Security in Brazil: World Cup 2014 and Beyond

Pacifying Rio’s Favelas: innovation, adaptation or continuity?

Photo: SEASDH - Secretaria de Assistência Social e Direitos Humanos, Rio de Janeiro

Photo: SEASDH – Secretaria de Assistência Social e Direitos Humanos, Rio de Janeiro

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome Ben Penglase with the latest entry in our developing forum, Security in Brazil: World Cup 2014 and Beyond.

Brazil’s favela “pacification” policy, implemented by the state government of Rio de Janeiro beginning in 2008, is the most recent example of efforts by the Brazilian authorities to produce security. Coming before Brazil hosts the 2014 World Cup this June, and before Rio hosts the Olympics in 2016, and tackling that most visible and now internationally-renowned symbol of urban chaos – the city’s hillside favelas – the policy has attracted widespread attention. The Rio authorities have lost no opportunity to dramatize the supposed “take-over” of favelas by the army and police – often planting the Brazilian flag in neighborhoods “rescued” from drug traffickers – and the UPP (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, or Police Pacifying Unit) policy has become symbolic of a wider attempt by Brazilian authorities to create a safe urban landscape. Yet events in the past two years have called the UPP’s success into question. Shoot-outs between drug-dealers and police in several favelas where UPP units are in place, and a massive protest by residents of the favelas of Pavão-Pavãozinho and Cantagalo after the suspicious death of Douglas “DG” Pereira, have brought media attention to those who question the policy’s effectiveness.

In the midst of all this visibility and scrutiny of the UPP policy, several fundamental assumptions about the “pacification” policy often go unexamined. Drawing upon my own history of observing changes and continuities in policing in Brazil, and especially in Rio, for over twenty years, I would like to problematize these guiding assumptions which have often framed depictions of the pacification policy by both the media and Rio’s policy-makers.

The first, and most common assumption about the UPP policy is that it breaks with a prior pattern whereby the police – and more broadly the state – were absent from the city’s favelas, neighborhoods that house perhaps one-fifth of the city’s population. This assumption is often shared by both policy-makers and social scientists.  For example, after the occupation of the Vila Cruzeiro favela, José Mariano Beltrame, Rio’s secretary of public security and the man most often seen as the architect of the pacification policy, stated: “Our main objective is to retake territory. For years, the hills of Rio have been used as safe harbors by criminals, who committed barbarities and ran away, like cowards, to the favela” (Globo Online, November 26, 2010). Social scientists and reporters have likewise echoed this images of favelas as urban neighborhoods abandoned by the state, areas where government was too afraid, or negligent to intervene.

While the state has never provided public safety in favelas (and below I will question whether the UPP policy does this), these neighborhoods – at least in the city of Rio – have been repeated targets of attempted state control and discipline. These policies, of course, have been partial, contested and incomplete, and have generally treated favelas as a problem to be solved or contained. Almost as soon as the first neighborhood to be called a favela – the Morro da Providência, near downtown (though many other neighborhoods predated this one) – was built, state agents were present. Favelas were at first seen as representing a sanitary and health threat to the state. At the beginning of the twentieth century, public health officials attempted to carry out vaccination campaigns in these neighborhoods and other areas that housed the urban poor. In 1904, this public health campaign was met with city-wide rioting. The government of Getúlio Vargas, which came to power in the 1930s, in true Latin American populist fashion, saw favela residents as both a source of electoral support and an element to be contained and controlled. Vargas’s Código de Obras (Construction Code) of 1937 attempted to control the spread of favelas as Rio rapidly industrialized. By the 1950s and 60s, favelas and their residents were seen as both political and economic threats. Some favela neighborhoods occupying valuable real estate were forcibly removed, while the government also enlisted the help of the Catholic church’s Fundação Leão XIII to promote community organization in favelas. Unlike later Catholic-influenced community organizing, the Fundação Leão XIII, especially in its early years, pursued a paternalistic approach, feeling that the “backwardness” of favela residents made them susceptible to political manipulation. The motto of the Fundação Leão XIII was “we must go up the hill before the communists come down.”

By the mid-1980s, as Brazil democratized and the regional drug trade expanded, favelas came to be seen as a criminal threat. Accordingly, the Rio police authorities trained special units to carry out what some of their own members proudly called “urban warfare” in favelas. Overall, the one constant about favelas is that they have been repeatedly subjected to state policies that attempt to control them and discipline their inhabitants, while the state has repeatedly tried to legitimate these policies by claiming that it has neglected favelas.

The second common assumption is that the UPP policy represents a radical break with prior policing strategies in favelas. The policy, briefly, is carried out in three stages: first, the police’s special battalion, sometimes together with the armed forces, occupy favelas, apprehend drug-dealers, and confiscate weapons and illegal narcotics (though in practice the “occupations” are announced well in advance and few drug-dealers are arrested). In the second stage, after an initial period of military-style occupation, policing is handed over to the UPP unit, which establishes a permanent presence in favelas. Third – and this has been the aspect that has taken the longest to put into practice – state and municipal authorities are supposed to carry out a “social UPP” to bring “regular” public services to favelas.

