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Rio Militarizes Its Favela Slums in Preparation for the 2014 World Cup

I have been in all kinds of crazy situations in my life, but I am always afraid of going to the Maré. Last time I was there I got stuck in the middle of a crowd of people running for cover as a machine gun was discharged directly outside the doorway of...

Photo by Alan Lima

Mega–sporting events traditionally go hand in hand with police clampdowns on the local population. As Rio de Janeiro gears up for the World Cup and Olympics, police have begun to patrol a selected number of favelas for the first time, in areas near where the games will take place, as part of a program called UPP (Police Pacification Unit).

Between 1978 and 2000, there were more murders in Rio de Janeiro than in the entire nation of Colombia. A parallel state emerged, where favela residents had to get permission from armed drug-trafficking gangs to go in and out of their own neighborhoods. Organized crime infiltrated the government. Members of police and military began selling machine guns to the gangs. Police chief after police chief was indicted for their involvement with organized crime, but they used the violence to justify increasing their budgets. The police bought tanks called caveirãoes and began invading favelas. Stray-bullet deaths skyrocketed and the violence began to spread out of the hills and into the middle-class residential areas. Then a new phenomenon began, as groups of off-duty police officers began driving drug gangs out of favelas and setting up protection rackets during their spare time, calling them militias. People wondered why this was so easy for them to do on their days off but so hard while they were on the job. Drug gangs released music videos on YouTube bragging about their weapons—in some cases military-issue antiaircraft guns. In 2008 the governor piloted UPP in a small favela, and police started to walk the beat and patrol inside. When a police helicopter was shot down by gang members in Morro de Macaco favela in 2009, the federal government stepped in and began to devote more attention to UPP.


In the smaller favelas, UPP was operated by the police alone, but in the larger ones it was managed in coordination with the armed forces, which had tanks and helicopters. After the military occupation, the police special forces came and searched houses for drugs and weapons, often without warrants. Eventually the regular police moved in, built bases, and started patrolling the beat.  It is important to note that the vast majority of Rio’s favelas are still controlled by drug-trafficking gangs and militias. UPP seems to be operating only in favelas near rich neighborhoods and areas where tourists will pass during the World Cup and Olympic games.

Marcio Meneses is a young journalist and resident of Morro da Providência, a favela that lives under a UPP program. During the original army occupation of his neighborhood, he was arrested for protesting.

Photo by Alan Lima

“This thing with the army happened when some of their guns disappeared,” he said. “They thought that the weapons were here in Providência. They were wrong, but they came here and occupied the hill. The media tried to act like a war was going on but there wasn’t one confrontation between the soldiers and the drug gang during the entire occupation. The problems started when some of the soldiers started shooting at people’s water tanks on top of their houses for fun. Then there was the episode with the teenagers. The army took three teenagers and dropped them off in a favela that was controlled by a rival drug gang, and the boys were tortured to death up there. So I began to get angry and one day I was listening to U2, and one of their songs got inside me, and I decided to make a banner telling them to go home. And this captain came up and alleged that I was defending the drug gang. They took me down to the nearest police station, but when they found out that I was a journalist they saw that it wouldn’t be so easy for them to prove that and they dropped the charges.”


Atila Roque, director of Amnesty International in Brazil, grew up in a poor suburb of Rio and was constantly harassed by the police as a teenager. He said, “The thing you have to know is that the Brazilian police was created to control the poor and protect the private interests of a small elite. What we are seeing now in Rio is that things are beginning to change. Even so, 560 people were killed by the police in 2011.”

I asked him about a report by the NGO Justiça Global that says during the year of the Pan Am games the police committed over 1,000 summary executions of poor people who had no criminal records.

He said, “We have seen that there has been a decrease of over 50 percent in police killings during the past five years in Rio de Janeiro. And we think that to a large extent this has happened because of the UPPs. I don’t think you should look at the UPPs as the silver bullet of public security because they have created a lot of other problems, but in the case of police killings they have caused them to go down. Even so, Rio continues to be the state where the police kill more people than anywhere else in Brazil.”

I ask him if, with the coming Olympics and World Cup, he thinks that the torture, harassment, and executions will increase because of security concerns.

