Brazil’s UPP Struggles as Criminal Titans Continue Fight

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A new report on crime statistics in Brazil’s state of Rio de Janeiro shows deteriorating violence indicators over a period of several years, raising continued questions about the extent to which the city’s public security policies have been effective.

The Institute of Public Security (ISP), an independent entity affiliated with Rio de Janeiro’s state security agency, issued a report on April 28 detailing crime statistics in Rio for the month of March using data from local police stations.

According to the study, Rio de Janeiro has seen significant increases in the proportion of intentional homicides, vehicle thefts, and homicides resulting from police intervention in 2017, compared to the same period last year. Respectively, there was an 11.6 percent, 47.5 percent, and 96.7 percent increase in these indicators in March 2017, compared to March 2016.

The trend remains largely the same when comparing data from the first three months of 2017 and 2016, with a 17.5 percent, 37.6 percent, and 85.2 percent rise this year in intentional homicides, vehicle thefts, and homicides resulting from police intervention, respectively.

The study also suggests that the increasing frequency of these types of crime over the past year is representative of a larger pattern in worsening crime rates, particularly with respect to vehicle thefts and homicides resulting from police intervention.

Registered cases of these two crimes in Rio have generally risen consistently since at least January 2014, more than doubling in the case of homicides resulting from police intervention.

Relatedly, Brazilian authorities have accused leaders of one of the country’s main criminal groups, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), of ordering a recent attack in Rio from behind bars. On May 3, alleged members of the criminal group raided several parts of the city, burning nine buses and looting two trucks.

“We can confirm that the order was sent by Red Command leaders, detained in prisons outside of Rio,” Carlos Augusto Leba, head of Rio’s Civil Police, told a press conference.

According to El País Brasil, the attacks were the Red Command’s response to a large police operation designed to prevent the group from entering Cidade Alta, a neighborhood controlled by a rival group known as the Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro).

The operation led to the seizure of 32 rifles, 45 arrests — almost all suspected members of the Red Command — and left two dead. Authorities hailed it as a success.

“In 34 years of working for the police, I had never seen such an effective operation and an arms seizure this big,” said Rio’s Security Secretary Roberto Sá.

But the situation in Rio remains critical. On May 3, Justice Minister Osmar Serraglio announced that additional federal security forces will be sent to the city to help curb violence, reported The Rio Times.

InSight Crime Analysis

The ISP study provides further evidence of a continuing deterioration of previous security gains in Rio attributed to the city’s “pacification” strategy, which involves sending special security forces, known as Police Pacification Units (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP), to establish a presence in particularly crime-ridden areas of the city. 

While the initial results of the pacification efforts seemed promising, the UPP initiative has been marred in controversy since its start in 2008. And criticism of the strategy has grown louder in recent years.

As UPPs expanded into larger, more violent informal neighborhoods known as “favelas,” they were faced with intense pushback from criminal groups, which has only been exacerbated by sharp budget cuts and an insufficient focus on social development programs.

The increasingly apparent inability of UPPs to serve as a long-term violence reduction solution is further highlighted by the dramatic rise in homicides resulting from police intervention indicated in the ISP study. As InSight Crime previously reported, ISP statistics also show that since March 2016 the number of killings by police have exceeded the figure registered for the same period the previous year, a problem that UPPs and other heavy-handed tactics tend to exacerbate.

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According to a recent Amnesty International report, authorities in Brazil are increasingly ignoring the problem and turning a blind eye to excessive force by Rio police.

The government’s announcement that it would escalate its security presence in Rio de Janeiro by sending additional federal security forces to the area following the recent clashes between police and gangs suggests that authorities will continue to rely on heavy-handed public security policies to deal with crime. Rio Security Secretary Sá recently indicated that he is open to revising the city’s security policies, but so far there have been no clear indications of a coming overhaul.

It is possible that rising crime rates could spur Rio officials to re-examine the UPP policy, particularly in light of evidence that Rio-based crime groups are becoming bolder and more violent. (The day after the May 3 attack that destroyed several vehicles, suspected members of a drug trafficking group assaulted a UPP outpost in the Complexo de Alemão favela.)

However, any efforts to implement major changes in the city’s security strategy are likely to be hampered by an ongoing budget crisis that has been blamed for contributing to the rising crime rates.

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