Police Pacification Units (UPP) in Rio Favelas

For years, favela residents have been beleaguered by drug-trafficking violence, while the government turns a blind eye (read more about it here).  Fortunately, at least in Rio, things are starting to change.  Thanks to the upcoming Olympics and World Cup, Rio has been forced to take action, so that the city can become the safe place that it promised to be for these events.

The Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (UPP) is a police pacification unit put forth by the state of Rio in 2008.  UPP is a team of police officers that have been trained in community relations.  The government has resolutely tried to eradicate the corrupt police; consequently, the UPP officers come directly from the UPP police academy.

First, BOPE officers are sent into the favelas to get rid of the drug traffickers.  Then, a UPP is implanted in that favela to introduce state presence and encourage legalization of the favela. Moreover, the government is working to assimilate the favela residents into the city, by implementing social projects and improving the transport, health services and electricity network.

pacification unit in the Rochina slum of Rio

Where there are UPP officers, crime has dropped drastically and property value has increased.  A July 2012 survey in the favelas where there has been UPP showed a decrease in the number of murders, including murders related to shoot-outs with police.  Crimes that previously went unreported, such as theft, domestic violence and rape, are now appearing in crime statistics.  On top of this, many people are starting to speak more openly about previously taboo topics.

The problem is that, as of October 2012, only 28 favelas have UPP officers, most of which are favelas in Rio’s affluent South and Central Zones, exactly where the Olympics will take place in a few years (this is hardly any coincidence).  As Forbes stated, this only

…further [marginalizes] the relatively poorer communities trapped under gang and militia rule on the city’s northern and western outskirts.

All of the favelas with UPP are in the Olympic areas

Most of the favelas with UPP are in the Olympic areas (circled)

Furthermore, as Forbes also claimed,

…there have been complaints about the implementation and there is a long held mistrust between residents and police officials, the former enemy who represented a violent threat on their community, that will take a long time to bridge.

Rio police: feared by many favela residents

Rio police: feared by many favela residents

At the same time, the UPP program is a huge step forward for Rio.  As Forbes put it, finally, this cidade maravilhosa is

…making its first steps toward a point where the deeply ingrained notion of the cidade partida, or divided city, is a thing of the past.

One of Rio’s favelas

For more information on this favela transformation, check out this extremely informative article by The Financial Times. 

While it’s wonderful that the city has finally taken action to resolve this catastrophe, one question remains: why did it have to take the impending Olympics and World Cup for Rio to do something about this?  Will, as many favela residents fear, the pacification efforts cease after the Olympics in 2016? One carioca I spoke with voiced similar concerns:

pra mim a UPP é uma forma de manter as favelas em segurança, ela mostra que a polícia ta com o poder, de certa forma… mas infelizmente a gente aqui no Rio sabe que isso só ta acontecendo por causa das Olimpíadas e da Copa. É muito provavel que depois desses dois eventos tudo volte a ser como era antes. A polícia militar e os traficantes andando juntos…é uma coisa muito difícil de ser mudada…os políticos nao querem ajudar o pais, eles querem ser eleitos pelo salário. (For me, the UPP is a way to bring safety to the favelas…it shows that the police has a lot of power…but unfortunately, in Rio, we think that this is only happening because of the Olympics and the World Cup. It’s very likely that after these two events, things will go back to how they were before: the military police and the drug traffickers working together. It’s a very difficult thing to change…the politicians don’t want to help the country, they only want to be elected and make money for themselves.) 

The deep-rooted corruption in Brazil seeps through all levels of society and is a huge part of why favelas even exist in the first place.  Let’s hope that, at the very least, the UPP is here to stay. For despite criticism of the program and how it may have arisen, I’d say it’s providing a pretty hopeful future for favela-dwellers.  And if Rio can clean up its act, there’s no telling what lies ahead for the rest of Brazil in the years to come…

If you’re interested, check out the documentary-style film about the UPP, called 5x pacificação, coming out in Brazil soon.  Take a look at the trailer here (unfortunately, there are no English subtitles for this one):


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