The Occupation of the Slums and the Pacification of Rio de Janeiro

By Dialogo
October 15, 2010

Excellent analysis of the writer. In fact, what was missing in Rio was the political decision to confront the traffickers and expel them from territories they occupied. Fortunately, pressed or not pressed by the events to be held in Rio, the current Governor and his Secretary of Homeland Security have reached a decision. I just hope that the next governments will not resume the leniency which characterized the previous ones…

With the decision to host the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the confirmation
that the 2016 Olympic Games will take place in Rio de Janeiro, the government is
making it a priority to reclaim areas long under the effective control of criminals.
Strictly speaking, the forces of public safety have never been absent from the main
slums in Rio. In all of these communities, a show was made of deploying military
police, who are responsible for keeping order in these areas.
However, the reality is that the majority of these police stations were
gradually besieged by drug traffickers, creating a situation in which ultimately
either the police officers refused to go out on patrol (due to the fear of being
shot) or allowed themselves to be co-opted by the traffickers, accepting bribes,
etc. Serving in one of these stations in itself posed a threat to the officers’
safety, because they were dangerously exposed when arriving or leaving work. In most
cases, a kind of unwritten truce flourished, but in some places police officers from
these detachments, opposing the orders of the drug dealers who owned the area,
barricaded themselves in these facilities and engaged in daily combats against the
criminals. These situations would become calm only when a large police operation
would clean the area.
Maintaining control over the life of the people in the slums is one of the
foundations of the parallel power sought by the drug dealers. The poor areas are
extremely vulnerable to criminal leaders, who, as we know, used to substitute for
the government in many activities, including establishing their own police force.
Normally, the drug dealers offer money for medications, common household repairs,
funerals, sponsor recreational activities, provide favors, all with the aim of
winning the sympathy of the local inhabitants who, due to lack of options, accept
living under their control and collaborate with their management.
The portion of the population that does not support them remains paralyzed
and has to submit to the rules laid down by those who impose their will, enforced by
an unparalleled violence that exercises rights of life and death over all local
residents. Unlike the law of the state, which often shows more than a little
tolerance to its transgressors, the law of the traffickers is rapid, extremely
harsh, and imposes physical punishment and even the death penalty, normally carried
out without appeal. Everyone submits, because open opposition, in the slums or in
any other area controlled by the traffickers, is almost always settled with bullets,
inside the trunk of a stolen vehicle, in a ditch, or in the microwave (as
clandestine crematoria improvised with tires are known).
For the last ten years, there have been attempts to occupy the slums.
Unfortunately, the spirit of “reconciliation” used by the police in these special
areas, strongly influenced doctrinally by the NGOs that defend human rights, was not
able to eradicate armed trafficking in any of the communities where it was
implemented. As came to be widely reported by the news media, the traffickers became
more discreet in these areas, almost applying a policy of nonaggression, and
continued selling drugs in the area and acting violently, particularly outside the
borders of the area.
Without trying to reinvent the wheel, independent of all the fine words
supposedly supported by academic research and of the old politically correct pablum,
any experienced police officer knows that in order to deal with this situation, two
measures have to be applied together: prevention (in which we include all kinds of
actions to prevent crime, clean-up programs, employment, public health, education,
recreation, etc) and repression, this last normally conducted sporadically by the
police force.
To successfully occupy an area originally dominated by drug traffickers, the
first measure with which the criminals must be opposed is combat, with arrests and a
clear sense that such action represents the takeover of the territory by the state.
A measure that transmits the idea that a new wave is coming into the area, leaving
to those who do not adjust only the dispiriting options of being arrested or ending
up in the morgue. It is not necessary to emphasize that such demanding police
operations are not improvised.
They are planned with the goal of making arrests, seizing weapons,
ammunition, narcotics, are based on a vast amount of intelligence data, and try to
avoid shootouts or any other reaction by the criminals that might cause police or
civilian casualties. To carry them out, however, factors such as the physical and
topographical characteristics of the area to be occupied must be considered, as well
as the limits on the number of officers who can be used in containment/siege
activities, in the invasion of the area, and later on, in the occupation properly
The occupation of the slums as it is currently being practiced by the
Pacification Police Units is in fact something that should have been done long ago.
This is the right measure, but its results only appear over the long run. The
Special Operations Battalion of Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police – BOPE (in
Portuguese, “Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais”), when they moved to a new
headquarters in the district of As Laranjeiras, began an exceptional program of
occupation in an adjacent slum.
The BOPE sought to bring the local population over to their side, even
promoting recreational and social-civic activities intended for this public in the
unit’s own facilities. In the particular case of the Tavares Bastos slum, despite
the participation of several sectors of civil society in the project (including
NGOs), drug trafficking was never allowed to coexist in the area and never ceased to
be repressed in an exemplary way. Today, the BOPE’s work with this community is
referred to even abroad, but the fruits of this work were not harvested immediately.
There are children today who have never known the reality of co-optation by
criminals and even who have never seen gangsters walking around the streets showing
off their weapons; however, it takes time to convince people that there is another
_ *VINICIUS DOMINGUES CAVALCANTE, CPP, is a security consultant certified by
the American Society for Industrial Security (, a member
of the security service of the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Legislature, and regional
director of the Association of Security Professionals (Associação dos Profissionais
de Segurança – ABSEG, in Rio de Janeiro.