Armed Peace: Pacifying and Integrating the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro


By Veronica Hildenbrand and Madeline Asta

The creation of order through military suppression—what critical theorist Mark Neocleous calls, “war as peace [and] peace as pacification”—is designed to provide security for bourgeois social order. Pacification in Rio de Janeiro can thus be viewed as a militaristic, politically-crafted response to social insecurity felt by Rio’s upper classes, magnified by forthcoming mega event preparations that occurred from 2008 to 2016. Nonetheless, social inequality and public insecurity have long inhibited the effective governance of Rio de Janeiro. Following Brazil’s belated abolition of slavery in 1888, informal housing settlements—known as favelas—began to form. These communities, which now accommodate about a quarter of Rio’s population, have endured a history of state abandonment and marginalization of the poor. This, coupled with the consequences of being the territorial domain of armed criminal groups, has led to nearly complete disenfranchisement of more than 1.5 million favela residents. In 2008, to curb notoriously high levels of violence and to rebrand the city for its bid to host upcoming mega events, Rio de Janeiro launched the “Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora” (UPP) program. This program aimed to increase security in the favelas by reinstating state control, and to finally integrate their residents into the formal city. Although the UPP program initially decreased homicide rates, its success has been dismantled by increasing frequency of police perpetrated violence, the persistence of drug trafficking and unmet promises of social benefits, thus facilitating the UPP’s post-Olympic fall.

The Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora Program

After successful bids to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, politicians needed a means to overcome Rio’s hyper-violent reputation. Previous favela policing strategies involved intensive militarization and unannounced raids, resulting in shoot-outs between criminal groups and police within the communities. After its launch in 2008, the UPP program initially gained international acclaim for its impressive impact on registered crime. From 2008 to 2012, homicide rates dropped 65%, bolstering the program’s support from the city’s ruling elite, middle class and mainstream press. By the end of 2015, the UPP had deployed over 9,500 police officers to pacify 38 favelas near wealthy neighborhoods, mega-event venues, and tourist spots. However, as the program developed, long-standing issues surrounding armed violence, police brutality and corruption aggravated a crisis in the UPP, which was augmented by Brazil’s economic recession that began in 2015 and only recently showed sign of ending. As these mega-events become history, analysts return to the initial aims of the UPP program: (1) increase security by reinstating state control in favelas and (2) integrate favela residents into the formal city. Nonetheless, Rio de Janeiro’s current environment refutes these aims as crime rates have soared since the end of the Olympic Games over a year ago.

Facing a history of police brutality and corruption, the trust of favela residents remains difficult for the UPP police to gain. In efforts to avoid adopting the same habits of traditional police, UPP officers were required to be recently graduated from the Military Police Academy, and were paid an additional 500 Reais (approximately $159 USD). Despite initial improvement in police relations, the increasing frequency of UPP perpetrated violence continues to reinforce residents’ negative perception of police intervention. Police officers commit approximately one-sixth of the annual violent murders in Rio de Janeiro. Four out of five of these cases are committed against young, poor Afro-Brazilians. In large part, this is due to the government granting UPP officers nearly perfect impunity, free to attribute any deaths or injuries brought about in favelas to official interventions. Unfortunately, these statistics have followed an upward trend over the course of the UPP program, as homicides caused by Rio de Janeiro police grew 18% in 2015 — police killed 517 people between January and September alone. This increase occurred in tandem with Brazil’s mounting political and economic crises, as strict budget cuts and delayed wages to police officials undermined the UPP’s previous efforts to end corruption. Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão defended the program’s stance on corruption, stating that the administration had already sent away more than 2,000 policemen for corruption involvement. Nevertheless, political and financial crises escalated, and when fans arrived for the Olympics at the Rio de Janeiro airport, they were greeted by police officers on strike for unpaid salaries and the deaths of colleagues, holding signs that read, “welcome to hell”.

Though never an explicit aim of the program, the UPP failed to effectively curb drug trafficking or its related violence, and therefore did not increase security for favela residents. Surveys throughout the 38 pacified favelas confirm drug trafficking still takes place within unpatrolled spaces. Drug trafficking has not been eliminated largely due to the government’s announcement of police entry before the pacification process began, giving local militia and gangs ample time to relocate. Although program officials claimed that the displacement weakened criminals’ influence, much of the violence was then transferred to non-pacified favelas. More recently, this displacement has led to increased competition between major criminal gangs, and provided opportunity for the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC)—Brazil’s largest drug trafficking gang—to enter the turf war over Rio de Janeiro’s post-Olympic, post-UPP favelas.  Police were short-staffed and financially crippled, unable to reoccupy the territory they have lost; however, on July 28, President Michel Temer authorized for 10,000 troops — 8,500 soldiers accompanied by police and highway patrol officers — to enter Rio to quell the surge in violence between policemen and drug gangs. Temer asserted “the objective of this mission is to defend the integrity of the population, preserve public order and guarantee the functioning of our institutions,” but with the increased police presence and shootouts aimed to remove gangs from the favelas, residents now feel the the UPP failure even more.

