Opinion, by Michael Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The theater of it all was best summed up by security expert Luiz Eduardo Soares when he dubbed the military helicopters flying over Rocinha “more Coppola than Vietnam.” Indeed, the 3,000 army, navy, and military police troops that rolled into Rocinha on Sunday didn’t fire a single shot—good news after 30 people died in a similar military raid of the Vila Cruzeiro and Complexo do Alemao favelas almost exactly a year ago.

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

But the months to come in Rocinha may not be as simple as the tidy, media-friendly show of force would suggest. The Vila Cruzeiro and Complexo do Alemao “pacification” effort bears lessons from last November in Rio’s Zona Norte to this November in the Zona Sul. Amigos dos Amigos, the drug gang that ruled Rocinha until this month, may be gone for now, but, in many ways, the challenge for Rocinha is just beginning.

First, the military and police must communicate a very clear timeline for handover from short-term military and military police forces to the longer-term UPP (Police Pacifying Unit) program that will occupy Rocinha over the coming months and years. Then, they must execute the handover with as much care as they used for the initial invasion.

Residents will be jittery when they see the army—whose forces they call “men in green” and view as far less corrupt—roll out. “Men in black,” or the police, still prompt worries about corruption. Indeed, many off-duty and retired police officers now rule favelas via paramilitary militias that favor violence and extortion.

Even, the cleaner UPPs have proven susceptible to corruption in nearby favelas, where an investigation found their leaders and troops were leaving drug traffickers alone in exchange for monthly bribes.

Second, the troops need to brace themselves for minor incidents with some residents. Fear of, and a certain respect, for drug leaders has historically run high in many favelas. Residents of Rocinha have no choice but to view drug leaders as de facto local government leaders in parallel with residents associations and other formal institutions.

They know the military faces more limits to its power, so they will test that power with occasional harassment and non-compliance. The challenge to the military and military police is to keep cool and avoid sudden forceful reactions that could take lives and jeopardize the credibility of pacification efforts across the city.

Third, the pacification effort in Rocinha must be linked with the prison system. It was the ability of drug leaders like “Marcinho VP” and “Elias Maluco” to community with deputies from prison that allowed violence in the Complexo do Alemao to swell in the past decades. Antônio Bonfim Lopes, Rocinha’s captured drug leader, known more broadly as “Nem,” cannot be allowed the same access to his networks outside prison.

Authorities also need to pursue the next rung of drug leaders. By capturing Nem on November 10th, three days before the raid, the military and military police built credibility with, and hope for, Rocinha’s population. But Nem’s deputies who managed to escape risk ending up like many of the drug bosses in the Complexo de Alemao, whose most recent leader, Pezao, or Bigfoot, is about to celebrate a full year as a fugitive, despite all of the law enforcement resources being invested.

Fourth, the incoming UPP must ensure that its social development mandate, like its security mandate, also becomes more than theater. Police officers can take on as many visible community service roles as they like, but, if they don’t get involved in building a next generation of community leaders, they will leave Rocinha with the same leadership vacuum they initially found there.

Investing in leadership means strengthening existing leaders in NGOs, residents associations, and the business communities, but these people are aging, and don’t easily replace the cultural leadership of the drug gangs. The answer, therefore, is to simultaneously invest in potential young leaders who may not have emerged yet. They need opportunities both to succeed in Rocinha itself and to “get off the hill.”

This mix of security, trust, leadership, and opportunity will help to deliver a peaceful, prosperous Rocinha long beyond the short-term theater of pacification and the medium-term theater of the World Cup and the Olympics.

Michael D. 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.


  1. Good column, sensible things being said. After 30 years of the drug lords running everything, and the State being absent save for the presence of corrupt cops protecting the drug lords, it is natural that many in the community will not trust the cops immediately. Nor should they.
    One hopeful sign is that Beltrame prohibited his police from going in with backpacks, as they did other places, so as to cut down on the amount of looting carried out by the “pacifiers”.
    Another is that 5 policemen were arrested when they were escorting several of the major drug lords out of Rocinha; previously, no cop would have stopped another.
    Another is that very clearly police intelligence operations are working–the car carrying Nem in its trunk was not a random stop in a random blitz. A year ago, when Nem and his band were stopped going from Vidigal to Rocinha, and escaped, Beltrame said he knew where Nem lived, where he kept his clothes and his dope and his guns, and when the right time came, he would arrest him. The right time came.
    May there be more right times.


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