It would be silly to claim that this policy does not reflect significant changes. Ever since favelas appeared on Rio’s landscape, they were not regularly patrolled and they have not seen any permanent police presence. But, as any reader who has paid attention to the recent American army occupation of Iraq might have already perceived, the UPP policy can be seen as a Brazilian adaptation of classic counter-insurgency doctrine, famously defined by U.S. General David Petraeus as “clear, hold and occupy.” This is not by chance. Many of the Brazilian army units and military commanders who have led “occupations” of Rio’s favelas were part of the Brazilian military’s peacekeeping operations in Haiti (see forthcoming Savell post in this forum). At the same time, though, the UPP policy also builds on prior, more scattered and isolated, experiments in community policing in Rio. Indeed, its innovation is in how it mixes community policing and counter-insurgency.

Recent events have shown that combining counter-insurgency with community policing can be a volatile mixture. Community policing requires that the police cultivate the cooperation of favela residents. Counter-insurgency takes as its central aim the military defeat of an enemy force. In many favelas, though, the lines that separate “the community” from drug-dealers are hard to draw. In Rio’s older favelas, like the one where I lived and did my research, involvement in drug-dealing goes back generations. Though very few favela residents actively participate in the drug-trade, those who do are connected to other residents through ties of kinship, friendship, and long-term propinquity. The police, however, are outsiders, and the benefits of cooperation with them are unclear. Favela resident are also, with good reason, skeptical of how long the UPP policy will last. Drug-dealers, on the other hand, may have become a less visible presence, but their ties to favela residents – as complex, contradictory and fraught as they often are – are deep. The sophistication with which the police handle these complexities appears to vary according to the skills of the commander of particular UPPs. The easier approach – and one that fits with a long tradition of policing in poor neighborhoods – is to treat favela residents, and in particular young dark-skinned men, as potential criminals. As a result, the UPP policy has had the effect of deepening the criminalization of favela communities.

And this connects to two other, deeper and perhaps more pervasive ways that the UPP policy is not an innovation. Policing in Brazil is largely carried out by two units, both of which are commanded by the elected governor of a state: the military police, who carry out day-to-day patrolling and respond to crimes in progress, and the civil police, an investigative unit. Many social scientists, policy-makers and human rights activists have argued that this structure produces a series of problems, as the two units often do not share information, compete against each other, and have two separate command chains. But changing this structure would require changes to the national constitution. The Brazilian police, and their numerous political supporters, have proven adept at flexing their political muscles to prevent reform. What the Rio de Janeiro government has tried to do is create a work-around solution by combining police precincts, attempting to coordinate police information-sharing, and hiring newer and younger police officers, supposedly less conditioned by entrenched bureaucratic structures, to command the favela-based UPPs. The larger structural problems associated with policing in Brazil – and in particular those that often encourage impunity for police who carry out crimes against civilians – have remained unaddressed.

And this takes me to the other way that the UPPs are not an innovation. Numerous scholars have argued that policing in Brazil, as in many other highly unequal societies, is not based upon the idea of providing public safety for all citizens, but is founded on the idea of enforcing social order. In a highly unequal society, that social order is inherently, and often explicitly, violent. Multiple recent events involving UPP police officers in favelas – including the controversial “disappearance” of Amarildo de Sousa, a brick-layer from the favela of Rocinha who was last seen alive entering a UPP police unit in July of last year – show that, as in the past, policing has not been based on a culture of rights and citizenship, but of control, discipline, and official impunity. Instead, daily life in favelas with UPPs is simultaneously “safe,” as shoot-outs are less common, and yet more pervasively militarized and criminalized.

The final assumption – one that in this case is shared by both favela residents and the media alike – is that the UPP policy is primarily aimed at improving Rio’s image before the World Cup and the Olympics. Of course the policy, and other similar ones carried out in Brazil’s big cities, has this goal. It is not by chance that when former President Lula travelled to Geneva to make the final pitch for Rio hosting the Olympics, he brought with him the commander of the UPPs.

Yet the Olympics and the World Cup, I believe, brought into focus a larger concern on the part of Rio’s business class: that the city’s reputation for crime and insecurity were a significant economic drain. Closely tied to this was the status of the city’s favelas as “grey zones,” existing largely outside of the legal, regulated business world. As millions of Brazilians began to emerge out of poverty in the first decade of the 2000s, and perhaps even more so as Brazil’s economic growth has stalled in recent years, favelas were surely seen as housing one-fifth of the city’s consumers.

The larger project, then, is to “regularize” and incorporate favelas and their residents into the city’s political, urban and economic infrastructure. This incorporation, as Luiz Antonio Machado da Silva and others have pointed out, means incorporation into a highly unequal system and at the lowest rung. Favelas had, of course, long been socially marginalized and excluded from city services. But as “self-built” neighborhoods, they are also, as Jake Cummings, Theresa Williamson and others have argued, an admirable example of sustainable low-cost housing: built by residents, shaped by generations of kinship ties, and connected to deep senses of identity and loyalty. It remains to be seen if the UPP policies, already under severe staffing and political constraints, will be able to make favelas into “regular” neighborhoods where residents would have to pay property taxes and utilities and where a host of local informal businesses might be regulated out of existence. But if the policy lasts past the Olympics, this will surely be its most important, and most complex and contradictory, result. Favela residents would lose some of the benefits of living in an “informal” neighborhood while it is unclear what benefits formality would bring. If this way of integrating favelas into Rio’s formal socio-political structures succeeds, and if it is not adjusted to be truly participatory and democratic, then increased security in the city of Rio might mean an increasingly precarious daily life for many of its residents.

Ben Penglase is an associate professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at Loyola University Chicago. His book Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela will be released by Rutgers University Press in August 2014.

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5 thoughts on “Pacifying Rio’s Favelas: innovation, adaptation or continuity?

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