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Beyond Pacification in Rio de Janeiro

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Co-authored by Ilona Szabo de Carvalho

Rio de Janeiro is facing a new crisis. The social protests that started in June and July 2013 are taking a sinister turn. For the most part peaceful and progressive, a handful of demonstrators are resorting to increasingly violent tactics. The military police were also filmed using excessive force against protesters and journalists. And while all politicians suffered a loss of popularity owing to their poor handling of the situation, some fell harder than others. One of the unintended casualties of the deteriorating situation is the city's flagship public security program, the pacification police units (UPP).

A sense of panic is spreading across society circles. With the changing of the leadership of the military police last week, there are fears that the UPP enterprise will unravel. Ironically, this crisis of credibility is occurring at precisely the moment when evidence shows that pacification works. Many people may have forgotten just how things were a decade back. For those living on the asphalt, safety could be procured by building higher walls and securing private guards. Yet for most favela residents, life was dreadful. And yet today, more than 33 favelas, home to as many as 1.5 million residents, are considered safer.

While there are many serious shortcomings of the UPP experiment, it is important to challenge a number of myths about the initiative.

The first is that pacification was launched exclusively to prepare the city for the 2016 Olympics. The truth is that UPPs were designed and deployed well before Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Games in 2009. The first UPP was installed in 2008. Moreover, the antecedents of the UPP actually extend back to 2000 during the time of the Police Group for Special Areas (GPAE). There are also clear indications from Rio de Janeiro's Public Security Secretary Beltrame that pacification is intended to continue long after the mega events have ended.

A second myth is that pacification is intended to benefit the South Zone alone. It is true that the first UPP was installed in the Dona Marta favela, home to roughly 8,000 residents in the South Zone. Around the same time, pacification was also extended to the East Zone, with units established in City of God and Batan, a combined population of 90,000 inhabitants. Since then, 23 of the remaining 30 pacified areas are located outside the South Zone, often far from wealthier neighborhoods.

The third myth is that pacification is not working. Consider the numbers. Before pacification, Rio registered roughly 42 homicides per 100,000 people in 2005 -- with most victims consisting of poor black youth. Today, the homicide rate has declined to 26 homicides per 100,000. While the murder rate is intolerably high, the improvements are irrefutable. Rio de Janeiro is safer for all of its residents than in the past. A continuing problem, and one recognized by the military police, is the way that violent crime is transforming, and in some cases spreading to other cities and states.

Another myth is that the UPP are regularly rejected by favela inhabitants. There is frequent criticism of the ways in which the pacification police crack-down on so-called Baile Funk parties and continue using heavy-handed tactics. Yet most opinion surveys confirm that pacification is welcomed in communities where it takes place. A common complaint now heard in some areas is "when will the UPP be installed in my community?" Far from deterring social capital, the UPP are triggering new forms of reciprocity and exchange within and between favelas.

The pacification program is about more than simply recovering territory dominated by armed gangs. It is about fundamentally rewiring the social contract between all of the city's residents. At the heart of the UPP program is an attempt to pacify the police and introduce a new doctrine and practice to ensure more proximity between officers and civilians. And the results on this score, while not perfect, are impressive. In less than five years more than 8,000 UPP police have been trained in human rights and community policing, and this in a force of 10,000. Obviously more training and oversight is needed.

A recurring criticism is that pacification is short of a meaningful social agenda. Although initially anticipated in the erstwhile UPP Social initiative, tangible investments in social and economic services have yet to materialize. The UPP project is therefore at the risk of becoming a form of prolonged occupation. There is also a danger that it ends prematurely owing to a lack of institutional continuity. It is vital that pacification be conceived as more than a collection of entitlements, but rather as a public good. To succeed, it will require major public and private investment, including from social leaders, youth networks and business.

Pacification must be strengthened and accelerated. There is reckless tendency to casually dismiss the improvements generated by the UPP since its inception. The fact is that they have achieved much in a short period of time, highlighting how favelas are well-springs of innovation with much to contribute to the city. It is true that there are many gaps and limitations in the pacification enterprise. But if it is to be successful, a wide constituency of Cariocas -- and not just the government -- must be involved in constructing a long-term vision. It is only this way that positive peace will be built.

Robert Muggah is research director of the Rio-based Igarapé Institute and a principal of the SecDev Group. Ilona Szabo de Carvalho is the director of the Igarapé Institute