WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
11 Mar 2016 | Commentary | News

What Can be Learned from Brazil’s “Pacification” Police Model?

When national and local public safety personnel in Latin America want to turn away from “mano dura” approaches to the problem of alarmingly high rates of crime and violence, they frequently look to examples of apparently successful violence reduction strategies and policies from other countries in the region. Not surprisingly, successful policies cannot simply be transplanted. More often than not, those policies are successful in a specific social and political context. Whether or not security programs can be successfully adopted from one national context to another depends on a series of variables. These include the political will of the “adopting” authorities, the social and political factors that made the experience successful in the first place, and the capacity of the police to respond constructively to external evaluations as the program evolves. A current example of this process is the effort to expand the Police Pacification Units (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora, UPPs), established in Rio de Janeiro in 2008 and inspired in part by violence reduction strategies in Medellín, to new communities.[1]

A New Strategy for Reducing Violence

When the UPPs were created in Rio, local, national, and international attention focused on their potential for violence reduction both inside and outside the city’s “favelas” (squatter settlements) and the creation of a new model of police-community relations. Clearly, the prospects of Brazil hosting the 2014 World Cup and Rio hosting the 2016 Olympic Games were not absent from the planners’ motivations. The original concept was to create special units of younger and specially-trained Military Police that would “occupy” specific favelas following massive police operations to secure the community and once the neighborhood’s drug kingpins had left, after either being arrested or fleeing to other favela areas. These special units would establish a 24-hour presence and attempt to provide a more social assistance-focused model, correcting the previous image of the police as violent, corrupt, and militaristic.

The first UPPs were established in small or medium-sized favelas where intergang conflict was less pronounced and thus easier to control. The idea from the beginning was not to eliminate all drugs from favelas with UPP presence–thought to be an unrealistic goal—but to eliminate the violence associated with drug trafficking and liberate those communities from heavily-armed and authoritarian drug bosses.

Although not without their problems, the first UPP experiences from 2008 to 2011 were seen, on balance, as an experiment worth pursuing. The first few years saw a marked reduction in homicides and property crimes in all neighborhoods, and a rise in property values and economic activity both within favelas and in surrounding areas. Since then, the number of UPPs has increased to 38, with the number of UPP personnel increasing four-fold to 9,500 in 2015. Increased quantity, however, has not meant an improvement in quality. In fact, the UPPs have run into serious problems in the last two years as they have tried to expand to Rio’s larger, more complicated, and violent favelas. Misconduct and violence by UPP personnel, including killings of favela residents, has increased; so too has the number of UPP police killed by drug dealers displaced by UPP occupations.[2] In the first week of December 2015, three UPP police were killed and two more were seriously wounded as they patrolled contested favela areas. In a recent interview, Coronel Robson Rodrigues, the first coordinator of the UPP, recognized the error in assuming that “occupying” favelas would necessarily “pacify” them.[3]

After Initial Success, Challenges Remain

The backsliding can be attributed to attempts to “pacify” the larger, more complicated settlements, but a number of UPP evaluations carried out by highly regarded social scientists in the last few years point to long-standing problems.[4] First, the training of new recruits was never sufficient to create the new paradigm of police-community relations necessary to shift ideology and practice. New UPP recruits were trained together with the general “cadet” population for six months, and then given just two weeks of special training in community policing and human rights.

Second, even with the extra pay UPP police received, they by and large felt they were not doing “real policing,” but instead were treated as social workers. Despite a pay raise, the working conditions for UPP police within the favelas remained precarious. Reception of UPP units by the community was mixed. Older residents were relieved by the absence of the arbitrary rule of the drug traffickers, but adolescents and young adults resented what they saw as the authoritarian posture of police who attempted to impose moral standards and constraints on cultural expression. The cost of expanded UPP operations occurred as Brazil and Rio began an economic downturn with sharp budget cuts affecting improvements in those operations. Most problematic of all, the creation of the UPPs as separate and specialized units did little to change the practices of the Military Police institution as a whole. Police violence, particularly the killing of black youth, continues to plague Rio’s low-income population. This set of constraints must be considered in any attempt to adapt the UPPs to other national contexts.

At the beginning of 2015, Coronel Robson Rodrigues assumed the position of second in command of the Military Police in an effort to devise new paradigms for training, management, and use of force to correct the deficiencies of the institution as a whole. For example, he introduced the notion of “proximity policing,” which involved the analysis, evaluation, and oversight of the entire Military Police, not just the UPPs. Recognizing that improvements in the UPPs would occur only in the context of these larger institutional changes, Rodrigues also acknowledged that the force’s persistent militarized institutional culture still created enormous internal resistance to fundamental change. (Rodrigues has since retired from the Military Police to pursue a doctorate in social sciences.)[5]

Stronger Social Programs Key to Success

Along with these problems on the policing side of the model, the UPPs have suffered due to weaknesses on the social side of the programs. Implicit in the original model was the idea that a new set of social services—health, education, and job training—would come to the favelas along with the UPP police to correct the traditionally absent or minimally present and poor-quality city service projects in the favelas.[6] Unfortunately, this “UPP Social” never got off the ground, provoking much criticism from the public and from public safety officials themselves. The reason for the UPP Social’s lack of traction speaks to some of the basic faults of the entire UPP experiment.

