polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Favela Wars

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Like most Latin American cities, Rio de Janeiro has long suffered from high levels of urban violence. This is perhaps one of the most important challenges that the city needs to address in the preparation of the 2016 Olympic Games and 2014 Football World Cup. For more than 40 years Rio slums (favelas) have been home to extremely violent drug and arm traffickers.

Early this year, Rio State’s government created the Police Peace Units (Unidades de Policia Pacificadora, UPPs), a new security measure that differs from the traditional strategy in the fact that police stay in the slum once inside instead of leaving once the operation is finished.

On the 21st of November this year, after a continuous success of the UPPs in numerous favelas, Rio’s organized crime chiefs started organizing jointly a series of terror attacks in the formal city, including undertaking massive road assaults (arrastões) in different parts of the city, this time burning all vehicles after robbing.

In response to such terror actions, the police and the military accelerated the offensive and installation of UPPs. Some people say that the film “Elite Squad 2” (Tropa de Elite 2) had an influence on government and police decisions, as they needed to clean up their image after the evidence shown in the film.

Rodrigo Pimentel, the script writer and ex-member of Rio’s “elite squads” (BOPE), is optimistic and sees a feasible end of the domination of the favelas by drug traffickers. He is a supporter of the UPPs and Rio State’s current security policy in general, which includes educating the UPP members in democratic values before they are positioned inside the slum, dispersing imprisoned chief drug traffickers around the country’s prisons and investigating the financial movements carried out by their family members. Before their dispersion, these chiefs coordinated jointly the terror actions in the city through their lawyers.

According to numerous specialized researchers, such as Fernando Carrión in Ecuador, the root of urban violence lies in a series of combined factors: land use patterns, residential segregation, urban fragmentation, fear and distrust between different social classes, violent urban culture, degradation of citizenship, chronology of urban violence, growth of walled private and public space, segregation as a public policy, and an ill relationship between private and public space.

If these factors are not inquired and adequately addressed, it is unlikely that the city will prevent some of the uneducated, unemployed and marginalized from becoming new traffickers and thugs operating from other areas and through different means. As it is masterly described in Elite Squad 2, Rio’s police and politicians have a long history of corruption, impunity and connivance with drug and arm trafficking.

Some experts warned that when the government announces the entry of a UPP in advance in order to prevent violent encounters, it gives traffickers the chance to set up their headquarters somewhere else, without stopping their delictive activities. Despite all these risks, the UPPs and the latest police offensive have a strong support from residents of the favelas.

Credits: Image of an UPP in a favela from Lalo de Almeida for the New York Times. Image of the police offensive from Reuters for El País.