Kidnappings in Rio de Janeiro almost doubled between 2011 and 2012, which could be connected to the damage to drug gangs’ income from a program to send elite police units into favelas.
Thirteen people were reported kidnapped in the Brazilian state between January and October 2012, compared to seven in the same period the previous year. This is the highest level since 2003, when there were 15 kidnappings, as O Globo reported (see the newspaper’s graph below).
InSight Crime Analysis
Kidnapping is historically underreported, but in Brazil it is still not the problem it is in other countries around the region. Venezuela, Colombia, and Mexico, among others, have far more serious problem on their hands.
Nevertheless, the rise is alarming and worth monitoring. The most salient explanation for the increase in kidnapping in Rio is the expansion of a scheme to install Police Pacification Units (UPPs) in favelas formerly controlled by militias or drug gangs.
Since 2008, the state government has been sending the military to “invade” certain favelas and drive out criminal groups, before installing specially trained UPP police units to provide long-term law enforcement. The increase in kidnapping corresponds with a growth period of the program: there were 17 UPPs in Rio by October 2011, and another 11 were added between then and October the following year.
This ambitious program has been much praised for breaking the hold of traffickers on favela neighborhoods that they had long dominated. There have been significant drops in violence in UPP-controlled neighborhoods, with one study finding that they saw on average 60 fewer murders per 100,000 inhabitants.
One criticism leveled at the scheme, however, is that the policy of announcing the favela invasions in advance, allowing criminals to leave beforehand and thus avoiding violent clashes, means that the gangs simply relocate to other areas of the city. This has been blamed for a corresponding rise in violence in neighborhoods not targeted by UPPs, such as the suburb of Niteroi.
It is possible that the hit to the drug traffickers’ main areas of operation could cause them to turn to other forms of income — like kidnapping. However, the absolute numbers remain low, and will be affected by other factors, including internal dynamics within the city’s militias and gangs. The militias in particular have diverse sources of income, including running public transport and providing services like satellite TV and gas.