Project, Intervention Models and Cities

Interventions IV, Police and Para-Military Intervention - UPPs

Everyday street scene at Favela Nova Holanda, Complexo da Maré, Rio, Nov. 2014. Photo by Ana Ascensão.

Everyday street scene at Favela Nova Holanda, Complexo da Maré, Rio, Nov. 2014. Photo by Ana Ascensão.

The intervention of police forces in poor urban areas as a means to discipline their populations’ ‘unruliness’ goes back to Baron Haussman’s use of the police to pursue his urban renovation policies, to the way the NYPD controlled and disciplined tenement buildings in the late 19th century or to Robert Moses’ use of the police to enforce mid-20th century urban renewal.

In the last two decades of the 20th century, different forms of community policing were developed, and as regards urban informality one example is the complex hybrid form of governance demonstrated by panchayats (police stations) in some Indian slums. Set up by an alliance between slum dwellers’ federations and the police, panchayats are run by ten representatives from the slum (seven women, three men) and a local police officer (Roy et al, 2004).

A more conservative or regressive approach, although a very successful one, was NYC’s ‘zero tolerance’ policing paradigm set under Mayor Giuliani’s city government in the 1990s, which was then translated and transported to other cities in developing countries, notably Medellin. It quickly became a blueprint for securing areas formerly under de facto control of drug gangs, and this element was crucial for the Rio de Janeiro state government’s attempt at a similar intervention model in the 2000s, although one with its own characteristics, materialized by the dissemination of Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (Pacifying Police Units, from now on UPPs) in favelas in Rio during the last 10 years.

UPPs were devised under Lula and Dilma’s ‘developmentalist/distributionist’ politics as part of a push for more democratic police forces (Soares 2000, Cano et al 2012) aiming to free favela residents from the recurrent crossfire between drug gangs and corrupt military police officers (Machado da Silva 2008), but the military nature of the operations is in tension with the stated objective of working for the community. There is an explanatory tension between the fact that structural forces (such as class segregation) are at play in contemporary urban making in Rio or that abstract military templates are used in everyday life, on the one hand, and the fact that possible dialogues or resistance are also possible, often using the leverage of alter-experts to help stop violent and repressive episodes. This section reflects on what UPPs are and what they do. It asks how police operations are summoned to the interactions between experts from state or city governments and the laypeople whose housing and lives their work is meant to improve as well as – a broader question – how can technoscientific sophistication be reconciled with effective urban democracy for the less powerful.

The UPPs in Rio’s favelas: police and para-military operations in informal settlements

I draw from fieldwork research in the favelas of Santa Marta and Nova Holanda, Maré in Rio de Janeiro to highlight the way the interface between urban government and slum dwellers has taken a regressive turn into para-military operations of territorial control in the city’s favelas. Through this type of intervention in informal settlements, we see the trend of ‘military urbanism’ (Graham, 2009) – “the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life” (idem, p. 386) – arriving in the urban informality arena. Albeit at the low-end of the technological spectrum – this does not involve drones patrolling Pakistani villages or Halliburton security personnel contracted to patrol the US-Mexico border – it still belongs to the same broader trend of a “stealthy militarization of a wide range of policy debates, urban landscapes and circuits of urban infrastructure, as well as realms of popular and urban culture” (idem, p. 388).

The implementation of UPPs was linked to the need to ‘secure’ vast areas of informal settlements – allegedly from drug economies and gang sovereignty; but also towards an increased commoditization of the land where the urban poor live (Saborio, 2013; Freeman, 2012; Gaffney 2010), in a way setting the terrain for a later moment of gentrification[1] – ahead of mega-events such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. However, following Mutirões and Favela-Bairro, two previous types of intervention schemes directed at favela residents which belonged to a participatory and inclusive genealogy of slum intervention, it came as a surprise to see Lula and Dilma Roussef’s governments at the forefront of initiating and setting up a type of resource-intensive intervention that we can qualify as para-military.

While some authors place a descriptive and somewhat uncritical emphasis on UPPs as elements for the pacification of favelas – most notably by taking the need to pacify these areas as a given and thus maintaining their research focus on crime reduction or on the health outcomes of policing (e.g. Stahlberg, 2011; Hendee, 2013) – others, especially Brazilian academics and activists, have asked more pointedly “what’s [the deal] with UPPs?” (Machado da Silva, 2010; see also Souza e Silva, 2010). As these authors are very familiar with the decades of repressive government of informal settlements in Rio and are weary of negative or un-problematized research on the city’s favelas, by this question they mean a genuine wish to understand the reasons why, during the preparation for the mega-events of 2014 and 2016, favelas once again became sites that public policy described as insecure ‘war-zones’ in need of territorial control.[2]

