By Andrew Willis, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – This month marks the fourth anniversary of Rio de Janeiro’s inaugural Police Pacification Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, or UPP), installed in the Santa Marta favela community on December 19, 2008. The move, part of the state government’s pacification program, has helped bring greater security to the area, but complaints over a lack of basic infrastructure continue.
Santa Marta’s makeshift hhomes climb up one side of the Dona Marta hill in Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Sul (South Zone), offering spectacular views over Botafogo and neighboring districts.
In May 2008 the community gained a funicular (cable railway) helping its roughly 7,000 residents to navigate the steep slope more easily. Several months later, Rio’s first UPP was installed, with 126 police officers working in shifts, helping to greatly reduce the drug dealing and violence that previously held the favela in its grip.
In 1996, for example, when Michael Jackson shot a clip for his hit single “They Don’t Care About Us” in Santa Marta, the film crew had to first gain permission from local drug lord Márcio Amaro de Oliveira.
“The UPP finally brought about change in an area that had been forgotten by public authorities. It broke an enormous barrier,” says Pavel Carvalho, one of several tour guides that now show tourists around Santa Marta. “The positive effects include greater security, more local investment and a breakdown in the preconceptions that exist about favela residents.”
A total of roughly thirty favelas have since been ‘pacified’ and gained a UPP, most recently the Manguinhos and Jacarezinho communities near Rio’s Centro (Center). One result of the improved security levels is the growing numbers of foreigners that have decided to live in the formerly dangerous areas.
“I certainly feel safe and accepted,” says Jason Skitch, a Canadian expatriate who moved into Santa Marta several months ago.
The changes have led several politicians to describe Santa Marta as a ‘model’ pacified community, although many problems still exist, including blocked sewers, piles of uncollected rubbish and frequent breakdowns of the funicular.
In addition, residents at the top of the favela are angry at government plans to relocate them further downhill, enabling a café and other services for tourists to be built. “Peace without voice” and “A model of what?” are just some of the slogans that are painted on banners, hanging from the home windows in the area.
Academics also point to the mixed results of the state government’s pacification program in general. “At first impression, UPPs appear to be a good idea – a police force working at close proximity to improve security levels for residents on the ground,” says Alfonsina Faya, a sociologist working at the Social Medical Institute of the UERJ (State University of Rio de Janeiro).
“But there are still indications that they continue to act as repressive and coercive forces, using techniques created under Brazil’s dictatorship such as a lack of trials and street checks for young ‘non-white’ men.”
In July of this year the Pacifying Police Coordinating team (CPP) started working within and around the UPPs in various favela communities, in a concerted effort to maintain the police force’s credibility and curtail corruption after several high-profile incidents.