Fear and Backsliding in Rio

With just two months to go until the start of the World Cup, a sense of panic is gripping Rio. Cariocas, as the city’s residents are known, are less concerned about whether stadiums will be built on time than with the direction of the state police department’s once-lauded pacification program. The pacification police units — or UPPs — were intended to retake control of neighborhoods previously controlled by heavily armed drug barons, with the goal of eventually reintegrating these communities back into the city.

Many people now fear that the pacification police units are unraveling and that violence in some of Rio’s 600 slums — known as favelas — is getting out of control. The state’s governor recently called for massive reinforcements from the Brazilian Army, with more than 2,500 soldiers deployed to the Maré slum earlier this month. Local newspapers are predicting the demise of the state’s flagship public security program before the world’s biggest sporting event gets underway.

Violence and petty crime have clearly increased in some areas of the city over the past months. Nineteen police officers have been assassinated since the start of the year, more than in all of 2013. But the militarization of policing is likely going to make a bad situation worse. As heavily armed soldiers and shock troops begin pouring into the city’s largest favelas, Rio’s authorities risk reversing the progress made by the country’s most effective community policing experiment in a generation.

Instead, there is now tough talk of killing traffickers and liberating the city’s poor from the clutches of sinister drug gangs. Some media outlets are unintentionally stigmatizing the favelas as havens of crime and drugs, reinforcing the government’s hard line. Critically important discussions on ways to expand public services — health, education and sanitation — are being overtaken by the rhetoric of fear.

Yet for all its imperfections, Rio’s pacification program has generated impressive results. Since its launch in late 2008, the initiative has set up 37 permanent police posts targeting 257 communities and reaching approximately 1.5 million people. It has contributed to a dramatic 65 percent reduction of lethal violence in “pacified areas” between 2008 and 2012. In newly pacified neighborhoods, homicide rates are 9.2 per 100,000, compared with 18.8 per 100,000 in the rest of the city. These are startling numbers for a country that experiences on average 50,000 murders per year and has seen over a million intentional homicides over the past three decades.

There are also fewer civilian killings due to stray bullets, less open carrying of firearms, and a growing level of confidence among community residents to criticize violent policing operations and demand better quality public services.

Students in pacified areas today perform twice as well as children in the city’s public schools. There have also been some setbacks. Theft and robbery have increased in some areas, though this may be partly because crimes are more widely reported than before. There are also legitimate concerns that the gentrification in some pacified areas has forced locals to leave the neighborhoods they’ve lived in for decades.

Now, more than ever, there is a need to improve and consolidate public security efforts in Rio. Although it is tempting, the state and city governments must not resort to the repressive tactics of the past. They should recall that before the pacification program began, Rio’s military police killed 1 out of every 23 people they arrested between 1985 and 2008. By way of comparison, the New York Police Department registered a ratio of 1 in 37,000 between 2002 and 2011.

Today, there are more than 9,000 police officers newly trained in human rights and community outreach. While a small number have been implicated in the excessive use of force, they are not as ruthless as in the past. After all, pacification is not just about recovering territory dominated by armed factions, but also about pacifying the police.

But with elite troops now involved in training police pacification units, there is a risk of reverting to the harsh practices that haven’t been used since Brazil’s days under a dictatorship.

Rather than dispensing with pacification, Rio de Janeiro needs to double down on it. Public safety in Rio or anywhere cannot be achieved by focusing on policing alone. There is also an urgent need to reap the social and economic dividends generated by the pacification project. To do so will require letting people hold title to their property and improving access to basic services for low-income residents who are literally living off the grid. It will also mean identifying meaningful employment opportunities for poor young men — who are most likely to be the perpetrators and victims of violent crime.

In a crisis, there is a temptation to resort to “us” versus “them” narratives. This kind of discourse is especially tempting to politicians, like Rio’s, who are facing an election this October. Yet precisely the opposite is needed: a dialogue with the community leaders who live Rio’s war on a daily basis. This conversation needs to be joined not only by the police, but by politicians, entrepreneurs, academics and activists.

Pacification will fail if it is not accompanied by serious investment and a commitment to integrating hillside favelas with the glitzy beachfront neighborhoods where the better-off reside. And for genuine peace to emerge in time for the World Cup, much less the Olympics, Cariocas of all classes need to ask themselves what kind of society they want to build. Will security be a public good shared by all, or the preserve of a select few?

Robert Muggah is the research director at the SecDev Foundation and at the Igarapé Institute, where Ilona Szabó de Carvalho is executive director.

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