The politics of retrenchment of the state into a position of antagonism with the urban poor, rather than that of a development enabler which the general policies instated by Lula’s national government such as the Bolsa Família (Family Bursary) or the Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House My Life) two million homes programs had initiated, are frustrating to watch. Furthermore, regarding the implications at the local level Machado da Silva (2010, p. 5-6) argues that the presence of UPPs weakens local residents’ associations legitimacy in their role of mediation – whether with government or with drug gangs – in favour of outside NGOs which are more skilled in securing funding from governmental agencies or private institutions. After a while, new NGOs substitute even well-established local actors as representatives of the population, and this situation results in future problems. The most important one relates to the original role of grassroots organizations as keepers and regulators of informal buying-and-selling deeds. If they are substituted, the laws of the regular city start to be applied to the favela by external agents, so for instance in those cases where official land ownership does not coincide with use, displacement and gentrification will most likely ensue. The replacement of grassroots associations by outside NGOs results in a seismic change of internal logics and a severe de facto loss of internal capacity.

[1] The first UPP implemented, in Favela Santa Marta, is in this sense paradigmatic: it secured a settlement in the more affluent area of the city, South Rio, which had already undergone beautification and branding as a touristic site (Yutzy, 2012) and will eventually become a gentrified slum. It did so through a “militarization of the social as integration strategy” (Fleury, 2012). See also Cummings (2015) on slum gentrification in two other South Rio’s favelas, Rocinha and Vidigal. [2] Was it the diplomatic pressure from organizations such as FIFA and the IOC, with their corporate sponsors and international elite consultants demanding to have their stereotypical anxieties over urban areas they know little about assuaged? Was it also an opportunity grabbed by Brazilian conservative elites to re-instate the divide between the rich and the poor and secure elite residential space, while framing it as public safety and social wellbeing? These are key questions worth investigating, Saborio (2013, p. 133-134) convincingly shows signs that both have positive answers.

UPP car at the entrance of Favela Santa Marta, Nov. 2015.

UPP car at the entrance of Favela Santa Marta, Nov. 2015.

What does a UPP do?

A UPP comprises three steps. The first one involves territorial occupation put bluntly, with armored and armed vehicles as well as military tanks taking to the streets and patrolling them, while soldiers and military police officers identify and attempt to expel drug lords and their private armies. This first step’s uncontrollable nature was made clear with Complexo do Alemão first days of occupation in 2007, which resulted in veritable war scenes and 19 people killed, 11 of whom had nothing to do with drug trafficking.

After a minimum of state sovereignty is established, the second step involves the setting up of a permanent police unit headed by a captain from the military police. This step is usually followed by the entering of private utility companies (electricity, tv, phone, internet) and the unit is often responsible for putting down illegal tapping gatos or gatonets (electricity and internet connections). This string of events makes clear that informal space is formalized first of all with a view to the establishment of an open market dynamics; favela residents’ access to citizenship rights is subsidiary.

The supposed third step involves the setting up of a new unit called UPP Social, with professionals such as sociologists, social service officers and others having the objective of designing and implementing a comprehensive social amelioration project. However, there is a clear disparity between police personnel and other professional categories in Social UPPs. For example in Favela Santa Marta, Fleury (2012, p. 219) shows that in a settlement with 6,000 inhabitants and a further 4,000 nearby, the UPP Social deployed 126 police officers but only 26 family health professionals. Tierney’s (2012, p. 47) rich ethnography in different neighbourhoods also describes policewomen taking on the role of impromptu police outreach officers, and how some policemen ‘win the hearts’ of children (as opposed to youth and older residents, who have an extremely negative view of police due to previous episodes of repression) with their ‘uniform appeal’. In both circumstances, more than a coherent pedagogy from the police forces, there’s an attempt to change children’s perception of the police through simplistic methods. In short, what we have is a para-military operation which represses all elements of informal life and denies the appearance of alternative negotiation platforms, and where participation is tokenistic. How is such a situation experienced in everyday life? How is it received by residents? We can start to answer these questions by looking at the entanglements of the political and the everyday at another site.

Military vehicles patrol Nova Holanda, Maré, Dec. 2014.

Military vehicles patrol Nova Holanda, Maré, Dec. 2014.

Almost a city in its own right, Maré or Complexo da Maré is formed by 16 different informal settlements, housing up to 140,000 people in its two- to three-story informal buildings, which substituted the original vernacular dwellings on stilts that existed on swamp land by Guanabara Bay before the land reclamation for the building of Avenida Brasil in the 1940s, the last of which were razed in the late 1970s (Raposo, 2013). It has a rich history, with many housing programs intervening in some of its parts, from the 1930s Parques Proletários (Proletarian Estates) to the 1960s Centers for Provisional Housing or the 1990s Favela-Bairro. It is now a fully urbanized area, with 16 schools, seven health centres and provision of several other urban and social services. It has its own museum (Museu da Maré) and is home to the academic-activist platform Observatório de Favelas (with sponsors and funders that include Norway’s Statoil, US’s Ford Foundation or Brazil’s Petrobras). Small NGOs such as Mão na Lata have developed initiatives that bring together artists and young residents, in their case through pinhole photography workshops for 11-to-17 year-olds as a tool for youth personal development. The neighbourhoods of Maré have a rich hip-hop and baile funk subcultures, which are among the few instruments young people have to engage with the rest of the city beyond the favela stigma (Raposo, 2012).

