militaristic approach to policing, apart from being violent and unaccountable, was not based on trustworthy intelligence; it did not have the support or input of the local population, and rarely led to any investigations that could have had a substantial and long-term effect on disrupting the drug trade. Instead, police raids were aimed at killing or arresting drug dealers, and confiscating as many drugs as possible.


The UPP program moves away from this heavy-handed approach, and instead establishes a permanent police presence in the community. In other words, rather than raiding and leaving, the “police enter to stay,” José Mariano Beltrame, Rio de Janeiro’s Secretary for Public Security, notes. The real innovation in the UPP strategy, then, is the claim to community policing. Members of the Unit are able to draw on sound intelligence, using their physical proximity to the community to gather valuable information to better combat crime. UPP police officers are highly visible, as they establish a base in the strategic heart of each favela – usually in the same place from which drug dealers formerly staged their operations. Moreover, they conduct frequent patrols on foot, and organize skill development workshops for residents. In some favelas, the officers even create youth sports clubs and schools to encourage the replacement of drug-related violence with a more peaceful form of socialization.

The decision to institute this type of community-friendly policing comes as no surprise. Colonel Robson Rodrigues da Silva, Commander of the UPP program, claims that “the process taking place through the installation of the UPPs seeks to bring legitimacy to the police, to gain the public’s trust.” As the only government institution logistically capable of carrying out such an ambitious pacification effort, the police required an image makeover; community-based policing, then, aims to show the population that the police are there to serve them – not shoot them.

From community policing to counterinsurgency?

Despite media approval, and the support of political elites and the population at large, the UPP program is not without flaws. First, many have claimed that the stated UPP objective of serving the poor and marginalized residents of the favelas is misleading. In fact, most UPPs are being installed in favelas close or directly adjacent to middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, leaving many to conclude that the program is merely a temporary effort to quell violence in the city’s most strategic neighborhoods ahead of the 2014 World Cup, and 2016 Olympic Games. This casts doubt on the government’s claim that the UPPs do not seek just short-term security, but rather the long-term gains of economic and social development pursued after the pacification of each community. However, as the promised deluge of public goods and services has failed to materialize, many residents have become skeptical of the program’s true intention.

Furthermore, Professor Luiz Antonio Machado of Rio de Janeiro State University argues that the police’s role in the pacified communities has not been as innocuous as claimed. In filling the power vacuum left by the drug trade, the police become the main conduit for social activity. As Machado argues, “the greatest risk of the UPPs is to have the police become the only channel through which residents can express their demands,” which would turn each pacified favela into a quasi-police state. He believes the police as an institution is not qualified to deal with social affairs and should, therefore, refrain from doing so.

Colonel Robson, on the other hand, believes that this is what community policing is all about. For him, “the police should indeed play a role in social development,” (emphasis added). In this sense, then, the UPP is going beyond the mandate envisioned by community policing.

Instead of just cooperating with the community in order to make police work more efficient and effective, the UPP officers are themselves acting as agents of social development, doing work that police do not usually do. This is very similar to the role of soldiers in the US counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan, with UPP officers seeking to gain the ‘hearts and minds‘ of Rio’s population through social development and engagement programs. Some see this as a positive development, but many, like Professor Machado, remain skeptical and fear that the conflation of policing and social development will only reinforce the creation of a police state in these pacified areas.

Facing growing public pressure, the municipal government inaugurated the UPP Social in late 2010, a specialized government entity responsible for mediating local grievances and providing public services in pacified areas. Clearly developed with the aim of dispelling fears that the UPP program would be short-lived and elite-centered, the UPP Social faces a great challenge: how to fully integrate areas and populations long forgotten and rejected by a city scarred by socio-economic segregation and discrimination. This certainly will not be an easy task because, as Colonel Robson said, “we are changing the tire [of the car] while driving.”

Albert Souza Mulli works for the Kofi Annan Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. He holds a Bachelor from Vassar College in New York, and is currently completing a Master in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. He formerly worked as an ISN intern. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

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