Views on the special police units for neighborhood pacification (UPPs) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rafael Dias and José Marcelo Zacchi



In 2008, the Department of Security of the state of Rio de Janeiro (RJ) set up its first Special Police Unit for Neighborhood Pacification (UPP) in the community Dona Marta in the city of Rio de Janeiro. To date (March 2012), about 20 units are in operation and by 2014 it is expected that up to 40 units will be active. These figures show the extent of this policy and, thus, the importance of studying and discussing UPPs by activists, government officials and experts from Brazil and from other countries in the Global South.

According to the Department of Security of the state of Rio de Janeiro, the UPPs represent a new model of public policy in the field of security. Their stated goal is “to regain territories previously dominated by criminal gangs and establish a democratic rule of law”* through community law enforcement, in conjunction with social and urban projects.

Considering the magnitude of social issues it seeks to address, this policy has received widespread media attention both nationally and internationally, as well as the heavy criticism of many experts. For example, after a visit to Brazil, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, welcomed the UPP project, although he noted that there are increasing reports of abuses by police officers against residents of the communities assisted and pointed to a failure to provide the social services assigned to these units.**

With this discussion in mind, Sur – International Journal on Human Rights, released an issue on Citizen Security and Human Rights and interviewed two UPP experts to contribute to public debate on effective policies to ensure the right to security. 

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Rafael Dias — Global Justice Researcher

Conectas Human Rights • How do you view the Special Police Units for Neighborhood Pacification policy (UPPs) in Rio de Janeiro? To what extent do the UPPs represent a progress or a setback in relation to other policies in place in Rio de Janeiro?

Rafael Dias • From a conceptual standpoint, the Special Police Units for Neighborhood Pacification (UPPs) cannot be regarded as public policy because we believe that the “public” aspect of policy depends on social participation in all stages of implementation (i.e. planning, performance and implementation). An effective public policy is delivered with the massive participation of society. This is not the case of the UPPs, which were designed and executed by the government without any participation from society, without any mechanisms for external control or any real dialogue with the communities where they were established. Moreover, there is no law or rule governing the UPPs and their operating model, operating limits, and institutional objectives. Therefore, we consider the UPPs to be, at best, a governmental policy, since they express a particular project of the state government of Rio de Janeiro. The UPPs are subject to government strategies and their specific interests, which cannot be confused with the interests of society as a whole or human rights in general. On the whole, the UPPs add value to the communities in which they are implemented by stopping, if momentarily, the conflicts between the police and armed groups. This produces an immediate relief in the daily life of residents who were in the crossfire. The criminalizing, random and violent character of police actions have not only resulted in serious human rights violations, but also demand the constant attention of those living in the slums, even though they face a permanent barrier built by the government and the media that prevents them from filing their complaints and making political demands to end this type of action.

Before the UPPs, the much touted “politics of confrontation” was responsible for the exponential growth of “resistance killings” — a way of covering up the summary executions carried out by the police. In 2007, the first year of Sérgio Cabral Filho’s administration, these executions reached 1,330 cases (an average of 3 events per day). By the end of 2008, criticism of this type of policy caused the state government to change its discourse and present UPPs as “new” in the realm of public security policy, setting up one unit in the community of Santa Marta. However, this law enforcement model cannot be considered something new. The development of GPAE (Policing Group for Special Areas) in the community of Cavalão in Niterói and Cantagalo/Pavão-Pavãozinho in Copacabana in the early 2000s operated much like a community policing group and demonstrate the existence of a public security project similar to the UPPs, although the project was subsequently weakened and dismantled. The difference between the two projects is the massive investment in assigning legitimacy to the UPPs, often uncritically. UPPs are elevated as a magical solution to public security issues, while overlooking some elements that remain unchanged in this security policy. Moreover, the principles of community policing are not applied in the UPPs, who conduct routine patrols in the slums and impose their organizational culture coercively instead of mediating conflicts.

Conectas • A breakthrough would be to address the issue of drug trafficking without resorting to the logic of war, which stimulates the production of a violent society.

R. D. • Do the consequences of the UPPs include the militarization of the communities where they are set up?
The overt and permanent presence of the armed police implies the militarization of everyday life in these communities. While we cannot deny the power exercised by armed groups in the favelas, either by the drug trafficking activities or by the militia, the State is expected to refrain from following the same logic of armed occupation of urban spaces.

