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DRUGS. MITIGATING THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF REPRESSIVE STRATEGIES. THE PACIFYING POLICE UNITS (UPP) IN RIO DE JANEIRO


(Script of the presentation at the International Harm Reduction Conference, held at Vilnius, Lithuania, June, 09-13, 2013)

 

 

·      Introduction

 

First of all I woud like to thank the organizers for having invited me to this important meeting, and to congratulate them and the sponsors for their commitment to the cause of harm reduction; and for their effort to make it clear to the world that drug use is not a criminal issue, and that problematic or unsafe use of drugs is primarily a health matter. Then, if we take this fact for granted, we are left with the conclusion that the problem should be approached with prevention and harm reduction strategies, not with repression, as is the case in many parts of the world. 


In Brazilian society, drug use is still seen with moral prejudice, mainly on the part of law enforcement professionals. I myself, some 10 or 15 years ago, had a different view, certainly due to ignorance of what harm reduction really is.


·         From repression to prevention


I start my presentation by its title: "Mitigating the negative effects of repressive strategies: the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) in Rio de Janeiro". It means that my concern, as a retired military police officer, someone who worked for many years with the repressive ideology in mind, has to do with the tragic consequences of the militarized approach adopted by the police for decades in Rio; an approach that responds for hundreds of deaths of traffickers, of suspects of being traffickers, of police officers and inocent people, mainly from the so called favelas.     


My focus is on an important law enforcement experience that has been in force in Rio de Janeiro since 2008, called Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora - UPP (Pacifying Police Units). These units were conceived to replace the militaristic tactics employed by the police in dealing with the drug issue, when they did not distinguish traffickers from users, nor law abiding citizens of the favelas from criminals; when people were classified as suspects or not depending on their profile. Those tactics, based on military raids, resulted in frequent shootouts in the favelas, victimizing their residents with stray bullets. 


·      The social context. Rio de Janeiro and the favelas


Rio de Janeiro (6,5 million people) is the capital of the State of Rio de Janeiro (16 million).  In spite of the homogeneous way the city is commonly portrayed, with its world famous landmarks (Sugarloaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer statue, and its internationally known Copacabana and Ipanema beaches), it experiences high levels of social fragmentation. And it could not be otherwise. The city was the heart of a slave regime that lasted for more than three centuries, until 1888, when slavery was finally abolished. One year later, 1889, now as capital of the Republic that was then proclaimed, the city inherited the problems of such a hierarchical society. So, it is reasonable to conclude that Rio is a city necessarily marked by these facts.


Favela is a term associated to shanty towns and slums in Brazil. The first favela dates from the beginning of the Republic, called Morro da Favela, initially formed by ex slaves and other homeless people. At the time, the site was seen as a remote place, relatively far from the city center. For decades, the political attitude towards their increase was to ignore them. As the city expanded, however, and as most of them were located up on the hills, close to wealthy neighborhoods, a number of plans were conceived to remove their residents to distant places, but these plans never worked as imagined. The favelas and their residents, then in a greater number (today they count more than 600, being home to around 1/4th of the city´s population), (they) continued to be regarded as a problem to be forcefully eradicated. To a certain degree, this inveterate social and geographical segregation accounts for the lack of infrastructure, sanitation, education etc., as well as for the lack of prospects for most of the youth, who have increasingly been attracted by the local drug trade.  


·      The Pacification Process


In reality, the pacification process is much more than a mere law enforcement strategy. It represents a change in government's attitude (and also in the attitude of the elite). Now, the favelas are no longer seen as undesirable appendages, and begin to be accepted as organic neighborhoods of the city. With the establishment of these permanent units, the police are supposed to be there to protect the residents, not to oppress them.  


As defined by the government, the Pacification approach "promotes closer relations between the people and the Police, coupled with the strengthening of social policies within the communities". But what a UPP really is? It consists of a contingent of military police officers, varying in number, established in a favela once dominated by drug gangs. Its implementation is preceded by the announced occupation of the community (announced to avoid conflicts with the gangs), with the deployment of the Special Operations Police Battalion, the well known BOPE, in order to recover the territory from the drug gangs. After the occupation, which may last for some weeks or months, the permanent unit (UPP) is installed. Up to now, 33 UPPs have been inaugurated, out of 40 that they plan to install by the end of 2014.


·      Points to be stressed:


- The project is strongly supported by the mass media;

- With the help of Viva Rio, an important NGO in Brazil, alternative educational programs have been developed in the communities for the recovering of drug addicts and guiding young people, with the participation of UPP police officers;

- The Program has had the approval of the majority of the population, as revealed in several opinion polls;

- Criminality in communities with UPP has dropped, as registered by the Institute of Public Security, a government institute that monitors public security and violence in Rio;             

- In the words of the residents, life in the favelas with UPP has changed for the better;


·      Prospects and challenges 


Prospects are that the program be consolidated and may produce benefits for the whole population, which is not an easy task, as we are speaking of more than 600 favelas only in the city, many of them still under control of drug gangs. In addition to that, it must not be forgotten that we are speaking of a state police, and that there are many favelas in different cities of the Metropolitan Area and in other cities of the state. 


The UPP program, up to now in force only in the city, has been blamed for pushing the gangs to peripheral favelas in the city, or to other cities of the state.


One point that has not received much attention, not even by the press, relates to the fact that the pacifying project as a whole was meant to be "coupled with the strengthening of social policies within the communities", which implied that heavy investments in infrastructure, sanitation, education, etc. would be made. Residents have complained that the investments have not been made as promised.


Finally, it must be recognized that, to a certain extent, the pacification program has been a successful experience. As already mentioned, the police have received a different mandate to work in the favelas with UPP, a mandate based on the concept of community policing / police of proximity, and they are trying to work in accordance with it. Hopes are that the same mandate is extended to all the favelas and poor communities; or better, to all the city and state communities, poor or rich, considering that we are speaking, again, of a state police (there are no local police forces in Brazil). However, in a society historically marked by authoritarianism and social discrimination, this is not a decision that can be taken and put into effect at the discretion of the police. It depends on the government´s policy on how to structure the police services and on the way their human and material resources are distributed.


In sum: the UPP program has proved to be a possibility of change. But it is far from being a panacea.


Thank you.

 

 


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