Graham Denyer Willis and Julia Tierney, Rio de Janeiro Guest Contributors
For those interested in urban questions, it has been hard to miss Rio de Janeiro's changing approach to public security — the "pacification" of urban territories previously governed by drug-trafficking organizations. And for good reason. In just shy of four years, Rio's policia de pacificação ("pacification police") have installed 26 pacification police units, benefiting more than 300,000 people, in the low-income favelas where state presence has always been tenuous. The permanent presence of the police denotes a new kind of governance that provides public services to what were once deemed "illegal" communities. This has not only enhanced feelings of security but has also fostered greater connectivity between the oft-excluded poor and the state, reducing urban disparity in the process.
The major tagline of pacification is that people in pacified areas are safer. It seems to be the case. A recent study by Ignacio Cano of the State University of Rio de Janeiro found that the homicide rate has dropped by 60 per 100,000 residents in pacified communities — extraordinary given that murder rates were once comparable to countries in the midst of civil war. In addition, police violence declined sharply from 1,330 police killings in 2007 to 561 in 2011. In the process, more than 4,500 new police recruits have been trained in community policing with the aim of breaking down decades of distrust between the urban poor and the police.
But beyond the headlines, many remain doubtful. Their reasons and their questions vary. Who benefits? Who loses? Is this just a façade for the Olympic foreigner? With such a disjointed public security history, brimming with reasons for pessimism, why should we be so quick to rejoice?
One criticism is that the pacification police primarily benefit communities near the wealthy and tourist-oriented south side (zona sul) of the city and those near the major avenues close to the Maracanã Stadium where the World Cup final will be played in 2014. With their picturesque views, communities such as Santa Marta, Cantagalo, Pavao-Pavaozinho, and Babilonia were never the most violent, nor the poorest. Yet they were among the first to be pacified, making an already prosperous part of the city safer for the upper classes and for national and international tourists. But because the secretary of public security announces favela pacification in advance (to avoid violent shootouts between the police and the traffickers), many drug lords have fled to west side (zona oeste) and lowland (baixada fluminense) favelas. Always consistently violent, west side Alliance for Progress-era housing projects like Vila Kennedy and Vila Aliança have become new (and particularly dense) flashpoints of urban instability. In the lowland, which these days is proclaimed to be the most violent area in Rio, those who fled pacification have arrived to find a homicide department that rarely visits crime scenes and doesn't have a formal office.
The pacification strategy has created a great deal of hope, even well beyond the communities that have benefited. Non-pacified communities are alight with the promise of pacification. Rumors and innuendo among residents stoke the fire. When is it our turn? I heard they are coming soon. But this hope has a deadline. The public security secretary has outlined his plan to pacify about 120 favelas by 2016, the year of the Olympics, but (depending on how they are classified) there are more than 1,000 favelas in the city. Many of these are increasingly controlled by shadowy para-state militias (milicias) composed of off-duty police, firefighters, and prison guards. A recent public inquiry even linked these militias to vote rigging and to a number of state and city politicians. Those who clamor most for the policy — also those suffering with violence and insecurity in their day-to-day lives — are not the cornerstone of the policy. At least for now.
Although the pacification police are talked about in terms of innovation, this isn't the first time that Rio de Janeiro has seen a similar policy. Back in 2000, many of the same favelas that are pacified today served as test cases for the GPAE — the Special Area Policing Unit. This community policing initiative crumbled within a few years because of a lack of public resources and skepticism among the police. Tempted by lucrative profits from the drug trade and needing to protect themselves from well-armed drug traffickers, the police fell back on illicit ties with the drug economy. The GPAE units eventually became middling fronts for the drug trafficking groups to continue their control over the favelas. Yet when it comes to the pacification policy, the resolve of the public security system appears unwavering. Faltering police have been rapidly replaced, crisis has been met with investigation, and violence has been confronted with reasonable responses. Along the way, the UPP program has faced an impressive amount of scrutiny, study and skepticism from residents, journalists, bloggers and local and international researchers. And, so far, it has allowed that scrutiny, opened itself to study (and self-criticism) and proved resolute in the face of throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater skeptics. These cannot be said, by any measure, to be qualities of Rio de Janeiro's public security status quo.
The eyes of the world are on Brazil. With its economic resurgence, the discovery and development of offshore oil reserves, the Rio+20 Summit, and the upcoming World Cup and Olympics, there are myriad pressures to tame the violence in Rio de Janeiro. For pacification, this starts with bringing the favelas back under state control. The policy's figurehead, public security secretary Jose Beltrame, has been a crusader in his effort to reverse a decades-old public security policy — to enter favelas violently and to leave them promptly. Historically, Rio's police were trained to make war. In pacification, Beltrame says, Rio's police are service providers. With each day that passes, it becomes harder to refute the idea that Beltrame's pacification strategy is novel and important — that it marks an enduring and irreversible departure from a public security status quo that has always divided the city into rich and poor, formal and informal, legal and illegal.
These controversies (and many others) underline the many shades of grey that are common with most public policies — especially in the realm of public security. The pacification police are decried as dictatorial and praised for reducing violence. Some have benefited; others' lives have been made more complicated. The reality is certainly complex, making it difficult to disentangle where public security ends and urban development begins. But the disjunctures with the past are undeniable. As Rio de Janeiro prepares for its unprecedented wave of mega events, there are small signs that things are improving, or at least evolving. The greatest reason for hope is something novel. Crisis, or the potential for it, is a powerful motivator for action, and Rio's imminent events will increasingly put the city in the blinding glare of international attention. In the face of this attention, the powers-that-be understand that failure is impossible and success is necessary — especially for the New Brazil. Thus, the real question has become: when that glare recedes, sometime around 2016, will the status quo come flooding back in?
Graham Denyer Willis is a Ph.D. Candidate in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. He has studied police in Brazil ethnographically since 2009, and is currently completing his dissertation research on homicide police and the investigation of police killings in Sao Paulo. His research has been funded by the Open Society Foundation/Social Science Research Council, the Social Science Research Council of Canada, Foreign Affairs Canada, the Center for International Studies at MIT, and the Carroll L. Wilson Fellowship, among others.
Julia Tierney is a first year Ph.D. student in City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley. She researched the urban governance aspects of the police pacification program in Rio de Janeiro for her master's thesis. She also worked for two years with the World Bank on infrastructure projects in urban Brazil.