The UPP Social fell victim to partisan jockeying and a lack of a fundamental commitment to the social goals of the experiment once the immediate aims of violence reduction were reached: armed conflict between drug factions and the police was significantly reduced, there were fewer deaths and wounds from stray bullets, and a generalized panic decreased. Responsibility for the UPP Social was transferred from the state of Rio de Janeiro to the municipality of Rio when partisan alliances and coalitions fell apart and the distribution of secretariats was prioritized over the social policies the agencies were intended to implement. While coordination of the UPPs was always within the Secretariat of Public Safety, the coordination required to create cohesive social programs between bureaucrats responsible for education, health, and job training was poorly managed. The transfer from the state to the municipal jurisdiction resulted in a lack of continuity and institutionalization of policies, accompanied by a reduction of resources.[7]

During the seven years since the initiation of the UPP initiative, the repeated establishment of new programs with new names, only to be discontinued within a couple of years, shows the transitory nature of the initiative’s social priorities.[8] The most recent shift in labeling, “Rio + Social,” a partnership between the city’s Pereira Passos Institute and UN-Habitat, is an effort by the municipality of Rio to remove the perception that the social programs were under the control of the Secretariat of Public Safety. These social policies were to be a crucial component of the UPP model, but as the image of the UPP police deteriorated, the municipality of Rio wanted to establish a separate identity.Critics have argued that the social program today is little more than an information service to coordinate existing services, rather than a consolidated, institutionalized, and integrated social program initiative to complement the public safety policies. The state and municipal elections of 2010, 2012, and 2014 were decided in large part because of the UPPs’ perceived success in reducing violence, while the electorate seemed to care little about the UPP Social’s lack of success.


As the 2016 Olympic Games approach, authorities are concerned with securing favela areas in the north of Rio located near venues where several Olympic events will be held, now considered some of the most violent areas of the city. Drug kingpins displaced from “pacified” favelas have new power bases in these areas, presenting a challenge to police to balance employing the UPP model while providing safety for Olympic participants and tourists.[9] This most recent dilemma raises questions about a model that selects certain neighborhoods for “pacification,” while displacing crime to more remote areas. Can such a model succeed without implementing a new comprehensive model of “proximity” policing that encompasses the police’s entire jurisdiction, rather than just areas selected for strategic or political reasons?

The potential for adopting and adapting the UPP model elsewhere in the region requires a hard look at the successes and shortcomings of the experiment and a reflection on the lessons that might be learned from Rio. Most salient is the need for continuity of policy with the presence of personnel who are committed to long-term change. Equally important is the consideration of whether the aims of a project like the UPPs are consistent with the policies of the public safety institution as a whole. Can “proximity” or “community” policing strategies work when the institution retains outdated and militaristic ideologies and practices? Finally, recognizing that reducing rates of crime and violence requires the integrated efforts of both public safety and social policy practitioners, is there sufficient commitment to implement a cohesive, multi-sectoral crime prevention strategy?


[1]There is by now a vast literature on the UPPs: books, articles, and masters’ and doctoral theses published in hard copy and online. The articles and reports cited are those that have specific relevance to the points made in this article.

[2]Amnesty Internacional, Você matou meu filho: Homicídios Cometidos pela Policia Militar na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, 2015,https://anistia.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Voce-matou-meu-filho_Anistia-Internacional-2015.pdf.

[3]Paiva, Anabela, “A policia precisa investir em reconquistar a legitimidade,” Interview with Robson Rodrigues in Vozerio, January 8, 2016. http://vozerio.org.br/A-policia-precisa-investir-em.

[4]For more information see: Ignacio Cano, Doriam Borges, and Eduardo Ribeiro,Os Donos do Morro, Uma Avaliação Exploratória do Impacto das Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora no Rio de Janeiro, LAV/UERJ, 2012 and Leonarda Musumeci, “Eles nos detestam: Tropeços do Policiamento de Proximidade em Favelas: Resultados da Pesquisa ‘O Que Pensam os Policias,’ 2014,” CESeC, Boletim Segurança e Cidadania, #19, 2015.

[5]Paiva, Anabela, “A policia precisa investir em reconquistar a legitimidade.”

[6]Ricardo Henriques and Silvia Ramos, “UPPs Sociais: ações sociais para consolidar a pacificação,” Rio: A Hora da Virada, 2011.

[7]The author would like to thank Pedro Strozenberg, Executive Director of the Instituto de Estudos de Religion (ISER) of Rio de Janeiro for his insightful comments on the UPP Social.

[8]Raquel Brum, Cabeça vazia é oficina do diabo” uma análise sobre o lugar da juventude no processo de ‘pacificação’ do Complexo do Andaraí/Grajaú, Doctoral thesis, Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro, Centro de Ciências Sociais, 2015.

[9]Lloyd Belton, “Rio Olympics: Prospects for Next Round of Favela Occupations,” Insight Crime, 2016, http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/rio-olympics-prospects-for-next-round-favela-occupations.