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Searching for an alternative to the ‘war on drugs’ in Rio de Janeiro

The Brazilian city has been an extreme example of the failure of the ‘war on drugs’ – but recent policing measures offer potential alternatives. Can Rio learn to fight violence rather than drugs? Español


Anti-police graffiti, Rio. Sub.Coop. All rights reserved. Anti-police graffiti, Rio. Sub.Coop. All rights reserved.Rio de Janeiro is known both for its natural beauty and for its violence. Films and newspaper reports spread word of killings in the favelas and explore the complex ties between drug trafficking, crime and police in ‘the marvellous city.’ Some initiatives have been taken to try to reduce the violence, and the introduction of Police Pacifying Units (UPPs) in these communities is notable among them. Rio has been an extreme example of the dramatic impact of the ‘war on drugs’ policing approach, although some measures adopted in recent years appear to have questioned this model.

A constant historical tension has existed between two conceptions of public security in Rio de Janeiro. The first is based on an all-out war against drug trafficking, notwithstanding its human costs, while the second is centred on a community approach and on human rights. These opposing visions have alternated under different governments since Brazil’s re-democratisation, in the late 1980s, leading to different policing strategies.

Yet the model of a ‘war on drugs’ has been predominant over the last 30 years, despite having proven itself incapable of containing drug sales or effectively dismantling drug markets. On the other hand, it has been associated with significant increases in lethal violence and human rights abuses. The traditional policy was based on periodic police ‘invasions’ of favelas controlled by drug dealers. After taking over the community, leaving a few dealers dead and apprehending drugs and weapons, police would stay for only a few days, or weeks at most, returning a few months later to reinitiate the cycle.

Unsurprisingly, these interventions did nothing to eliminate drug trafficking, since dead dealers were quickly replaced, and business continued as usual. Police corruption was also instrumental in understanding these cycles of violence: the threat of an ‘invasion’ was often used to extract a higher bribe from the dealers.

The threat of an ‘invasion’ was often used to extract a higher bribe from the dealers.

Predictably, these operations also caused enormous insecurity among favela dwellers who learned to fear police even more than the dealers. Basic daily routines were interrupted by these interventions. Civilian victims of the crossfire were often considered collateral damage of the war. Human rights violations were common, including summary executions, and police legitimacy in the favelas was extremely low. In short, the traditional response of the state to drug trafficking became part of the problem and intensified violence.

In the early 2000s, there were some signs that the traditional drug-retail model in Rio, associated with territorial control of small communities and very high levels of violence, may have entered into a crisis for reasons associated with its costs, particularly due to lower profits. Analysts mention two possible reasons for this. First, a possible change in consumers’ profiles. Many middle-class drug users would have stopped buying at favela sale points because of the violence. Second, rising costs related to police extortion and heavy investment in weapons would have also reduced profits.

This resulted in a certain weakening of drug-dealing groups, which was also fuelled by two other new phenomena: the appearance of so-called ‘militias’ and the introduction of the Police Pacifying Units (UPPs) project.

The word ‘militia’ started to be used widely in the city in 2006, even though the phenomenon it describes can be traced back over many years. The term ‘militia’ was applied to groups of law-enforcement agents who, in their free time and under the pretence of freeing communities from drug traffickers, controlled favelas and extorted both local businesses and residents by imposing ‘protection taxes’ and by creating coercive monopolies on goods and services.

Social order imposed by militias has been as brutal as that exerted by drug dealers.

In many communities, these militias took over the territory from drug-dealers by force whereas in other cases they entered into areas that had not been controlled by any armed group beforehand.  The precise intelligence needed for some of these takeovers from drug-dealers strongly suggests that some militias were commanded by police officers who had formerly been on the dealers’ payroll. As such, they probably concluded that they stood to gain more from controlling a variety of economic transactions than just by receiving bribes from traffickers. The weakening of such drug-dealing groups, mentioned above, would have encouraged this move.

As in the case of drug dealers, militias lack a centralised command. However, they possess a higher degree of internal organisation than that of drug dealers, who tend to be younger and less experienced. Despite their liberating rhetoric and the frequent attempt to impose a certain moral order, coercion has remained a central trait. While most militias prevent drug trafficking and other kinds of behaviour considered undesirable, some militias continue to sell drugs or allow this sale to continue, as one more way to extract profit. Social order imposed by such groups has been as brutal as that exerted by drug dealers, with frequent expulsions, torture and summary executions.

One could argue that militias used the rhetoric of the ‘war on drugs’ to impose an alternative yet equally oppressive style of domination. In fact, one of the most immediate results of militia domination is that aggressive police operations to retake territorial control simply ceased. This may be attributed to a relative degree of tolerance on the part of the police or to the fact that militia members, being police officers themselves, would refuse to engage in armed confrontation with their colleagues.

Pacifying Police Unit, Rio. Sub.Coop. All rights reserved. Pacifying Police Unit, Rio. Sub.Coop. All rights reserved.In 2009, the government launched a new policing strategy under the Police Pacifying Units (UPP) project, the explicit goal of which was not to end or defeat drug dealing but to reduce or eliminate two of their most damaging traits: territorial control and lethal violence. UPPs permanently stationed police officers in certain favelas with the objective of regaining territorial control, formerly in the hands of criminal groups, and of bringing ‘peace’ to the communities: ending regular shootouts and armed violence.

