In the wee hours of morning on a Sunday of last October, troops of the special forces of Rio de Janeiro's military police invaded the favelas of Manguinho and Jacarezinho, chasing out the gang members that had been ruling over the area until then. In the upcoming months, troops will remain in place until the situation is deemed stable enough for a permanent policing unit to take over, and city workers to bring much-needed public services to these zones of statelessness, just like what has been done in about 30 other favelas since 2008. This is the 'pacification' (or UPP, Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora/Police Pacification Units), a radical solution to a gang problem that has been plaguing the city since the 1980s, the success of which will influence not only the fate of Rio itself, but that of other cities around the world looking for a way to stop urban violence.
There is no doubt about the program's efficiency. This year, Rio's homicide rate is down to a 21-year low at 10.9 per 100,000 for the whole city, with the rate in pacified communities declining by 60 per 100,000. Police killings were down to 561 in 2011 from 1,330 in 2007, and studies show that trust is slowly being reestablished between favela residents and the police. The pacification is doing exactly what it's supposed to.
The pacification is doing exactly what it's supposed to. But it doesn't take long to understand why the program also has its critics. Clashes between residents and police officers as well as human rights violations are being regularly reported.
But it doesn't take long to understand why the programme also has its critics. Clashes between residents and police officers as well as human rights violations are being regularly reported. In Rocinha, three officers were charged last May for raping a woman who had been arrested for a robbery. This happened shortly after a leaked intelligence report accused commanders of taking bribes from local drug dealers.
Other side effects are starting to show. In pacified communities, rent and the price of utilities tend to go up, forcing some families to move out. In Vidigal, a community ideally located beside Ipanema beach, gentrification is in full force as students and foreigners looking for affordable housing in an otherwise saturated real estate market are moving into the now peaceful neighborhood. What's more, drug gangs have been fleeing their home turf for peripheral areas, where violence is surging.
Some residents doubt safety is the most pressing issue. Ask them what they would have done to improve living conditions in their community had they had the choice, and few would cite a military operation. 'For me, the pacification should mean to deal with garbage collection, sewers, or health,' says José Martins de Oliveira, who lives in Rocinha, where tuberculosis rates are skyrocketing.
So how did the pacification become a priority?
Rio's relationship with its favelas has always been tumultuous. Infrastructure upgrade and community policing programs, such as the GPAE (Grupamento de Policiamento em Áreas Especiais, or Policing Group in Special Areas) in the early 2000s, have ranged from somewhat successful to fully failing, often due to a lack of political commitment as Rio's city and state politics often clashed. For years, police have entered favelas only to conduct brief and violent operations targeted at traffickers, with innocent bystanders often getting caught in the middle. In 2009, politics at the city and state levels finally aligned, giving enough leeway for state Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame to craft an ambitious program that would break with previous approaches. This time, the focus is not as much on stopping drug trafficking as on restoring the control of the state over gang-ruled territories.
What also changed is the way authorities view the favelas — not as a dark spot on the map anymore, but as an unexploited source of revenue, since residents usually don't pay local taxes and get their utilities from illegal connections. '[The pacification program] is very clearly about expanding security for the upper and middle-class as well as revenue collection through taxation and service delivery,' explains Robert Muggah, a professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio and a leading expert on humanitarian action in non-war settings. Indeed, the second step of the pacification, right after invasion, is a 'shock of services,' in the program's own terms (cue the Naomi Klein theorists) — connecting utilities back to the grid and letting companies such as banks and cable providers move in.
Rio de Janeiro is on its way in changing from a derelict, crime-ridden former imperial centre of power to one of South America's most dynamic metropolises, and is currently trying to regain the trust of foreign investors in order to boost its development. To achieve this, it is going after two things: proving it can successfully host the biggest events in the world, and showing that the state is in control of its territory. So far, targeted favelas are located either in touristic areas of the city, around future venues for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, or close to major transportation corridors, which, even if officials are firmly denying the connection between pacification and mega-events, leaves some questioning the program's priorities.
Indeed, the second step of the pacification, right after invasion, is a 'shock of services,' in the program's own terms (cue the Naomi Klein theorists)--connecting utilities back to the grid and letting companies such as banks and cable providers move in.
Add to this regional and international hegemonic ambitions — Brazil has been lobbying for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council — and you start getting the bigger picture in which the pacification fits in. Several other cities in Latin America have been trying out militarised operations to solve the problem of urban violence, with varying degrees of success, and Beltrame himself has traveled to Colombia to witness the effect of such operations in Bogotá and Medellín. What all of these examples have shown, however, is that long-term change doesn't depend on policing only, but on implementing serious social programs and reforming the police and justice system.
'If success was to be measured as a function of real and perceived reductions in fatal violence, non-fatal violence, and property crime, then the nascent UPP program is clearly successful,' sums up Muggah. 'If it is determined by a reconstituted social contract with state providers regarded as legitimate, then UPP has some more work to do. If it is about ensuring a more equitable and inclusive social order that accounts for all citizens as equals above the law, then I think it is not succeeding.