A Policewoman Heads Pacification of Rio de Janeiro Shantytowns
By Dialogo July 12, 2012
Kidnapped and tortured in a shantytown five years ago, young military police officer Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo is currently coordinating the new police units that have arrived in dozens of poor Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods following decades of control by drug traffickers.
The 34-year-old De Oliveira is today in charge of 25 Police Pacification Units (UPP) with jurisdiction over 144 shantytowns occupied by 5,550 police officers, a strategy launched by the Rio Government in 2008 with a view toward improving security prior to hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
“We succeeded in transforming a place feared by the population and by tourists into a location that can be visited today,” De Oliveira told AFP atop Providencia Hill, where the first Rio shantytown, today also reconquered by the police, was born in the late 19th century.
In Washington in March, De Oliveira received the International Women of Courage Award from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama.
“My greatest achievement was to show that in the Rio shantytowns, unlike what the police and a lot of people thought, the majority of the inhabitants are good, hardworking people,” she explained.
De Oliveira was the commander of the UPP in the Santa Marta shantytown in Botafogo (in the southern part of the city), the first shantytown “pacified” by the police in 2008, where she was the only female police officer and was in charge of 126 men.
The most difficult part, she said, was to get the inhabitants to trust the officers. Santa Marta had been occupied by the military police elite battalion for nine months many years earlier, but when the battalion withdrew in 1991, the drug traffickers retook control and murdered those whom they considered informers. The fear that this could be repeated remains under the surface.
During her two years in Santa Marta, she fought drug trafficking, was trained in conflict mediation and human rights, and worked with authorities to improve garbage collection and medical care.
“In two years, I never received a report by telephone without knowing who was calling me. That’s great evidence of trust, because the people who have been living there for 20, 30 years know the power of the criminals, and they didn’t know me,” she said.
Today, her challenge consists in “demonstrating that the police are working to improve society” and “destroying the myth that the UPP can solve all the problems.”
In her view, the pacification units serve to affirm the state’s presence and open the way for basic services and private investment.
“Through our work, we have to gain people’s trust, but in some shantytowns, it’s going to take a while (…). When drug trafficking is being done by the inhabitants of the community themselves, it’s more difficult, because people have a relationship with the criminal,” she explained.
One and a half million people currently live in Rio de Janeiro’s more than 750 shantytowns. The UPPs have significantly improved security in poor neighborhoods located in more touristed areas, near the airport or the sambadrome, but violence continues in hundreds of communities in the poorer parts of the city.
Asked about recent cases of police corruption in the UPPs and about shantytown inhabitants who confess to being more afraid of the police than of drug traffickers or vigilante groups, she stated that there are bad examples “in any profession” and that they are “the minority.”
In 2007, De Oliveira was kidnapped by a group of armed criminals as she left her house and was taken to a shantytown for several hours.
“They hit me a lot, they assaulted me constantly, without stopping. I thought that I would never get out of there; I was in an uninhabited part of the shantytown, with several armed men: me, a police officer, a woman, all alone. I did get out of there, with God’s help,” she said.
She succeeded in escaping, after several attempts. The police officer arrested some of the criminals, and she returned with her colleagues the next day to arrest the rest.
According to De Oliveira, this incident, instead of resulting in a “panic syndrome,” had “the opposite effect” on her.
“I couldn’t let myself take even one day off. I didn’t want to stop working, I became a better person; it made me see that people in the shantytown needed help,” she stated.
For 11 years, she has been trying to reconcile her job with her study of law. “I don’t have a husband, I don’t have children, I don’t even have a boyfriend, I don’t have time,” she said, laughing.
“When I joined the police, many people in my family were opposed. It was difficult for my mother,” she said. “But they also raised me to follow my dreams and not depend on any man or on anyone,” she declared.
After the World Soccer Cup for 2014 announcement, the police didnâ€™t stop to go up the slumâ€™s hills of Rio, all this to alleviate the staying of people from abroad, and what about us? we belong here, and we are left in second place? They only will prove me wrong will be when the Cup is over, then I want to see if they will go up the hills with the same assiduity. I DONâ€™T THINK SO