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Tourists face risk from displaced violent crime in Brazil as police strategy in Rio's slums falters

Published: 1/13/2014
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Alleged police brutality by police pacification units (UPP) newly deployed to Rio de Janeiro's slums (favelas) is undermining locals' trust in the police and apparently displacing violent crime from the favelas, increasing risks to tourists staying in Rio.

IHS Global Insight perspective



The UPPs, which have so far been established in 34 favelas, are critical to the authorities' drive to improve security in Rio de Janeiro in the run up to the World Cup and the Olympic Games.


With crime increasing and a high risk of repetition of the social protests which engulfed Brazil, particularly Rio, in June 2013, indicators that support for UPPs is dwindling raises risks to foreign visitors.


Although most of the crime affecting the favelas does not affect foreign visitors, there are growing concerns that criminal gangs displaced by the UPP deployment are reallocating to other areas in Rio frequented by tourists.


Military police on patrol in the Lins de Vasconcelos neighbourhood, north of Rio de Janeiro,
southeastern Brazil, on 30 August 2013.

2013 was a challenging year for public security in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In addition to large-scale social protests during the Confederations Cup in June 2013, official crime data showed an overall increase. Anecdotal evidence also suggests a resurgence of drug traffickers' presence in the favelas (slums). Meanwhile, it appears that broad public support for the UPPs, the police pacification units deployed in the favelas, since 2008, is dwindling.

The UPPs have now been extended to 34 favelas, with a target of establishing 40 UPPs by the end of 2014. The permanent presence of police in these areas has resulted in a marked fall in homicides. According to a study by Rio's Public Security Institute (ISP), the number of murders in the favelas where UPPs have been established over the past four years has declined by 65%. However, the data masks a gradual loss of support by local communities as the police officers deployed are being accused of brutality and other abuse.

Loss of trust

One incident that has contributed to the loss of trust in the UPP was the disappearance of Amarildo Dia de Souza in Rocinha, the biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro, on 14 July 2013. Amarildo, a bricklayer and father of six children, was arrested by UPP policemen and allegedly tortured during an investigation into a clandestine arms stockpile in the neighbourhood. His body disappeared. Human rights organisations and Amarildo's family initiated an international campaign – "Cadê o Amarildo?" (Where is Amarildo?) – demanding his disappearance be properly investigated. As a result of this campaign, 25 UPP policemen were indicted, among them the former commander of the UPP in Rocinha, Major Edson Santos. Seventy other UPP police in Rocinha had to leave the community, fearing reprisals from residents. Meanwhile, drug traffickers in Rocinha have regained confidence and attacks against the police have intensified.

Resurgence of drug traffickers

Besides Rocinha, the resurgence of drug traffickers has also been noted in other 'pacified' favelas. The UPPs are struggling to remain in control of communities, such as Pavão-Pavãozinho, Vila Cruzeiro, Manguinhos, Cidade de Deus and Morro dos Macacos, among others. In Pavão-Pavãozinho, a small hillside favela in the middle of the prosperous Copacabana neighbourhood, drug traffickers have regained control of the upper parts of the favela despite a UPP presence. In Morro da Providência, located next to Rio's central railway station, drug traffickers forced shop owners to close their businesses after one of their criminal members was killed by the police.

Meanwhile, Comando Vermelho (CV), the most powerful drug trafficking faction in Rio, is reportedly preparing to regain control of favelas apart from Complexo Alemao, where government control is considered by the gangs to be too strong to be challenged. Rodrigo "Gordinho" Prudêncio Barbosa, a former drug lord turned informant, told police that CV is rebuilding connections with a powerful drug gang – Sao Paulo-based Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) – to this end. PCC supplies drugs and arms to CV. Barbosa claimed that CV had shifted its focus to favelas, such as the Complexo da Penha in the north zone of the city and Chapéu Mangueira, which is just a few minutes' walk from five star hotels, like the Windsor Atlantica and Copacabana Palace.

Crime rises in Rio state

The Public Security Institute also put the number of intentional homicides (as defined in Brazilian law) in the state of Rio de Janeiro for January-September 2013 at 3,501, which represents a 14.9% rise compared with the same period in 2012. For the city of Rio the increase was 4.8%. Significantly, for areas close to the Rio metropolitan area, such as the Baixada Fluminense and Niteroi, the increases were 28.5% and 27% respectively. This suggests that the gangs expelled from the favelas are migrating to these regions. The same trend can be observed for other violent crimes. Vehicle robberies increased by 19.1% state wide, for the same period, but in the Baixada region the increase was 36% and in Niterói 35.3%, while in Rio city it rose by 3.3%. Muggings increased by 17% in the state, 7.3% in Rio city, while in Baixada it jumped 35.6% and in Niterói 14.5%. However, kidnappings decreased from 13 to 2 cases between 2012 and 2013 and 'express' kidnappings decreased from 95 to 83 cases.

Outlook and implications

The UPPs have lost ground, not only territorially but also in its battle for the hearts and minds of the local communities. As more corruption scandals and allegations of police abuse come to light, locals are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the prospect of the pacification model. Furthermore, the authorities apparent inability to progress beyond mere police deployment to investing in education, housing, health, and employment opportunities for the urban poor poses the risk that the gains made in the reduction of violent crime in the favelas is reversed.

A resurgence of drug-related violence in the favelas is unlikely to affect tourists visiting Rio for the World Cup or the Olympic Games. However, the spillover of criminal gangs, who statistics suggest have been displaced to other districts, increases risks for foreign visitors. A case in point is Niterói, a neighbouring town frequented by tourists, particularly those visiting the MAC, the Museum of Contemporary Art built by the late iconic architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Baixada Fluminense, the other district which has experienced an increase in violent crime, poses no apparent risks for tourists. Niteroi and Baixada do not have a UPP yet but there are plans to extend UPPs to these areas. Statistical evidence suggests that crime rates in these areas have gone up because of the migration of crime triggered by the UPP pacification and general reconfiguration of crime and criminal infrastructure.

Elsewhere, deterioration of security in favelas close to hotel and tourist areas poses security threats to foreign visitors. This is the case in most favelas in the south of the city, such as Cantagalo, Pavao-Pavaozinho, Chapéu-Mangueira, Santa Marta, and Vidigal. The Sheraton Hotel is only 300 metres away from Vidigal, for instance.

In the case of Rocinha, it is adjacent to Sao Conrado, Rio's wealthiest neighbourhood, and on the transit route to Barra and the Olympic Village.

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