Rio's slum 'pacification' effort stalls
as killings tick up
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[August 05, 2016]
By Brad Brooks
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Atop the chipped
blue metal table sat two 9 mm pistols and small plastic packets of
cocaine and marijuana. Two young men slouched in white plastic chairs,
while a third held a rifle in a corner 10 meters away.
It was midday this week, not far from a main road in Rocinha, Rio de
Janeiro's most developed and supposedly "pacified" slum that straddles a
mountain and sits right between the main Barra and Copacabana Olympic
A uniformed police officer stood just 150 meters away, up a sinuous,
narrow asphalted lane.
How long had the gang members returned to openly carrying weapons in
Rocinha, where 3,000 police and armored personnel carriers in late 2011
invaded to drive out traffickers?
"If you are not buying, move along," was the terse response from one man
at the table, who appeared to be in his late teens.
The scene was emblematic of problems plaguing the stagnated "police
pacification unit" program, or UPP, which started in 2008. Its ambitious
goal: to push heavily armed gangs from slums and construct permanent
There were early successes but they have faded with murder rates again
on the rise. A lack of serious follow-up investments because of
exhausted public finances and insufficient political will now threatens
the entire program.
While most residents are pleased the gangs have less of a presence than
before the program began, they also expected to see improved schools,
health clinics and sewage systems.
Rio's city government says it has spent $1.8 billion reais ($560
million) on social programs since 2011. But with so much need for the
roughly 20 percent of Rio's population that lives in slums, frustration
over what residents see as a lack of progress has exacerbated tensions
with heavily armed police.
"People around here are more afraid of the police than we ever were of
the drug gang," said Alex de Mello, a fishmonger who has lived 24 years
in Rocinha. "At least with the gangs, if you minded your business you
probably would be left alone."
To date, 38 police pacification units have been created, putting over
9,500 police into the shantytowns, or "favelas", where 1.5 million
people live, according to Rio's state government.
The effort was meant bring security ahead of the Olympics and the 2014
World Cup soccer tournament, with the promised legacy of delivering
basic social services to the favelas.
Authorities openly stated the effort could not end the drug trade, but
sought to at least disarm it. For several years, drugs continued to be
sold out of "pacified" areas but without the obvious presence of
weapons. That has changed.
For the first five years, the program was a smash success on the
security front. By 2012, murders in Rio and the surrounding Baixada
Fluminense area had plummeted 40 percent from the 2008 level of 3,856
"Then we had the Rocinha effect," said Robert Muggah, research director
at the Rio-based Igarape Institute, a security and development think
tank. "Pushback against the program began in 2013 and reached a
crescendo with the killing of Amarildo."
A 42-year-old construction worker who lived in Rocinha, Amarildo Souza
was abducted, tortured and "disappeared" by pacification police in July
They falsely claimed he had ties to gangs. His body has never been
Twelve officers were found guilty in his case, with the former commander
of Rocinha's UPP unit sentenced in February to over 13 years in prison.
Souza's death followed years of complaints of heavy-handed policing, and
was the final straw for residents fed up that the promised social
services never appeared.
Several subsequent episodes of police killing innocents, including
children, and officers caught colluding with drug gangs have made things
even worse. Add an ongoing recession, and public and institutional
support for new UPPs waned.
The last unit created was inaugurated in May 2014 - since then, nothing.
[to top of second column]
A general view of the Rocinha favela, one of the slums that was
included in the "police pacification unit" program that began in
2008, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 24, 2016. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly
Five years after the pacification programs began, homicides suddenly
spiked again. Killings in 2013 returned to the pre-UPP level, with
3,879 murders in Rio and Baixada Fluminense as emboldened gangs
carried out brazen attacks on police.
The killings dipped again for the following two years, but climbed
7.5 percent to 1,518 murders in the first six months of this year
compared to the same period in 2015.
As worrying, the number of people killed by police has jumped 12
percent in that same time frame. They spiked 62 percent in May and
June with 127 people killed by officers - mostly young, black and
Rio's outspoken Mayor Eduardo Paes has bashed state officials on the
security front, saying they have done a terrible job.
The state's security chief Jose Beltrame loudly laments the fiscal
crisis, openly questioning how he can adequately protect the
population when his 2016 budget was slashed by 30 percent.
Rio state, which oversees security forces, is the second most
indebted in Brazil. The interim governor declared a "state of
calamity" in June to secure enough federal funds to pay police and
keep hospitals open this year.
Renata Neder, a Rio-based human rights advisor with Amnesty
International, blamed the Olympics for the increase in police
violence because of more frequent slum raids.
"You increase the number of operations then you increase the number
of people being killed," she said. "The security for the Games is
resulting in rights violations."
Rio's state security secretariat said in an emailed statement that
"the UPPs are not going to end" and that a state decree from 2015
enshrining the pacification policy was a guarantee the effort could
not stop when new governments are elected.
Shantytown residents are not so sure.
A survey released last month by the Getulio Vargas Foundation think
tank found that over 43 percent of slum residents think the
pacification program "will end" after the Olympics, while slightly
over 41 percent think it will continue.
The survey questioned 2,000 people in 20 different slums.
Although gang members sell drugs and carry weapons, they still have
much less of a presence than before the pacification programs were
Jeruza Lima, a 28-year-old born and raised in Rocinha who runs a
tiny snack food store, said she thinks the UPP improved life in the
community and she hopes the policing effort continues for long after
the Olympics end on Aug. 21.
"You no longer see the gangs walking around heavily armed, setting
the rules of how we live our life," she said.
"For me, Rocinha is a better place now with the police here. They
can't go away – can they?"
(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Maria Pia
Palermo; Editing by Kieran Murray)
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