Though chronically flawed in various ways, the UPP proved its merit in smaller favelas with low-conflict levels, where social services were delivered in tandem with proximity policing. The deliverance of social services was the most vital criteria to the program’s success, however, most social benefits promised to accompany the permanent presence of UPP officers never arrived. Specifically, it was legally decreed that within 120 days of UPP occupation, “state government agencies, public utilities, public/private partnerships and local government [would] aim to provide full public services to favela residents.” These unmet promises of citizenship and economic opportunities impeded residents’ integration into the formal community. Favela activists continue to assert a solemn voice, criticizing state violations of human rights, mounting deaths of favela residents, and unmet promises of peace, especially as violence is now resurging. Four days before the 2014 World Cup kick-off, activists held signs stating, “The party in the stadium isn’t worth the tears in the favelas,” speaking to the unequal allocation of funding and growing violence that surrounded the mega-event preparations. By 2016, worsening economic circumstances and the return of armed violence to numerous pacified areas dissipated remaining optimism surrounding the program. Once adoring analysts and media now portrayed scenes of “trigger happy” police and drug gangs regaining control from the financially-crippled administration.

Post-Olympic UPP

Post-Olympic Rio de Janeiro depicts the culmination of the UPP crisis, as several of the 38 pacified favelas have fallen to control of criminal gangs within weeks of the Olympics’ closing ceremony. After pouring tens of millions of dollars into public security in mega-event preparation, cash-strapped police are refusing to lose the turf war, sending more police officers into Rio’s favelas rather than ceding power over to Brazil’s largest drug trafficking gangs. Data released by Rio’s Institute of Public Security (ISP) showed a resurfacing of police brutality and corruption, as the number of homicides by police action  in March 2017 increased by 96.7% compared to March 2016, while the number of arrests and guns apprehended by police both had decreased significantly in February 2017. Additionally, in a report released by Amnesty International, in January and February 2017, 182 people were killed during police operations in favelas — a 78% increase from the same period in 2016. Furthermore, in the first six months of 2017, criminal homicides increased by 10%, homicides in police confrontation with police raised 45%, and violent deaths during robberies increased 21% in comparison to 2016. UPP units are trying to regain their control as it is steadily eroding and violence is ensuing.  

Currently in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, an average of three people are killed per day by stray bullets, most commonly due to shootouts between police and drug traffickers. Many schools have closed due to students not being able to leave their homes because of the violence, and favela residents constantly live in fear of the next shootout. In the 365 days following the Olympic closing ceremony, only 147 of them passed without gunshots in the Complexo do Alemão, a favela in northern Rio. Residents are scared to hold community events in case shootouts initiate and they are without cover from the bullets. Just over a year after the end of the 2016 Olympics, favela residents are no better off than they were prior to the mega events. Despite the government’s intentions to use the events to bring prosperity to Rio, many people in Rio’s favelas feel their communities deteriorating and claim the UPP’s objectives have made life harder than before the mega-event preparations began.


Notoriously high levels of violence and forthcoming mega-events urged Rio de Janeiro to develop a strategy to bring peace to the city and its favelas. In 2008, the local government released the UPP as its solution. Although the UPP program initially decreased homicide rates, its success was dismantled by increasing frequency of police perpetrated violence, the persistence of drug trafficking and unmet promises of social benefits, thus facilitating to its post-Olympic fall. Newly recruited UPP police struggled to abandon the regime’s violent traditions and copious corruption, and the trust of favela residents was never gained. Drug-trafficking was merely concealed or displaced to non-pacified favelas, and new wars over post-UPP favelas threaten their residents’ security more than ever before. Importantly, the program failed to realize promises of integration and social benefits to favela residents, impeding its long-term success or acceptance. Without the integration and social benefits, the UPP program could never have been an isolated solution. Rather, the solution must involve a wider transposition of the socio-symbolic position of the poor in Brazilian society. Fundamentally, the UPP program needed to establish mutual trust to arrive at an appropriate system of community policing, and shift focus to the conditions and contextual factors that incite crime. Moreover, legislators must recognize and correct militaristic hierarchies in police forces to eliminate violence from police culture, and motivate a conversation of participation. Still, among the violence and ruins of its post-Olympic fall, questions of the a UPP resurgence arise. The role of the “Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora” program has proven obsolete in 2017, and its irresolute future has left the public, alongside favela residents, yearning for the UPP program’s unmet promises of peace. With the recent surge in violence, aimed at eliminating drug trafficking gangs from favelas, will a new era of effective UPP programs be established, or will police cede the marginalized communities back to gang leaders?

Photo via “Expressão dos Brasileiros

Veronica is a graduate of Phillips Academy Andover and pursuing a B.S. in International Business Administration at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University