Rio Shootout Raises Questions About ‘Pacification’ Strategy

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A shootout in Rio de Janeiro refocuses attention on the Brazilian city’s use of police pacification units, a controversial violence reduction strategy that has produced mixed results since its implementation in 2008.

Intense gunfire erupted on October 10 between police and alleged drug traffickers in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Pavão-Pavãozinho, injuring three police officers and resulting in the deaths of three men, reported G1.

According to Infobae, the shooting began when suspected drug traffickers attacked several police outposts belonging to the community’s Police Pacification Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP).

Pavão-Pavãozinho had a UPP installed in December 2009, making it one of Rio’s first favela communities to receive a permanent presence of specially-trained police officers with the aim of reducing violence. The favela is home to approximately 10,000 residents.

Officials detained at least eight suspects. One of the men arrested, referred to as “Samuca,” was identified as a top drug trafficker in the community and also the one who lead the attack on the UPP. Police also seized five rifles and eight kilograms of cocaine, according to Veja.

During the confrontation, traffic in the surrounding area was shut down, with local shops closing and schools sending students home early. In addition to gunshots, neighbors also reported hearing at least one explosion.

Gunfire also spilled into Rio’s famous Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods, which are located several blocks from the Pavão-Pavãozinho favela.

Military Police from the local UPP and a shock battalion from Special Operations Command (Companhia de Operações Especiais – COE) have maintained patrols in the favela following the shootout, reported G1.  

Rio de Janeiro state Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame said the police “fulfilled its role” during the clash, and that the UPP and COE have “prevented a war between gangs.”

Beltrame, who has been Rio’s security secretary for nearly 10 years, was instrumental in implementing the UPP program. However, on October 11, in a decision unrelated to the events in Pavão-Pavãozinho, he resigned, saying the time had come “to pass the baton to another.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Begun in 2008 as a public security initiative, Rio de Janeiro’s UPPs have been heavily critiqued regarding their ability to reduce crime in favela communities, and whether the program may serve as a model for other Latin America countries suffering from criminal violence.

As a recent report from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) notes, Rio’s UPPs were first implemented in smaller, easier to control favelas with generally positive results through the first years of the strategy’s inception. By 2015, UPPs had expanded to 38 of Rio’s favelas, with UPP personnel increasing to more than 9,500.

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But, as WOLA documents, the UPPs have encountered difficulties when expanding into the city’s larger, more violent favelas. This includes pushback from criminal groups, with the assault on UPP bases in Pavão-Pavãozinho just the latest in a number of clashes that have occurred in “pacified” favelas.

Previously, such clashes have provoked heavy-handed responses from security officials, leading to criticisms and human rights concerns that the UPPs are overly-militarized and use excessive force. For instance, Pavão-Pavãozinho witnessed intense anti-police riots prior to the 2014 World Cup after UPP police allegedly beat a man to death.

Beltrame’s replacement will inherit a complex security situation, and will be tasked with getting deteriorating violence indicators in the city under control. In this context, Rio’s next security secretary may need to look beyond the UPP program for solutions.

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