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Opinion, by Michael Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – “Things could really be different this time,” we told ourselves about the insertion of Police Pacification Units (UPPs) into violent favelas to root out drug traffickers. Residents were walking up and down the hills with an extra spring in their step, home prices were going up, businesses were thriving, and drug gangs were on the run. And, this time, finally, a corruption-free police effort had arrived in Rio’s toughest favelas.

Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.

Or so we thought. Turns out it was only a matter of time before the inevitable. This Monday, the Public Military Ministry announced that it had indeed found a military police corruption scheme in the UPP in the favelas of Coroa, Fallet, and Fogueteiro in central Rio. The findings don’t signify an all out failure for the UPP program, but they raise complex questions and demand complex responses.

First, the facts: on Sunday, in a report by “O Dia,” the military police announced the dismissal of the commander and sub-commander of the UPP, and then explained the findings of their investigation. Military police officers (PMs) were receiving payments from the drug traffickers not to repress the drug trade in the local favelas.

Payments were set by rank, with more junior PMs receiving R$400 per month and more senior PMs receiving as much as R$2,000 per month. The fixed monthly payment was known as a “mensalão,” and the program began at least two months ago when the tip came in from a resident.

Not only did participation bring benefits to the PMs, but traffickers are also thought to have attacked those PMs who didn’t participate. These findings raise a number of basic questions that run far beyond the favelas and UPP under investigation.

How easily and quickly can local traffickers corrupt a new UPP? The Coroa, Fallet, and Fogueteiro UPP arrived in February, so took less than six months to corrupt. The faster traffickers can get PMs on their side, the less disruption to their business, and the less time for side benefits of UPPs — home price improvement, increased legitimate business activity, community and youth programs — to take hold.

How many other UPPs have been or will be corrupted? As residents, policymakers and other observers began cautiously to declare victory with the UPPs, the big challenge was how to expand from the current seventeen to the forty UPPs planned before 2014. Now, if the first seventeen UPPs have pockets of corruption, would it really be responsible to expand the program? Drug traffickers should be feeling emboldened not just in Coroa, Fallet, and Fogueteiro but throughout the city.

What does this say about the culture of the military police? Informal spoken and unspoken norms are the hardest things to change in a police department. If there truly is a culture of corruption in the military police, it will take years, not months, to fix and will require more comprehensive change than most leaders can easily comprehend.

To be sure, the military police leadership has taken many of the right steps. They conducted the investigation efficiently and thoroughly, capturing the transgressions via video recording and authorized wiretaps. They moved swiftly to dismiss the UPP leadership and to imprison three police officers.

The military police leadership is encouraging tips from residents on UPP irregularities via well-publicized telephone tip lines. They will install more security cameras to monitor the favelas and the UPPs. Finally, the state has taken effective public communications measures, reporting the abuses transparently and declaring a long-term commitment to UPPs.

But the response cannot stop here, with dismissals and investigations. The military police must continue to reform themselves, through improved on-boarding of new officers, ongoing training of existing officers in soft skills, ethics, and leadership, and visible leadership actions, both to condemn corruption and to praise the highest ethical behavior. As always in the face of corruption, salary levels deserve consideration if they are so low as to attract or necessitate bribes as supplements.

Above all, military police leadership must remember that an effective UPP program is more important than a big UPP program. Only then can it earn the pride of the many non-corrupt military police officers, the fear of drug traffickers, and, most importantly, the trust of ordinary residents.

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Michael Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.

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