Correcting Brazil’s police violence: the case of Rio’s Pacifying Police Units

Layne Vandenberg – Brazil Institute, 12/18/2014


Widespread protests against police violence and racism have recently scattered the United States after the release of the Ferguson (Michael Brown) and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. While Americans grapple with the reality of police violence, other countries live deeply entrenched in this reality. Scholar Ignácio Cano says there is “a Ferguson every day” in Brazil, and the state of Rio de Janeiro has been trying out a new policing strategy in hopes of improving community-police relations in its slums, called favelas.

Between 2009 and 2013, Brazilian police killed more than 11,000 people, or about six people per day. The 2014 edition of the Brazil Public Security Yearbook also found that 53,646 homicides occurred in 2013, or one person every 10 minutes.

With the highest per capita rate of killing of any Brazilian state and 6,826 homicides per year between 1991 and 2007, the state of Rio de Janeiro is “comparable with urban areas of countries in civil war.” But Rio needed a quick solution for its violent reputation among the international crowd. Rio is home to Maracanã stadium, where several 2014 FIFA World Cup matches, including the final, were held and the city is the host of the upcoming 2016 Olympic games. So how do you change the face of a city and a state in time for the world’s two largest sporting events?

The Rio state government’s solution: pacification.

After the announcement of Brazil’s bid for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in October 2007, the Rio de Janeiro state government announced the implementation of a new type of police “pacification” force, called the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacification Unit or UPP). The first UPP was implemented in the Santa Marta favela (“slum”) in December 2008 as a pilot program, and the UPP has since spread to around 40 other favelas in Rio. The UPP utilizes proximity-policing methodology to establish more permanent presences in favelas in order to regain territorial control from dominant criminal groups.

The UPPs have good intentions. Their goals include: “1) To regain control of territories previously dominated by armed drug factions and establish democratic rule of law in those places, 2) To ensure peace for these communities, [and] 3) To help to break the logic of war existent in the state.” Many favela residents hoped the UPP would bring not only peace to their communities, but also social programming that would establish secure networks of basic public services including access to water, education, and the freedom to enter and leave their communities.

In accordance with its goals, the UPPs initially showed promise in reducing lethal violence. From 2007 to 2012, homicides in the city of Rio de Janeiro decreased from 2,336 to 1,206. The 2013 and 2014 figures are not as encouraging: homicides increased by 10% in 2013 and then increased again by 11% before August 2014. The most publicized homicides were committed by UPP officers and commanders, most notably the disappearance, torture, and murder of bricklayer Amarildo dos Santos, a resident of the Rocinha favela.

This violence is not new to favela communities. Before the UPP, the Special Forces of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police, known as the BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, or Special Police Operations Battalion), would invade favelas and extra judicially kill the innocent and guilty during shootouts between criminal factions and BOPE forces. These random invasions (referred to as invasões – invasions – by favela residents) contributed to the instability of the favelas and the continuing distrust of the police among poor, black Brazilians. Despite this history, the UPP utilizes the BOPE in the first step of its implementation process.

The implementation process of the UPP also reflects warlike action as the Força Nacional de Segurança Pública (National Public Security Force) was deployed in larger favelas, including Complexo de Alemão and Complexo da Maré, before the UPP was permanently stationed at the two sites. This occupation process included the use of war tanks, military weapons, and armed military forces. Both of these communities – the two largest favelas in Riom which house multiple criminal groups – still do not have consistent UPP presence and experience frequent Military Police intervention.

A common misperception about the UPP program is its relationship with the Rio+Social Program, formerly known as the UPP Social Program. Rio+Social is a program organized by the Rio de Janeiro municipal government that strives to integrate favelas through social and economic programming that includes discussion forums, leisure and cultural activities, and professional training programs for favela youth. Although they used to share the same name, the UPP does not include any formal social programming and Rio+Social is only connected to the UPP in that it only enters “pacified” communities.

This is exactly where the UPP and other policing forces can improve: training in social justice, human rights, and social programming. UPP officers undergo only about one to two weeks of UPP-specific training, and it prepares them to establish a permanent police presence (proximity policing) rather than plan and conduct community-based work (community policing). By arming the police forces with a better understanding of marginalized communities, the state perhaps can reduce the militarization of the police so that it can become protectors of the public, rather than its persecutors.

The UPP is an ongoing process currently developing in Rio de Janeiro.  For current updates, please visit the official UPP site and RioOnWatch, a community reporting news site created by Catalytic Communities.

Layne Vandenberg is a former Brazil Institute intern (fall 2014) and an undergraduate senior working on her Honors Thesis about the UPP at the University of Michigan. To contact the author or receive her completed work on this story, please email

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gabriel Cabral.


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