As such, renouncing victory in the unwinnable ‘war on drugs’ opened up a space for more realistic goals, such as the reduction of violence. In this sense, it could be conceived almost as a harm-reduction initiative related to drug trafficking, which attempts to diminish the negative impacts of its inescapable presence. Interestingly, this renunciation of the ‘war on drugs’ can hardly be found in official police documents, but is permanently used in the leaders’ communication strategy.

Besides its main goals of regaining territorial control and reducing armed violence, UPPs were also intended to foster a more community-oriented policing approach, eventually called ‘proximity policing’ by police themselves, and to increase public and private investment so as to improve living conditions.

In fact, in the public arena, the ‘UPP project’ was referred to in two different ways. In the first, more limited sense, UPPs would simply be a public security intervention or, even more restrictively, a policing project. In the second sense, UPPs were conceived as a far wider strategy for integrating favelas into the rest of the city and narrowing the gap between both ends of the ‘divided city’ (cidade partida). Those who defended this broader approach often used the term “pacification policy.”

Indeed, the first impact of a permanent police presence was that it strongly discouraged attempts to dispute territorial control, typically associated with high levels of lethal violence. Given that the police were there to stay, it was far less tempting for any criminal group to try to force its way into the community. A preliminary evaluation of the impact of the first 12 UPP units on criminal records in 2012 concluded that the intervention drastically reduced homicide rates in and around target areas by approximately 50%.

As already stated, UPPs hoped to establish better relationships between poor communities and the police through a different policing paradigm. For that purpose, police officers were freshly recruited for this project, which would allegedly reduce the risk of ‘contamination’ of UPP officers by the corruption levels and old doctrine endemic in the rest of the force. Training and doctrine were supposed to be altered accordingly, even though changes in training were minimal in practice.

There was understandable resistance to such changes within police ranks.

Ultimately, UPPs were considered by some sectors inside and outside the police as a chance to transform public security paradigms and reform the police, replacing the ‘war on drugs’ with a policing model that promoted safety and respect for the law. It was hoped that the success of UPPs would help drag the rest of the police in the same direction. Within the police, those officers more aligned with human rights certainly saw this as a unique opportunity.

But there was understandable resistance to such changes within police ranks. Despite the fact that public security authorities claimed that eradicating drug trafficking was not the aim, operational police priorities remained focused on drugs, in a scenario which some observers defined as a ‘cold war on drugs’. For instance, UPP officers who apprehended drugs were rewarded with days off, even to a higher degree than in the rest of the police force.

Indeed, the possibility of a paradigm shift was the dimension in which the UPP project showed least progress, and the notion of community policing remained very distant. Contacts between the community and the police were not institutionalised and depended on the goodwill of the local commander. The priorities of local residents in terms of public security were not incorporated by the police and relationships remained tense. As such, the UPP programme was still perceived by communities as a top-down external project of occupation rather than an attempt to protect the local population.

Furthermore, the project's legitimacy within the police force remained low, as shown by the fact that most UPP police officers would rather work as 'normal' policemen and policewomen,  and UPPs’ capacity to permeate the doctrine of the rest of the organisation has so far been very limited. In fact, the opposite seemed more true.

By 2014, the UPP project was perceived to be in crisis, along with the whole security situation in the state of Rio. Homicide and crime rates had escalated in all areas both inside and outside UPPs, frequent shootouts occurred in some UPPs and the image of the project had been tainted by some high-profile cases of police abuse, such as the torture, murder and disappearance of Amarildo de Souza by UPP officers in the community of Rocinha.

Despite its limitations, the UPP project will certainly leave a very important legacy in Rio.

Having enjoyed wide support at the beginning, the UPP project is now subjected to various criticisms and doubts remain as to the continuation and the nature of the project in the coming years. Despite its limitations, the UPP project will certainly leave a very important legacy in Rio by showing that there is a practical alternative to the ‘war on drugs’ in dealing with violence. In its acceptance of drug trafficking as an unavoidable reality, the UPP model attempted to invert historical priorities, fighting violence and intimidation rather than drugs.

Considering that most fatalities historically result from territorial disputes over drug-selling turf, the ultimate goal of any state intervention should be to ‘de-territorialise’ drug markets so that there would be no need to dominate specific areas, for instance through direct delivery to individual consumers. This is the kind of drug-retail business that is operating in many cities around the world with much lower levels of violence. Ideally, state interventions should try to discourage the traditional model and encourage this more ‘modern style’ of drug dealing.

Furthermore, had UPP locations been chosen according to the highest homicide rates, this could have been a strong incentive for dealers to operate with lower levels of violence, given that ‘excessive’ violence would have resulted in the loss of their territory – the basis of their business.

Despite all these experiences within the last eight years, Rio de Janeiro is still one of the arenas in the world where the 'war on drugs' results in the highest human cost. Although this model has shown its shortcomings, and even though experiences like the UPPs represent potential alternatives, the 'war on drugs' is still very vivid in Rio de Janeiro. It threatens to linger on for a considerable amount of time. 

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.
About the author

Ignacio Cano is a professor and researcher at Rio de Janeiro State University.


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