Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Almost one year after a “pacifying police unit” was established in Rocinha, one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest slums, questions are being raised over whether or not the state presence in an area formerly dominated by drug gangs is improving life for the local population.
Raquel Rolnik, professor at the University of São Paulo and UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, told Al Jazeera that special police units (UPPs) are a part of a broader policy aimed at preparing Rio for the World Cup and the Olympics.
“UPPs have mostly been implemented in favelas near the richest areas of the city. Rio’s urban project stimulates real estate investments,” she said.
Alice De Marchi, researcher at the human rights organisation Justiça Global, told Al Jazeera that the “UPP geography” cited by Rolnik coincides with the map of forced evictions of families living in slums, as well as compulsory removal of homeless people, who are forcefully taken to shelters.
“The police units are concentrated in the south zone of the city, downtown, near the docks and around Maracana stadium,” she said. “These are the most touristic areas and the ones receiving investments in preparation for the sports events.”
Each UPP comprises a local military police unit acting exclusively in certain favelas. Since 2008, 33 have been set up, and another seven will be implemented before 2014. UPP forces work in partnership with the population and with respect to local culture, states the programme’s website.
José Martins, a member of Rocinha Without Borders, a group that discusses community topics, says that the UPP was important, and that life in the community has improved with the presence of security forces.
“We were used to having 40 heavily armed criminals standing at the entrance of Rocinha. But now the clandestine weapons have been switched to official ones,” he said.
‘Where is Amarildo?’
While security may have improved in Rochina, UN Special Rapporteur Rolnik is critical of how the government chooses which favelas to receive UPPs. She told Al Jazeera that the prioritised communities were not those with the highest levels of homicides, or those with the most precarious situation for local residents.
We haven't received threats, but we can't sleep at night because we are speaking out and the door at my house doesn't lock. Some policemen think they are above the law - the one who took my father was aggressive.
The Institute of Public Safety, a government agency, shows that the number of homicides in Rio has dropped by 51 percent. There were 2336 killings in the city in 2007, a year before the first UPP was established – and 1209 last year. At the same time, however, 1858 people went missing in 2007, compared with 2488 in 2012 – a hike of 74 percent.
The case of Amarildo de Souza, a 43-year-old construction worker who was reported to have disappeared after he was detained by UPP officers, is illustrative of the broader situation, critics say. He was taken for questioning because he “looked like a suspect”, in an operation carried out on July 14, said the Rio Military Police in a press release.
Thousands have been taking to streets in Rio de Janeiro and other cities in solidarity with his family, with chants asking “Where is Amarildo?” while investigations are ongoing.
Anderson Dias is one of Amarildo’s six chilren. He told Al Jazeera inside his aunt’s small and crowded house in Rocinha that his family was afraid to sleep at home, which is very close to a UPP base.
“We haven’t received threats, but we can’t sleep at night because we are speaking out and the door at my house doesn’t lock,” he said. “Some policemen think they are above the law – the one who took my father was aggressive.
“The UPP brought good things to the community, like sports, but if you are coming home at night, some policemen curse at you and even beat you up inside the alleys,” said Anderson.
Whatever the result of investigations may be, De Marchi says that the state should be held accountable, as Amarildo’s detention by UPP officers was the last time he was seen.
“We need a clear public apology from the government – he disappeared in the hands of the state. Protests are now screaming ‘Where are the Amarildos?’ – [and] society is mobilised over many other cases in which favela residents disappeared,” she told Al Jazeera.
Rio state governor Sergio Cabral said in a speech on Wednesday that before the UPPs were established, one hundred people like Amarildo disappeared monthly.
“Before Rocinha… was pacified, we had criminal weapons. Now the military police is present, because our government does not make deals with criminals,” he said. “Whose interest is it to demoralise the UPP, peace and prosperity?”
Rio’s Public Safety Secretary, José Mariano Beltrame, did not reply to Al Jazeera’s questions by time of publication.
The UN Rapporteur criticised other state interventions in Rocinha, which appear to prioritise tourism over basic local needs. She cited the Programme for Growth Acceleration, or PAC, one of the federal government’s flagship policies, saying that those favelas receiving the largest investment were the same ones prioritised by the UPPs.
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“The government is planning on building a cable-car over Rocinha, but that won’t solve basic problems, like sewage treatment or garbage management,” Rolnik told Al Jazeera.
Rocinha Without Borders was one of the groups calling for a massive protest in June against the construction of the cable-car, as campaigners alleged the project was not a priority for local residents.
A study made by the Engineers’ Club, a civil society group of technicians, estimated that the project would cost $300m – funds which could be invested in sanitation or basic services.
Icaro Moreno, president of the state company for public construction works, said that the cable-car project had not been finalised, so there were no exact values or deadlines for its implementation.
He said that the project was a mobility alternative, allowing residents to reach the highest parts of the favela, which will be connected with other transport systems.
A similar cable-car was built over Alemão favela, and is mostly used by tourists, said the Engineers’ Club’s Alcebíades Fonseca.
Moreno said that $7bn would be invested in Rocinha, and that the priority was the implementation of sewage systems. Projects will go through a bidding process in February 2014, and projects are due to be finalised three years later. According to Martins, similar promises were made years ago – and have yet to be fulfilled.
De Marchi said that, like the cable-car, UPPs were a project not a public policy, so their effects may not be permanent.
Residents of the favelas still suffer from violence, she said, calling the UPP campaign “more marketing than content”.