Human Rights Watch Praises, Criticizes Rio Govt

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Washington DC-based Human Rights Watch has praised Rio de Janeiro’s favela pacification scheme for cutting violence and potentially reducing abuse by police, but it also said that the state must do more to investigate extrajudicial killings by its security officers.

In an open letter addressed to Rio de Janeiro state Governor Sergio Cabral, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) were an innovative policy. The UPP units are meant to be composed of elite officers, trained in community policing techniques, working with local people to win their trust in the state. It added that these units, sent to assert state presence in areas controlled by drug traffickers and militias, had the potential to promote more effective policing and reduce abuse, and that they seemed to have cut violence in the areas where they operate.

The non-governmental watchdog group noted that there was significant drop in killings by police last year, from 855 cases in 2010 down to 524 in 2011. It attributed this drop in part to the System of Goals and Results Tracking, a scheme that gives bonuses to officers in districts that meet crime reduction targets. One of the things measured is homicide, including killings by police, giving officers an extra incentive not to kill, said HRW.

However, the letter added that, while there had been a drop in killings by police, not enough had been done to stop impunity for human rights abuse, internal cover-ups, and deficient investigations. The letter documents several cases in the last two years in which police killed or wounded civilians, and misreported events around the case, claiming, for example, that a victim had been hit in a shootout, when no such confrontation took place.

InSight Crime Analysis

HRW’s praise for the scheme as helping to cut abuse by the police is a good indication that the UPP strategy is working. The letter does note that there have been allegations of excessive force on the part of the pacifying units, as well as cases where they have been accused of corruption. However, the fact that this has resulted in action against officers is a sign of strength.

As HRW points out, the UPPs seem to have been effective at cutting crime. According to Rio Real, the murder rate has dropped from 40 per 100,000 before the scheme began to 24 per 100,000. A study published in November found that homicides had dropped by half in 17 “pacified” favelas.

The letter also touches on one of the most persistent criticisms of the program — that it only covers limited, strategic areas of the city, particularly those close to Olympic and World Cup sites, leaving other crime-ridden areas untouched. Twenty-three UPP units have been installed in Rio since the scheme’s inauguration in 2008, and there are plans to have at least 40 by 2014. But according to HRW, the 23 units cover only around 100 of Rio’s more than 1,000 low-income communities.

Still, as InSight Crime has noted, the fact that the scheme is being criticised for focusing on priority areas is itself a sign of the very high expectations it has raised.

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