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A New Approach to Citizen Security in Brazil: Rio's Pacifying Police Units

A discussion with two senior officials from the State Secretariat of Security in the state of Rio de Janeiro in charge of a new policy to fight drug trafficking and crime in the favelas (slums) that seems to be yielding some positive results.

Date & Time

Mar. 16, 2011
10:00am – 12:00pm ET


Rio de Janeiro, a city known for its natural beauty, the charm of its people and very high levels of crime and violence in recent decades, is testing a new approach to Citizen's Security as it prepares to host the world's most important international sports events in the coming years. On March 16, the Brazil Institute hosted two senior officials from the State Secretariat of Security in the state of Rio de Janeiro in charge of a new policy to fight drug trafficking and crime in the favelas (slums) that seems to be yielding some positive results. 

Image removed.The rate of homicides in the city fell from 40.6 in 2006 to 29.8 per 100,000 inhabitants last year; car thefts were reduced by 42 percent (in the same comparison). Street muggings are still above the 2006 level, but the curve shifted and last year Rio saw a decrease in these crimes compared to 2009. "The numbers are still high, but the results are satisfactory," said Antônio Cesário de Sá, senior official of Rio´s State Public Security Secretary, during his presentation at Woodrow Wilson Center.

Known for the name of its main instrument - the Pacifying Police Units, or UPP in the Portuguese acronym - the policy is a two pronged strategy. On one hand it attempts to regain territorial control of the favelas from the drug traffickers. This is combined with a wider and detailed system of targets in crime reduction that apply to the whole state and are used as the basis for bonus payments to the police force.

According to Cesário de Sá and Roberto Alzir das Chaves, who are directly involved in the planning and implementation of the program in Rio, armed control over the favelas by gangs and the absence of formal institutions transformed major drug dealers into the de facto authorities and service providers in those communities.

The first phase of the strategy, as described by the two state officials, focuses on conquering back and restoring the presence of the state in the areas affected. Heavily armed police units surround the favelas and go after the most wanted dealers while apprehending weapons and drugs. In Morro do Alemão, considered the most dangerous of Rio's favelas, 147 rifles, 211 pistols and 36 tons of marijuana were seized in one week alone. In another favela police had to employ a reinforced bulldozer to bring down barriers built to block access to police cars. In the second phase of the UPP, which lasts 30 to 40 days, police will conduct searches in forests around the favelas, have sniffing dogs posted and "stabilize" the community.

Only then are the Pacifying Police Unit's installed in the communities. A UPP consists mainly of recently graduated police officers. The choice of young and less experienced personnel is deliberate. According to Roberto Alzir, these policemen come with a fresh view and "do not see the favelas' residents as their enemies", as is the case of many of the older officers.

Police presence is kept high as the forces that have taken control of the area withdraw and the UPP takes charge of the basic police duties of patrolling and investigating. Great emphasis is put on integrating the officers and helping them to build a close relationship with the community.Image removed.

Roberto Alzir described a significant change in the population's perception of the new police. The residents of the first favelas to have a UPP were initially skeptical about continuous policing and feared retaliation from the drug warlords. As the police consolidated their presence, the population and community as a whole began to show more trust and now welcomes the changes.

After the UPP is in place other public services are also brought in as government agencies map the needs of the community, the latter of which might include day care centers, schools, clean water or sanitation. "We want these people to have the same rights to come and go and the same access to government services as the residents of Copacabana or Ipanema. We will not eliminate crime or drug trafficking, but we can not allow parts of the city to be controlled by those who do not have the constitutional right to do so," said Roberto Alzir.

The new approach to community policing is also reinforced by a system that sets targets for crime reduction throughout the state of Rio de Janeiro. The targets are broken down by city, neighborhood and police unit. Indicators include number of muggings, car thefts, homicides and robbery. The results are tracked monthly. If the targets are met, each police officer is paid a bonus every six months. The extra payment can reach three times the salary of a soldier. When the results fall behind, an action plan is mandatory.

Launched in 2007, the UPP project is expected to be fully operational by 2014, when Rio will host the soccer World Cup. At that point, UPPs will be present in favelas that are home to 850,000 people. According to Antônio Cenário de Sá, that represents 85 percent of the population in Rio that currently live in favelas dominated by drug traffickers. The 40,000-strong police force will be reinforced by another 12,500 officers in the same period.

Cesário de Sá and Alzir drew some distinctions between the UPP and past experiences in community policing in Rio that might help underscore the positive results. The new policy is intended to put the favelas under the permanent control of the state. It is not meant to be a short term action. Another major difference is the number of policemen involved, which is a much higher number under the UPP approach. It is also important to note that the UPP's recent graduates have been less influenced by the war mentality than the older officers that they are replacing. The two officials from Rio´s Secretary of Public Security acknowledged that there is still little research done to evaluate the impact of the UPP and invited scholars to provide input and help improve the policy design.

One of the concerns involving the Pacifying Police Unit is the possible migration of violence and drug trafficking from areas under the UPP to those with less policing. Alzir and Cesário de Sá pointed out that most of the leadership in the drug rings has been dismantled during the initial police action and the lower ranks are composed mostly by people who live in the favelas and cannot afford to move. They are likely to commit only minor crimes or even look for legitimate jobs. Furthermore, the official plan calls for all the favelas that are still dominated by drug trafficking in Rio to be attended by a UPP by 2014, leaving little room for drug traffickers to effectively maintain control over parts of the city.

Written by Leandra Peres
Edited by Paulo Sotero, Brazil Institute


Hosted By

Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and U.S. institutions in all sectors. The Brazil Institute plays this role by producing independent research and programs that bridge the gap between scholarship and policy, and by serving as a crossroads for leading policymakers, scholars and private sector representatives who are committed to addressing Brazil’s challenges and opportunities.  Read more

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