UPP commanders operate at their own discretion as a kind of “general administrator” of the community they are in charge of and instill the culture of barracks into the minds of those living around the UPPs. Moreover, the commander is the one who authorizes funk parties and other events in favelas with a UPP. Another indication of militarization is that the political mediation of the community, which could be coordinated by neighborhood associations or local groups and organizations, are conducted by the police force. The political mediation exercised by the military police undermines residents’ capacity to coordinate their own territory. The criminalization of residents remains unchanged, as there are an increasing number of arrests due to contempt toward military officers in areas controlled by the UPPs. Furthermore, the UPP design is conceptually tied to the military occupation of territories in order to allegedly regain state sovereignty through their “pacification.” In Complexo do Alemão and Penha, the army fulfilled this role before the UPP was fully deployed. The truth is that the state has always been present in the favelas, either with its armed wing, or by providing some essential services, albeit poorly.

Conectas • To what extent do the UPPs contribute to ensuring citizens’ right to security?

R. D. • The right to security should be understood broadly, as a result of a set of social policies in which public security is one but not the only way to ensure its effectiveness. We should not confuse public security with police intervention, because viewing public security merely as a police duty is a very simplistic way of addressing the issue. With the UPPs, the state can no longer escape its public duties and accountability to the society, since it has regained control over the territory allegedly relinquished to drug trafficking. What we see is that the situation of inequality and the poor quality of public services remains unchanged after the entry of UPPs. If we can no longer blame the drug dealers, the ineffective pursuit of public policies can only be ascribed to the State, even though police intervention was expected to guarantee the successful implementation of these policies for the whole population. What other explanation do we have for the fact that public services do not reach the community of Santa Marta, located in Botafogo, with the same quality and quantity as others living in the same neighborhood?

The way the UPPs are deployed and their territorial intervention seems to imply that the favela is a place of crime, but we know that violent crime has much more complex dynamics, which cannot be directly associated to the favela itself. Therefore, government action reinforces this view by monitoring and controlling those who are seen as potentially dangerous ones instead of promoting the welfare of the residents.

Conectas • Besides the security aspect, do the UPPs contribute to ensuring other rights of those living in the communities served?

R. D. • The UPPs cannot be analyzed apart from the current model of “business management of the city” that has been put into place in Rio de Janeiro. The staging of major sports events (2014 World Cup and Olympic Games 2016) has sped up the authoritarian and militarized management of urban spaces. Most UPPs have been deployed in the southern region of Rio, close to hotels and to the games venues (like Tijuca to the north and Cidade de Deus to the west) — the only exception is the Batan, the only militia-controlled area that was “pacified,” where journalists from the newspaper O Dia were tortured in 2007. Other areas of the state were not assisted by this public investment. Law enforcement authorities conveniently forgot the area called “Baixada Fluminense,” which has the highest crime rates in Rio de Janeiro.

The business management of urban spaces is conducive to the “harmless displacement” of those living in areas controlled by UPPs, who have seen the cost of living increase considerably, although the state has failed to establish consistent public policies in these spaces. What we see is the prohibition and criminalization of cultural traits of the favelas expressed in funk parties. So far, the belief that the “pacification” promoted by the police would be the gateway to the development of welfare policies has not manifested. The blatant inequality among the favelas’ residents and those living elsewhere in the city remains unchanged. Also, it sounds a bit strange to attribute the fulfillment of human rights to police action.

Conectas • Should the UPP model apply to other areas outside of Rio de Janeiro? 

R. D. • The UPP is a model that came from Medellín in Colombia. There, crime rates initially declined and are now rising again. Rio de Janeiro’s security and law enforcement managers traveled to Medellín many times and brought this security package back with them. If we acknowledge that the context in Medellín is different from the context in Rio and that models cannot be simply transplanted from one city to another, we should also acknowledge that the model implemented in Rio, inspired by the Colombian experience, does not necessarily serve as a paradigm for other Brazilian cities. The UPP experiment is very recent and should be evaluated and even criticized. The conservative consensus around the UPPs does not add any value to the debate on public security. Public security should be demilitarized. The military occupation of certain urban areas does not contribute to building a democratic society. Instead, it encourages government strategies to control of a stratum of the population (i.e. the poor). This political strategy seeks to maintain social inequalities through ongoing monitoring and spiteful surveillance of those living in the favelas and peripheral areas



José Marcelo Zacchi – Research Associate, Institute for Studies on Labor and Society – IETS

Conectas Human Rights • How do you view the Pacifying Police Units policy (UPPs) in Rio de Janeiro? To what extent do the UPPs represent a progress or setback in relation to other policies in place in Rio de Janeiro? 

