Two contrasting images of the police pacification programs in Rio de Janeiro this week are likely to remain in the public’s memory. The first is the swift and publicity-laden police occupation on Sunday of the Lins de Vasconcelos favela in Rio’s Northern Zone, where the Brazilian and Rio state flags were flown in a demonstration reminiscent of a military victory celebration. Hundreds of officers armed with assault rifles entered the community on foot, horseback, and in armored tanks, and speakers set up outside police cars played upbeat music as they announced that “Peace begins now.”
The second image comes from the announcement that ten officers from the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacification Unit—UPP) in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, will be charged for the torture and murder of 42-year-old bricklayer Amarildo de Souza, who disappeared on July 14th. Investigators found that after officers called Souza into the Rocinha police station for questioning, they tortured him with electric shock treatments and suffocated him with a plastic bag before disposing of his body in an undisclosed location. Twenty-two Rocinha residents have reported being tortured at the same UPP station since March. The chiefs of Rocinha’s UPP force and of Rio’s state military police were both replaced in August. Rocinha made headlines again last week when the body of a nine-year-old girl—who was raped—was found fifty meters away from a UPP station.
The images from Lins de Vasconcelos and Rocinha draw a contrast between the theatrical expansion of the pacification program and the day-to-day reality of the more than 500,000 city residents now living through it. The program employs militaristic tactics and language in neighborhoods with promises of community development and improved living standards. Following the announcement from public prosecutors about the Souza case, Rio de Janeiro state Governor Sérgio Cabral said, “the Amarildo [de Souza] case is not the face of the UPP. The face of the UPP is civic participation and the guarantee to move freely [within one’s own community].”
In an interview I conducted this week with Rio de Janeiro state judge João Batista Damasceno, he asked, “What would civic participation look like in the favelas? Civic participation would be if favela residents had access to the rights given to them by the Brazilian constitution, including health, education, due process of law, housing, and the freedom to come and go.” Damasceno says that in fact, favela residents’ civil liberties have decreased due to the UPP’s military paradigm and to construction projects within favelas that have forcibly removed residents from their homes and blocked access to public facilities.
Since the UPP program was created in 2008, there have been discussions on whether security investments or human development initiatives should come first in low-income neighborhoods. But the Rocinha events pose a more specific question: are the millions of reais being spent on policing—including equipment, publicity, human rights classes, and a modest increase in police officers’ salaries—really making favelas safer?
Since the UPPs were installed, the number of registered homicides has decreased in favelas with pacification units. Still, Rocinha resident Eliana Meireles, 45, says she was not surprised to hear that the pacification police had tortured and murdered a local resident. “People disappear, and sometimes bodies turn up later; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s the drug traffickers who do it; sometimes it’s the police. What surprised me about this case,” she added, “was the fact that it was investigated.”
Judge Damasceno says Rio’s police are capable of investigating crimes, they just often choose not to. “The factor that kept this case from being one of the thousands that are simply recorded as disappearances each year—5,900 in the state of Rio de Janeiro in 2012—is the fact that it occurred during the protests of June and July, and Rocinha residents took the issue to the streets.”
Journalism professor Slyvia Moretzsohn of the Universidade Federal Fluminense (Federal Fluminense University—UFF) says this impact has to do with geography: “There are several points in the city where a small group of people can shut down a significant amount of space. The entrance to Rocinha is one of those.” The week after Souza first disappeared, several dozen Rocinha residents blocked off the tunnel at the entrance of the community, backing up traffic through the wealthy neighborhood of Leblon where protesters were camped in front of Governor Cabral’s apartment. During the weeks that followed, protesters throughout the city adopted the cry “Where is Amarildo?”
“The story of a disappeared person resonated with many of the middle class protestors because that term—disappeared—was used to refer to people arrested or killed for political reasons during the military dictatorship,” Moretzsohn adds. “And so Amarildo drew wider awareness to the disappearances that are still part of the daily lives of many Brazilians. People have started referring to them as ‘The Disappeared of Democracy.’” Moretzsohn noted that a campaign by the Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil (Brazilian Bar Association—OAB) of the same name, denounced the forced disappearances of thousands—not for their political views, but because they lived in low-income areas outside the rule of law and human rights.
“Disappearances won’t surprise me as long as the police are not reformed,” says Meireles, the Rocinha resident. “For that, I would need to trust them. They would need to be invested in getting to know community residents. I believe in this project of pacification, but not in the way it’s currently conducted.”