At present, the area is undergoing a de facto military occupation by a Federal Pacification Force, which started in April 2013, with three UPPs supposed to be implemented promptly, although the change of guard from soldiers to police officers (needs estimated at 1,600) has been postponed a few times.

In the meantime, a repressive atmosphere crisscrosses the settlements. Although small-time drug-dealing ostensibly persists – sometimes on the opposite corner to where unaware military personnel park the tank (research observation, November 2014) – drug gang hierarchies have not yet been dismantled and the oppressive atmosphere that the occupying forces establish is not figurative. During the June 2013 political demonstrations, the Special Forces BOPE entered Maré in pursuit of a crack-selling gang. The gang faction responded and killed a member of BOPE. In retaliation, the BOPE re-entered with great violence, killing ten people: “[Both] Criminals and residents. They ran amok, raided homes, invaded homes, feet on the door. And they planned to continue the next day, but then everyone mobilized against it” (Coelho, 2014). The NGO Redes da Maré, which has advocated against the repressive occupation and its discretionary actions on the street, in partnership with Amnesty International distributed pamphlets explaining the rights of residents if stopped and searched by the military police.

Leaflet by Amnesty International Brazil and NGO Redes da Maré.

Leaflet by Amnesty International Brazil and NGO Redes da Maré.

One page reads as a warning to army officers:

“We do not accept:

To have our houses invaded without legal warrant.

To be searched in an aggressive and disrespectful manner.

That youth and other residents be humiliated or treated violently.

[Gun] shots in our densely populated streets.

Losing lives over so-called lost bullets.

Armored vehicles terrifying and putting us in permanent danger” (Leaflet, Amnesty International and Redes da Maré).



In addition, stickers intended to be posted on house doors gave warning to the police: “We know our rights! Do not enter this house without respecting the legal requirements for such an action.” (Sticker, Redes da Maré). The latter is a very interesting initiative because it takes the usual tools of urban governmentality – door notices, the umbrella of the law to justify intervention – and re-directs them at those intervening. Expert authority is turned on its head and used to defend ordinary people from the state. They make public what is usually kept secret or private (entering houses, violation of police protocols and violation of residents’ rights once inside), and gain strength from it.

The initiative has continued and has made the UPP backpedal slightly. What this shows in a pinpoint way is that the urban technique of shock by occupation (an expert and abstract military technique) was affronted by residents (laypeople) as utterly undemocratic, in cooperation with ‘alter-experts’ (from local and international NGOs). As a result, the UPP implementation was slightly modified or suspended. The idea from technical democracy that fixed expert procedures relying exclusively on the outcomes for the general good (in this case to secure state sovereignty in favelas partly-ran by criminals) sometimes need to be substituted by a more gradual framework that favors adjustments and corrections at the local level (Callon et al., 2011, p. 16), one which is also able to incorporate logical contradictions in order to be more democratic, is a sound conceptual lens to look at this particular case. However, the tenets of technical democracy here are in tension with military ‘shock and finance’ (Mendes, 2014), and meetings between favela residents and the captain of the Federal Occupying Force have been reduced to “farcical encounters. Those who attend are sorry NGO directors and others interested in accessing some of the power and resources captured by territorial intervention” (interview, April 2015).

In broad terms, UPPs in Rio show us a type of Foucaultian boomerang effect (Graham, 2009, p. 390-393), with a twist. Foucault’s boomerang effect denominates the way colonial models of surveillance were “brought back to the West, and the result that the West could practice something resembling colonization, or an internal colonialism, on itself [i.e. on its insurrects]” (Foucault in Graham, p. 391). UPPs in 2010s Rio belong to a situation where at approximately the same time that academics in the Global North were trying to learn from progressive experiments in the Global South (Robinson, 2011; Peck and Theodore, 2012, p. 22) and suggesting that policy transfer could encompass such innovations from the South – an example of such policy mobility was the IBC regeneration scheme in Lisbon partly taking inspiration from the Favela-Bairro program (see Intervention Model II and Technicities, Assessing…) – in Rio the two almost simultaneous mega-events of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics triggered a reaction of getting back to the old ways, away from inclusive or participatory social innovations and again into territorial control. The UPP was intended to set up a new intervention model for favelas, but it turned out to be an old one: military occupation; token participation; outside NGOs supplanting grassroots representation; and more, given the story is still unfolding.


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