Sgt. Vagner Luis de Assis gazes at the Chapéu Mangueira and Babilônia favelas perched in the hills above ritzy Copacabana beach. To illustrate what this neighborhood used to be like, he mimics a narco-boss armed with an assault rifle scanning the neighborhood, bands of ammunition crisscrossing his chest.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Sgt. Vagner Luis de Assis gazes at the Chapéu Mangueira and Babilônia favelas perched in the hills above ritzy Copacabana beach. To illustrate what this neighborhood used to be like, he mimics a narco-boss armed with an assault rifle scanning the neighborhood, bands of ammunition crisscrossing his chest.
In the past, police strategies in favelas consisted of periodic occupations and interventions against drug lords and paramilitaries. Many innocent residents were caught in the crossfire. Rio de Janeiro’s public defender says that in the past 10 years, more than 60,000 murders remain unsolved.
The government is now taking a new approach it hopes will have lasting benefits: community assistance.
The pacification police units (UPPs in Portuguese) are omnipresent in these communities. Chapéu Mangueira and Babilônia each have six precincts with two officers in each post at all times. Some police patrol on foot. The government has also installed sanitation systems, and water, and electricity. One year ago, says Assis, the residents didn’t have those things. “Before, they’d steal it,” he says.
The state is also providing job training, education and other services. Human rights observers praise the new approach to favelas, if not always the execution.
“Now, for the first time, we have a program that is not designed to protect people who live in the city from those in the slums, but rather to protect people in the slums themselves,” says Ignacio Cano, a researcher at the Rio de Janeiro State University Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence.
Chapéu Mangueira-Babilônia, home to 6,000, has been pacified for two years, and it shows in the tranquility of a Saturday afternoon. The view from the balcony of UPP headquarters is gorgeous — the blue of the Atlantic Ocean, the white sand of Copacabana Beach. Kites fly everywhere.
Assis says it took his men one week to enter the favela. “BOPE [Rio’s Special Operations Police Battalion] came in and cleaned it up, then we came in behind,” he said. “They’re the front lines. We give the drug lords a chance to leave, otherwise many people would be killed.”
Looking at the high rises, he says, “The people in Copacabana love it. Imagine, a really nice area, high class, millionaires, right next to people without anything. For them [the pacification] was marvelous. It’s brought the incidence of robbery, assault, and breaking and entering almost to zero.”
The UPPs began in 2009, and the first favela to be pacified was Santa Marta. Now, it’s a tourist-friendly model area: It has an elevator, a nice view of Lagoa, Botafogo and Corcovado, a samba school and a paintball camp. UPP officers even delivered a baby there.
In the 17 or 18 areas that have been pacified so far, the impact has been a dramatic decrease in armed shootouts, as well as territorial control of irregular armed groups. The Rio de Janeiro Institute on Public Security reports homicides in the city have fallen by 18.4 percent in the last 12 months.
Cano and his colleagues interviewed residents in other communities near Copacabana in 2004. One man told him: “What a favela does not want to see is deaths, especially those of innocents. So favela residents think: ‘It’s good that the policeman and the dealer are talking. At least tomorrow there will be no shooting.’ What the resident doesn’t want is his door to be full of bullet holes, to be unable to take his son to school, to be unable to return home from work or school.”
Cano added: “If you ask people, ‘Do you want to go back to the old way?’ the answer is no.”