“This is the risk. When you look at the issue of planned forced evictions we can already sense an incredible level of pressure on the poor. There is a clear attempt of the state to gentrify certain areas and to get the poor people out of the way, and of course the police are part of that dynamic.”


The Complexo da Maré is a group of low-lying favelas with over 300,000 residents that borders the highway between Rio’s international airport and downtown. It is the only area in Rio that has the presence of all three drug-trafficking gangs, a police station, and a militia, and it is one of the most dangerous areas in the city. In 2010, Mayor Eduardo Paes decided to hide the view of the neighborhood from the highway by building a wall, which he called an “acoustic barrier.” Now the government has announced that, with the help of the Navy, they will install a UPP program there this April. I decided to visit the neighborhood and talk to people about the upcoming changes.

I have been in all kinds of crazy situations in my life, but I am always afraid of going to the Maré. Last time I was there I got stuck in the middle of a crowd of people running for cover as a machine gun was discharged directly outside the doorway of the building I was in. Despite the occasional gunfire, most people I know who live in Maré love it and would never want to live anywhere else. I got off the bus on Avenida Brasil and walked into the favela. The drug gangs usually run their operations in the first block coming into the favela so that they don’t bother the residents with the noisy comings and goings of coke addicts. So it was no surprise that as I walked in I saw people counting huge wads of money, holding guns, and laying out bags of crack on a table. I learned later that the local trafficking faction doesn’t normally sell crack, but have decided to dump all of it here before the police occupation so that they can make some extra money before they have to restructure their operations. I walked through this area and into a lively neighborhood full of pedestrians, shops, bars, and commerce, and visited Eliana Sousa who grew up in Maré and runs a local community association called Redes that has helped over 1,000 neighborhood teens pass public-university entrance exams. I asked her how she thinks the World Cup and Olympics are going to change the security situation there.


“Could these events bring positive changes? Sure,” she says. “But these good things and good opportunities are compromised because we see that we haven’t been able to participate in any kind of potentially positive process related to these events yet.”

I asked her if she thinks the UPP arrival will be good for the community. She says, “It’s not easy, but we have been working to mobilize the people in the neighborhood so that we have a role in this process—something that we don’t see in the areas where UPP has already been established. There are cases of the state committing very serious violations during moments when, in theory, public security was supposed to be arriving in these regions. In Alemão favela there is a case that is being covered in the media right now where the police special forces (the BOPE) set up operations on this couple’s roof for eight months because it was a strategic location to observe the neighborhood. But they had no legal authorization to occupy that space. They held parties and barbecues up there, and the people ended up having to move out of their own house. We won’t accept something like this here in Maré. We have been going door-to-door and talking with residents about what their rights will be at the moment the police arrive to install a UPP Pacification unit. There won’t be any more conflicts between the armed criminal groups that operate here but at the same time you can’t allow the police to violate our rights either.”


I asked her about the wall the Mayor has put up hiding the view of the community and she says, “I don’t think that wall was put up because they were worried about the people who live here.  It was based on organizing the city in a way that it can receive tourists. They should make these types of decisions based on the welfare of the people who live here, but in this case they didn’t.”

I left Maré to meet the coordinator of the social programs for the UPP in one of the pacified favelas.

“I have some problems in thinking of the idea of pacification itself due to the concept behind it,” she said. Because ‘pacification’ implies that there was a war. A war of who against whom? What were the factors involved in this violence? I worked for ten years in Jacarezinho favela and it wasn’t pacified then. I was doing the same kind of work that I am doing here. So I think the big problem has more to do with the state not wanting to engage in dialogue with the community. And there are still serious security problems in the favelas, despite the so-called pacification program. The drug gangs continue to operate normally, they just don’t walk around openly with guns anymore. Even so, the fact that you no longer see guns on the street helps us build a future generation that will no longer grow up seeing guns everywhere, and this is something that is really positive. Another factor is this idea that since the guns are no longer visible there are no longer exchanges of gunfire between the police and the gangs, or between the gangs themselves. So the community is less of a hostage. But there are still a lot of things that have to move forward. And I think a good start for this would be starting an open dialogue between community residents and the commander of the police operations.”

I left her office with mixed feelings. It is obviously good that the gun battles have stopped, but isn’t this just window dressing for the Olympics and World Cup? If it is really going to be permanent, how can people have more say in how policing is conducted in their neighborhoods?