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The Murder Rate Is Down in Rio — But Its Cops Continue to Kill

The authorities claim that the drop in homicides to their lowest level since 1991 is largely due to a special favela policing strategy, though others say more attention is also needed to shocking levels of police brutality, including a string of...

by James Armour Young
Jan 28 2016, 3:45pm

Photo by Antonio Lacerda/EPA

While Rio de Janeiro's state government celebrates the drop in last year's murder rate in the city to 18.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants — the lowest since 1991 — others say the authorities should pay more attention to extreme police brutality.

"There's still a lot to do, but by bringing down the murder rate, we're playing our part," Rio state security secretary José Mariano Beltrame told Brazilian media following the release of the latest official figures that now show homicides declining since 2007, when the rate was 37.8 murders per 100,000 residents. "We can be proud of the statistics."

Related: Nearly All of the World's 50 Most Violent Cities Were in Latin America in 2014

The authorities claim that the drop is largely due to a special favela policing strategy that began in 2008, when the first Police Pacifying Unit, or UPP, was installed in the Santa Marta community in the south of Rio. UPPs are heavily fortified police stations constructed in neighborhoods previously dominated by violent drug gangs. 

"The UPPs break up the sales systems of the drug gangs," Beltrame said of the 38 such units that are now spread across the city.

Among favela residents, however, the UPPs and the continued aggressive behavior of the city's police force have generated as much criticism as praise.

"Brazil and Rio de Janeiro have no concept of community policing," said writer Julio Ludemir, who lives in the city's Babilônia favela. "Instead of doing something different, you have the worst type of policing built around prejudice against the poor, especially young black males. When there are five young black men together in the city's deprived urban areas, you end up with a massacre."

He was referring to the shocking murder of a group of five young men in the north of Rio in November. Their car was riddled with bullets by police as they drove home after a Saturday night spent celebrating one of the group finding a new job.

It was just one of a string of high profile incidents of police brutality that have made the headlines in recent months. Last year an Amnesty International report said that the Rio police were responsible for 1,500 murders in the last five years — 16 percent of the total number of homicides in the city.

Ludemir said that police brutality is one of the reasons why favela residents that had first welcomed the UPPs have since turned against them.

"The UPPs in Complexo do Alemão or Rocinha or Cidade de Deus (three sprawling Rio favelas) are hated by locals because of the aggressive behavior and corruption of the police," he said. "At first they gave the impression that things would be different, but now it's just the same as it always was."

The Rio government, meanwhile, says that action is being taken to reduce police brutality. Four officers were arrested soon after the November murders.

Related: This Report on Brazil's Prisons Exposes a "Human Rights Disaster"

Political scientist Ilona Szabó, director of Rio's Instituto Igarapé research center, acknowledges the seriousness of the police violence that she says is linked to the legacy of Brazil's dictatorship.

"There are several cases of police involvement in so-called auto-resistance killings and other serious violations of human rights," she told VICE News. "Many of these acts have involved police abusing, torturing, and disappearing of especially young black men living in low-income areas."

At the same time, however, she believes that the UPPs represent a positive step.

"The intervention has contributed to a dramatic and significant drop in homicidal violence," she said. "There are a number of quantitative and qualitative studies conducted by scholars highlighting the fact that these reductions are sustained."

Szabó also notes that the UPPs are designed to bring about a change in police attitudes in the long term. "The program involves training in community relations and human rights. It is focused on instilling a new ethos of policing," she said.

Julio Ludemir, the writer who lives in the Babilônia favela, says this is not enough.

"The police don't understand the territory they're working in," he said. "They don't come into the favelas to create relationships with residents, they come to beat people up. They have never considered young black men to be part of society."

Related: While Murders of Black Women in Brazil Rise Sharply – Murders of White Women Fall

He argues that other factors — such as improved educational opportunities making young people less susceptible to being sucked into the drug gangs — have made as big a contribution to the reduction in violence in Rio's most dangerous neighborhoods as the UPPs.

Others have also stressed that that Rio's murder rate is still alarmingly high compared to other major Brazilian cities, and some have questioned the completeness of the official statistics.

"The data doesn't take into account those reported missing or those killed in confrontations with the police, a number which is increasing," the sociologist Alba Zaluar told Brazil's Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

Meanwhile, the falling official murder rate has prompted the state government to reaffirm its commitment to continuing with the UPP strategy, while also promising to do more to change the violent reputation of its police force.

"Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other foreign organizations are demanding we improve, and we're demanding it of ourselves too," state security secretary Beltrame said. "I'm happy with the reduction in the murder rate, but I know Rio is Rio. The whole world is watching us, especially when it comes to murder."

Related: 'I Got Mugged in Mexico City, and Going to the Police Just Made Shit Worse' 

Follow James Armour Young on Twitter: @seeadarkness