Drug wars and police killings in Brazil

Rio’s ‘pacification’ programme in the spotlight as police killings continue during the World Cup.

Pacification Unit officers patrol next to a mural of slain dancer Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira [Getty Images]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – An elite Brazilian military police unit opened fire on criminal suspects in Mare district, scattering the favela’s bystanders after one of their colleagues was allegedly gunned down. When the dust settled, 10 victims lay dead.  

“The police shot the place up and didn’t care who lived there, who was in the drug business, or who was a kid,” recounted a young resident named Rachel in I died in the Maré, a recent documentary about the incident. “They were squeezing off shots all around us saying that after midnight nobody leaves or enters the favela.”

A day after the shooting, June 25, 2013, residents took to the streets demanding that the military police known as BOPE get out of the area, and calling for an end to unauthorised and violent police operations in their communities.   

Officials in Rio deployed the military police officers in 2008 to curb escalating gang violence among drug traffickers through the “pacification” of the city’s favelas, or shantytown areas. The programme dramatically drove down homicide rates by nearly half. Police killings also plummeted from 1,330 cases in 2007 to 405 in 2013, according to government figures.

The UPPs were meant to not only pacify the favelas, but also pacify the police from within. New training, recruiting new members not involved in corruption or abuse - that's had a huge impact.

by - Nicholas Barnes , University of Wisconsin-Madison

In July, Mare district will transition from military occupation to “pacifying police units” known as UPPs, like dozens of other favelas throughout Brazil.

“The UPPs were meant to not only pacify the favelas, but also pacify the police from within,” said Nicholas Barnes, a public security researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is based in Rio. “New training, recruiting new members not involved in corruption or abuse – that’s had a huge impact.”

Street violence returns

However, for the first time in years, shootouts among gangs and police have picked up in areas determined as “pacified”. On Monday, three people were shot – including one police officer and two teenagers – in what police said was an attack by drug traffickers in Complexo do Alemao, according to local reports.

“For the first few years [of pacifying police units], traffickers didn’t know what was going on, their trade was falling, falling, falling so much now that they’re starting to react,” said Michel Misse, an expert on urban violence at the Rio de Janeiro Federal University.

“So part of this rise [in volence] is a reaction against the UPPs.”

So far nobody knows how the uptick in violence is going to play out in the city. Researchers are closely watching government reports that cite a spike in violence for the first few months of 2014, including killings by police, of nearly 60 percent. Violence against police officers is also on the rise. 

Misse said more than 10,000 people were killed “under suspicion of confrontation” with Rio de Janeiro police between 2001-2011, a period when the number of deaths from street violence was at its highest. 

As long as a victim is killed by a police officer during a confrontation, or killed while resisting arrest, the murder is considered legal and rarely ever questioned by investigators.

According to Misse, the level of violence is nowhere near what it was a few years ago, but he warned that could change.

“We have to keep worrying about this otherwise it will come back. The factors are the same – a very violent corrupt police force, and a very lucrative drug trade that continues to attract young poor people,” said Misse.

War on drugs

Al Jazeera spent a day in one of the model pacification areas with a UPP unit stationed there.

Officers said they rarely receive calls related to drug operations anymore. Today it’s mostly domestic violence and neighbour complaints, a sign that pacification has been effective. Instead of battling the drug trade, they regulated vehicle traffic.

“The exceptions are the places that give us problems. Most people accept us,” said Paulo Ten Barbat, a young UPP sub-commander in Santa Marta district. He didn’t want to comment about problems the pacification programme has experienced, saying it was an overly politicised issue.

“There are problems in the UPP, but they are blown out of proportion,” said Barbat.

Brazilian riot police [Elizabeth Gorman/Al Jazeera]

Other UPP police officers didn’t want their names published for fear of losing their jobs or retaliation from gang members. Police feel overworked and underpaid for the job they do, earning less than $20,000 per year, according to one officer.

He showed Al Jazeera video of children armed with automatic weapons, dancing and laughing to music. “They’re only kids,” he said.

He lamented with another officer about the number of friends and colleagues he’s lost to the war on drugs.

“They have nothing to lose. But if I miss a shot, I lose everything – my job, my life. It’s an unjust war,” he said. “Sometimes it makes you so angry you want to kill them all, but you can’t because you’d be the same as them.”


On July 14, 2013, an investigation concluded that a local bricklayer – Amarildo Dias de Souza, 43 – died of torture suffered inside a Police Pacifying Unit in Rocinha district after he had been detained by UPP officers. De Souza was given electric shocks and asphyxiated with a plastic bag, according to an official investigation.

Then his body was hidden. The gruesome story went viral, and 10 officers were charged with his murder, including an indictment of the UPP commander.

The case was a flashpoint for the UPP programme across Rio de Janeiro, according to José Martins de Oliveira of the community group Rocinha without Borders.

Mistrust has grown among residents and police as shootouts have again picked up. The drug traffickers have returned, and now dozens of armed men stand in Rocinha’s alleys, said de Oliveira.

“You always had policeman walking in all places, but now that’s changed. If you go into the alleys you’re going to find armed traffickers,” he said. “So today, the people don’t know who to believe in … Are the police here to kill, or to defend? So there is doubt and a lack of confidence.”

Single gunshot

Just before midnight on April 22, residents of the Pavao-Pavaozinho neighbourhood, an area that saw one of the earliest pacifications, heard a single gunshot. They began seeing gloved policemen coming in and out of a barricaded school. A cleaner later found a body crammed into a closet with a bullet in the back, according to the victim’s mother.

The rise in police presence on the streets and communities of Rio brings a rise in productivity and activity - and also in clashes.

by - Priscilla Piffer, police spokeswoman

Hours later, the doorman of an apartment near the upscale tourist area of Copacabana knocked on Maria de Fatima Silva’s door to tell her something had happened to her son. 

“I still can’t believe it,” said Silva, dressed in black and sitting in front of a computer displaying her son’s Facebook page. Douglas Rafael da Silva Pereira, 26 – known as DG – was a well-known hip-hop dancer on national Brazilian TV. 

Police claimed he died from a fall, but it’s widely believed he was shot after being mistaken for a drug trafficker during a police operation. His mother has accused police of torturing Pereira before shooting him in the back.  

“They’re doing everything to transform him into a criminal. They’re doing everything they can because they need to prove that he was a criminal to justify his death,” she said.

Violent street riots broke out by angry residents blaming police for his death. In the chaos, one of Pereira’s dance students was killed by a gunshot. It remains unclear who fired the weapon.

“My son is gone but there are other DGs,” said Silva. “My son’s case is not unique.”

Police told Al Jazeera investigations into both killings are currently under way. “The deaths due to police intervention are investigated by the Civil Police and the goal is always to preserve the scene,” police spokeswoman Priscilla Piffer wrote in an email response about the recent uptick in police killings.

“The rise in police presence on the streets and communities of Rio brings a rise in productivity and activity – and also in clashes,” she said, adding that arrests and the number of pacification operations have increased across the city.

But according to Misse, police impunity persists, and the justice system must be reformed. He said statistics from several years ago indicate only about three percent of police-killing cases ever go to court. Asked if today’s figures are similar, Misse agreed. “It’s like this,” he said.