José Marcelo Zacchi • From the perspective of which results the UPPs have produced, one can say that they have extended regular law enforcement services to historically excluded areas in order to recover the government’s capacity to promote public actions in these areas. This has had immediate positive effects in ensuring basic civil rights — rights to come and go, freedom of association, demonstration, physical and moral integrity, and security.
From the perspective of Rio de Janeiro’s history of public security in the favelas, these results represent the practical expression of some key changes in the views and habits of the city.

The first change has been to amend the primary task of the police in the favelas and poor areas to provide security to citizens, instead of protecting the city from the alleged threat posed by these communities. The second change lies in defining the protection of life, physical integrity and basic freedoms as a top priority rather than fighting drug trafficking at any expense. The third change has been the recognition that this mission is better accomplished through regular presence and preventive efficiency combined with society and other public services rather than through willful military incursions.

These far-reaching changes were brought about gradually by the actions of various sectors of society and previous governmental experiences over the past two decades of democracy in the city. Not long ago, these experiences would not have been supported as they are today. The UPPs represent the institutional and programmatic breakdown of the renewal of assumptions combined with good news: since 2008 when the first unit was deployed, Rio de Janeiro’s chiefs of police have demonstrated the commitment and competence required to transform these assumptions into new institutional practices.

One should not ignore the limits of such a policy: the UPPs are neither the solution to the problems found in the territories where they are present, nor a solution to public security in Rio de Janeiro. Nor should we overlook the challenges that lie ahead. However, we cannot take for granted the innovative character and the impressive results the UPPs have achieved thus far.

Conectas • Do the consequences of the UPPs include the militarization of the communities where they are set up?

J. M. Z. • I do not see this happening in the practical experience of communities. To a large extent, it seems to be the opposite. The peculiar phenomenon of urban violence in Rio de Janeiro emerged in the 1980s due to high levels of crime and insecurity and the overt control of armed criminal groups and the daily recurrence of armed conflicts among these groups, their opponents and the police.

Over the years, the presence of “soldiers” from these groups created terror: they had rifles and other powerful weapons at the entrance and within these communities, they built bunkers and barriers to vehicles and people, they restricted the movement of residents to other areas of the city and the adopted “martial laws,” prohibiting people from wearing clothes with the colors of rival gangs or from carrying cameras, as well as organizing trials and executions. Besides this, the communities were repeatedly exposed to shootings and explicit combat situations.

Only the profound naturalization of this reality or the deep-seated distrust of police activity can make one classify the context described above as less militarized than one in which armed violence is close to zero, civil liberties are exercised, democratic law and due process are the guiding principles of relationships and any violations are subject to public criticism and sanctions by the law. If we believe in the democratic rule of law as a desirable framework for collective organization, we must acknowledge the notable advances made in this direction.

It is clear that a shift towards democratic rule requires far more than the initial step of setting up the UPPs. The permanent presence of police forces, to begin, must be quickly combined with new means of conflict resolution and social participation. Everyday policing efforts should be adequately limited in terms of, for example, the routine practices of enforcement and patrolling, carrying weapons, and the ratio of police officers to inhabitant — and it is of pivotal importance to prevent any of these correct measures from being publicly confused with policy weakening. The regulation by public authorities of dimensions of daily life it has so far neglected — from neighborhood disputes to urban organization rules, from the use of public spaces to the legal provision of urban services — must resort to well-balanced channels of dialogue and transition rules, engaging more public officials than just the police.

The positive fact is that this is all part of the agenda spelled out by state and local governments in Rio today and it has been reflected in actions and strategies following the pacification. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that much remains to be done at all these levels.

Conectas • To what extent do the UPPs contribute to ensuring citizens’ right to security?

J. M. Z. • The first contribution of the UPP is to ensure liberties. This is, indeed, the central purpose of the UPPs. It means the freedom to move freely or to receive visits regardless of where in the city people come from. It means the freedom to organize associations and express oneself publicly without being intimidated by local “bosses.” It means to be able to experience public spaces without being exposed to armed conflicts. And all these prerogatives are advocated by a democratic sovereign state, which justifies the presence of the government and the police forces in other areas of the city and the country.

