Brazil’s "Pacifying" Police Units Move Toward Socio-Economic Integration of the Poor


On November 13, thousands of police and soldiers armed in full gear and arriving in tanks moved into one of the biggest slums in Latin America, a favela called Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro. The occupation – or “pacification” as it is called by the Rio government – is an important moment in the city’s policy toward its drug lords and favelas. These slums spot the hills that encompass the wealthier parts of the city and spread out throughout the rest of Rio, housing a total of about 20% of the population.

The type of action required to address and mitigate the decades of historic ills in the favelas will be far beyond a police occupation, however. To achieve true social integration, the Brazilian government is going to have to continue to bring its creativity and bold thinking far beyond "pacification."

Several days before the troops moved in, one of the city’s most powerful drug lords, Nem, was found locked in the trunk of a car trying to leave the city. Nem, like the rest of Rio de Janeiro, had been expecting the occupation, as per the government’s policy of announcing upcoming pacification operations of favelas. The operation was carried out without casualties or gunshots.

Whether the pacification can carry out its intended effects is still very much up in the air, however. Rocinha is located within the wealthiest areas of the city, sledged in between some of the most expensive neighborhoods where real estate reaches Manhattan prices. For many residents, its pacification is seen more as a strategic operation to quell worries about the presentability of Rio as the host city of the upcomng 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

There are more than 500 favelas in Rio, most marked by a pattern of basic architecture and water tanks and their steady climb up the city’s rolling hills and mountains, producing some of the most privileged views in the city. Historically, the majority of residents of favelas lack land deeds and basic city services, creating power vacuums seized by drug and militia lords that have provided sanitation, education, and infrastructure (however rudimentary) in return for compliance. 

In the past 50 years, the government’s policies in relation to the favelas have ranged from outright ignoring to street battles that verge on small civil wars. But as Rio and Brazil have grown in both economic prowess and political clout, officials have radically changed the way that they talk about the favelas. This change was made permanent with the announcement of the World Cup and the Olympics taking place in Rio.

In 2008, the city of Rio announced a new program called the Pacifying Police Units that would create a lasting police and government presence in favelas after special police and military forces cleared the communities of the drug lords. Besides assuring that the militias would not immediately retake the neighborhood (as was the norm in the past), the UPPs – as the pacifying police units are called – are meant to serve as a constant reminder of a state presence, paving to the way to integration. Currently, 20 of the over 500 favelas in Rio have UPP units, including some of the largest and historically most dangerous areas.

But the type of inequality seen in Rio is very different from the kind being protested on Wall Street. This is an inequality that brings with it exclusion and marginalization of even the most basic government services: An historic civic shunning of 20% of the city’s population, where the sort of American dream rags-to-riches stories are much more difficult to come by. The lack of basic services and education is not the only challenge for the UPPs and the Rio government – socioeconomic and geographic barriers, though subtle and very different from those in the United States, are incredibly strong and carry strong racial and classist implications.  

These social intricacies raise suspicions on all sides about the intent and effectiveness of the government operations – many see the occupations as a way to smooth over only the visible tensions, creating a false veneer to lure investors to the booming city and calm fears about violence during the World Cup and the Olympics, without addressing root issues. But even more daunting is whether the government can provide the services – and the sense of community – that have existed in many of the favelas. In Rocinha, for example, there has been very little violence in recent years. Residents have enjoyed a relatively well-run community that provides a sense of social identity and stability. Whether the government and the police, who are historically met with distrust in the favelas, can win over the hearts and minds while providing the services to lead to real social integration is certainly not a guarantee. 

Photo Credit: Julio Aguiar