Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Security or Counterinsurgency in Rio favelas?

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In anticipation of the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian government enacted a policy to have special units of police occupy favelas in Rio de Janeiro. As of last week, one of Rio’s most dangerous shanty towns, Complexo da Maré, was taken over by close to 3,000 Brazilian troops. The shift—from using the elite Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (Police Pacifying Unit—UPP) forces to bringing in the military—marks a new stage of Brazil’s “pacification” policy. Up until now, the UPP had been responsible for sweeping and occupying the favelas.

Many of Rio’s 1,000 favelas are controlled by criminal groups like the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) and the Terceiro Comando Puro (Third Command), which are embroiled in a battle to control more of the city. Turf wars between rival gangs have consistently led to high levels of violence and crime. Brazil is fraught with crack cocaine use, and ranks second in consumer use of the drug and its derivatives.  The country also has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. 

To add to this, criminal gangs in Brazilian cities do not have a problem attacking law enforcement. For example, in 2009, a police helicopter was riddled with bullets by gangs from the Morro de Macaco favela.  In order to control such aggressions, the government has increased the firepower of armed forces.

Before, when police were attacked, the UPP would be sent in. Now, when the UPP is attacked, the military is sent in. Consequently, Brazil’s policy toward its favelas has become increasingly militarized. Infiltrating Brazilian favelas with a state security presence is not a recent development. The government has taken up “pacifying” Rio’s favelas since November 2008, when Brazil won the bid to host both the World Cup and the Olympics.  The UPP—composed entirely of new recruits who are specially trained officers—installed its first police pacification unit (UPP) in the Santa Marta favela in 2008.  Currently, these units control more than 100 favelas, which are home to hundreds of thousands of residents.

According the Renato Chappot, the editor of TV Record, the pacification program is supported by the majority of Rio’s population.  Since its initiation, the UPP program has been credited with  a drastic improvement in public safety and there is some evidence that suggests that the “pacification” scheme has reduced homicides.

Yet, the UPP is consistently criticized. One of the side effects of the pacification program has been to shift violence into different areas of the city and country. Residents of the favelas have reported an increase in gang violence in their communities. Others have said that the UPP tortures citizens and that they have fewer civil liberties due to the UPP. Human Rights Watch reported that in Rio and Sao Paulo, the police have killed over 1,000 civilians a year.

Brazil’s security sector (military and police) has a legacy of using heavy force. Under the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), the military and police were used to “pacify” dissent. When Brazil returned to democracy, it did not reform the structure of its security sector: the civil police remain responsible for criminal investigation, and the military police are responsible for protecting the civilian population in the streets.  While there has been some attempt to create oversight, such as by creating a police ombudsman and community-based policing, the security sector has predominantly used coercive approaches to riots and crime.

What is most interesting about the shift from the UPP to the military is the parallels to counterinsurgency. While Brazil is not a failed state, pockets of government failure are evident in the favelas where government authorities have no control.  Civilians are left to a life of informality in the favelas, because the gangs control the territory, limiting government presence.  For example, many residents lack formal property deeds, access electricity and other amenities illegally, and hold jobs in the informal economic sector.

Although gangs do not necessarily compete with the government for the support of favela residents, but rather rely on the lack of a government presence, government authorities are now trying to consolidate their power in the favelas through legal measures and by developing infrastructure reminiscent of counterinsurgency. The government is essentially trying to win the hearts and minds of favela residents through investment in building clinics, introducing electricity and subsidizing food in their communities. Public goods provisions, in addition to increased militarization, may have the effect of isolating the gangs. As gangs lose their hold in the favelas and as the government increases its presence, residents may feel comfortable providing information about where gang members live.

But such counterinsurgency measures could have mixed results. On one hand, too much militarization could be counterproductive, which means that the new shift to using military forces could lead to more violence. On the other hand, a militarized approach may help dissuade gangs from future attacks on favela residents and police. As Brazil moves closer to June, the counterinsurgency-esque security approach should be closely watched to see if the government has mastered a balance between militarization and gaining the trust of favela residents.


Sabrina Karim was a 2010 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Peru, affiliated with Grupo de Análisis para Desarrollo (GRADE). She specializes in issues related to security, gender, peacekeeping, and counterinsurgency.  She is currently a PhD candidate in political science at Emory University. 

Tags: 2014 World Cup, Brazil, Crime and Security
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