The change in the indicators of crime and violence in the communities served speaks for itself. Besides making firearm shootings infrequent episodes, the 22 areas and 400,000 residents served by the program in 2008 experienced reductions of up to 80% in the rate of homicides and 30 to 70% in the rates of other violent crimes, while the levels of police lethality were close to zero. This trend has contributed to a decline in the city’s overall crime rates during the same period, expressed in a 26% reduction in homicides and 60% reduction of deaths in clashes with the police.

Finally, these achievements gave rise to other agendas previously hidden by the prominence of armed conflicts. Issues such as domestic violence against women and reintegration programs for former members of criminal gangs or former convicts, the provision of health policies for drug addicts, the resolution of everyday conflicts, proper and daily regulation of police action, among others, are able to gain visibility and prominence in the local aspirations of the city. Most of these themes are increasingly present in public debate but not in actual policies, and we can draw an agenda for new steps forward to enhance security in these communities.

Conectas • Besides the security aspect, do the UPPs contribute to ensuring other rights of those living in the communities served?

J. M. Z. • An interesting finding of the recent experience of Rio involves the interdependence between security and other social, economic and urban rights. In context of the establishment of armed boundaries within the city, such as the one in Rio, it is not just inequality and the restriction of opportunities that fuels conflicts, but also violence that undermines the possibility of other processes of social inclusion.

Urban policies designed to improve accessibility bump into armed patrols or physical barriers on roads and streets. Schools and health care centers find it difficult to attract professionals and operate within an area of risk and conflict. Companies avoid investing in these areas or hiring professionals who live there. Local associations are constrained or directly coopted, which makes the provision of basic services such as garbage collection and street lighting difficult or unfeasible.

The advent of security — or peace, if we want to call it that — thus implies breaking down these barriers. It brings with it both the opportunity and the challenge of fostering the so-called pacification intended to reintegrate underprivileged areas into the city.

Fortunately, the need for change is now clearly stated in Rio’s governmental agenda. At the municipal level, the UPP Social program, whose creation and implementation I was pleased to participate in, coordinates the expansion of social and urban services into pacified areas and engages its residents in this process. Other state and federal programs play the same role at their respective levels. The private sector has also stepped into these areas and support for local entrepreneurship is gaining strength amidst a favorable economic setting.

There is clearly a long path ahead to pay off the burden of debt that mounted during the history of neglect. The extent of the progress achieved to date varies widely according to dimensions and territories, but security has played a starring role in efforts to trigger the movements of reintegration into the city.

Conectas • Should the UPP model apply to other areas lying out of Rio de Janeiro? 

J. M. Z. • Yes, if we view the UPPs as a benchmark for police work based on informed planning, minimized use of force and community-centered activities, and a commitment to ensuring rights and controlling misconduct. In this case, it was not exactly a “role-model UPP,” but a model of good police action anywhere in the world, which inspired the very design of the UPPs.

On the other hand, if we view the UPPs as an acronym for the process of restoring democratic sovereignty to urban areas dominated by gangs, then the model may make sense to other major cities exposed to similar phenomena. There are not many of these cities in the world: as it has been said here, the core issue in Rio is not the rate of crime and violence generally, but overstepping these boundaries and averting urban conflicts, which are very particular to Rio and not common in other places.

Rio is struggling to be a success case for plans of public security and social and urban inclusion, with a potentially exciting combination of these two initiatives. The only task we have now is to hope and work hard to make things happen.

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* State Government of Rio de Janeiro. More information is available at: <>. Last accessed on: 29 Mar. 2012.

** ACNUDH, UN Special Rapporteur fi nds that killings by Brazilian police continue at alarming rates, Government has failed to take all necessary action, available at: <>. Last accessed on: 29 Mar. 2012.

Rafael Dias

Rafael Dias, a researcher at human rights NGO Justiça Global, has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the Federal University of Bahia and a master’s in Social Psychology from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFF), where he is currently a PhD candidate. He develops psychological and legal strategies for cases brought to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (ICHR). His main topics of interest are human rights defenders, social movements and public security.


By Conectas Human Rights. 

Interview conducted in March 2012.

Original in Portuguese. Translated by Thalia Cerqueira.

José Marcelo Zacchi

José Marcelo Zacchi, Research Associate at the Institute for Studies on Labor and Society — IETS, was a founding member of the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety. He served as director of special projects at the Pereira Passos Institute under the government of the city of Rio de Janeiro, where he was responsible for developing and implementing the program “UPP Social,” aimed at expanding social and urban services in the areas served by the UPPs.


By Conectas Human Rights. 

Interview conducted in March 2012.

Original in Portuguese. Translated by Thalia Cerqueira.