Only two years away from the next Olympic Games in RIO, Brazil’s program of sending special police units to take favelas out of the hands of criminal gangs has been widely praised, but now finds itself facing allegations of abuse and corruption.
The Pacifying Police Unit, abbreviated UPP (from portuguese Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora), is a law enforcement program
in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which aims at reclaiming territories, more commonly favelas, controlled by gangs of drug dealers or private militias.
The areas targeted by the UPP program have usually had some public utilities and services taken over by a cartel of criminal organizations; this often leads to a recurrence of extortion and tax evasion. The UPP comprises measures such
as intensive policing and improvements in social services to meet the needs of locals, while overt criminal activities are inhibited. Typically, the establishment of an UPP in a favela is spearheaded by Rio de Janeiro’s elite police battalion, BOPE. Each new Pacifying Police Unit is composed of hundreds of trained policemen, who work with the program for an indefinite period of time.
Now numbering 17 battalions in about 13 neighborhoods, the UPPs have been accompanied by dramatic dropsin homicide and theft rates. Another encouraging sign is that the program has been well received by residents, and some neighborhoods without UPP units — including Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela — have started lobbying for one.
But the program is beginning to show many of the same cracks that afflicted the previous similar programs. This is parttly due to lack resources like decent headquarters, bullet-proof vests and weapons. Also, a unit commander was recently fired for accepting bribes. Even Rio’s governor, admitted that the program was showing signs of weakness.
If the UPP’s goal is defined as promoting safer environments in
select poor communities, the project has already proved to be successful. The question is whether the UPP will achieve the more ambitious objectives set out by the government. This includes changing the fundamental relationship between the police forces and favelas. It means creating a more enlightened police force which has the necessary institutional support to discourage corruption. It means considering the successes and failures of prior community policing initiatives, and learning from them.
If the UPPs can survive changes in governance, and the Olympics and World Cup fever, Rio de Janeiro may yet be able to boast a policing model that the rest of Latin America and the World would do well to imitate.