HomeNewsAnalysisRio Olympics: Prospects for Next Round of Favela Occupations

Rio Olympics: Prospects for Next Round of Favela Occupations


As the Olympics approach, Rio’s vaunted Pacifying Police Units (Unidad de Polícia Pacificadora - UPPs) are likely to get another injection of resources and occupy several more favelas. But continued police violence, dipping confidence in the program and the criminal groups’ own evolution may mean the government should rethink its strategy.

Rio police and army personnel are gearing up to occupy northern Rio de Janeiro’s Chapadão and Pedreira favela complexes, some of the city’s most violent areas, in time for the August 2016 Rio Olympics. Last year, José Mariano Beltrame, Rio State’s Secretary of Security, announced that UPPs would be set up in these areas sometime between April and May 2016, although there is still considerable uncertainty about when this will take place.

According to Rio authorities, Chapadão and Pedreira, have become safe havens for a number of Rio’s most wanted drug trafficking groups, including Comando Vermelho (CV) and Amigos dos Amigos (ADA). Chapadão, in particular, has been labeled the "new Alemão," in reference to Rio’s notoriously violent Alemão favela complex, which was occupied in 2012.

For Olympic organizers, Chapadão and Pedreira’s proximity to the Deodoro Sports Complex (approximately five kilometres from the Olympics venue) -- which will host hockey, BMX and equestrian events during the Games -- is a serious concern. Shootouts between CV and ADA gang members, as well as Military Police (Polícia Militar - PM), occur regularly in these favelas, and local residents are often caught in the crossfire.

According to the local government, UPP occupation and pacification programmes are a “long-awaited dream” of residents living in the Chapadão and Pedreira’s favelas. However, this line fails to take into account widespread local community concerns over increasing police brutality and ineffectiveness.

Chapadão and Pedreira: Comando Vermelho and Amigos dos Amigos Strongholds

Chapadão and Pedreira are located in northern Rio and are considered some of the most violent areas in the city given the complexity of drug trafficking groups operating there. With the occupation of some of Rio’s larger favelas -- including Complexo do Alemão in 2010, Rocinha in 2012, Lins in 2013, and more recently, Maré in 2014 -- many drug traffickers reportedly fled to Chapadão and Pedreira including prominent members of CV and ADA.

CV now retains a stronghold in Chapadão, while ADA, which developed as a breakaway faction of CV, has developed a significant presence in Pedreira. A third criminal group and fierce CV and ADA rival, the Terceiro Comando Puro (TCP), also acts as a secondary actor occupying territory around Chapadão, Pedreira, and the Deodoro Olympic Complex.

Like other Rio favela complexes, Chapadão and Pedreira are characterized by narrow alleyways and high buildings, making it difficult for Rio’s security forces to navigate and police. Military police have openly acknowledged that they cannot access some areas within these complexes due to roadblocks set up by criminal groups.

Moreover, given the close proximity of Chapadão and Pedreira to various highway transit points, drug trafficking groups operating in CV and ADA easily smuggle drugs and arms out of their strongholds. According to recent estimates, the CV is likely trafficking R$10 million (USD 2.5 million) worth of drugs every month through Chapadão to other parts of Rio. Reports have also suggested that homicides and robberies in these areas rose significantly between 2012 and 2015, mainly as a result of inter-gang violence. Cargo theft is another growing concern for local businesses, as both favela complexes have some of the highest number of vehicle theft incidents in the city.

Following the death of ADA boss Celso Pinheiro Pimenta, alias "Playboy," and the capture of CV boss Ricardo Chaves de Castro Lima, alias "Fú da Mineira," in 2015, inter-gang rivalries have reportedly increased, heightening security risks in these areas ahead of the Games. According to an army lieutenant, who asked for anonymity, the death and arrest of Playboy and Fú da Mineira have undoubtedly weakened the ADA and CV, although it remains unclear just how significantly. Moreover, groups such as TCP have sought to take advantage of the CV and the ADA’s perceived weakness. TCP has already carried out attacks on CV-controlled areas near Chapadão, and in an effort to prevent TCP-ADA violence, the government sent a 400-strong PM unit into Pedreira in August 2015.

Although police occupation has helped to contain violence, street shootouts remain a concern. In Chapadão, shootouts between criminal gangs still occur regularly. A recent spate of street-shootouts in which several local residents have been killed or badly injured has once again brought the issue under public scrutiny.

In May 2015, for example, three bystanders were killed in a shootout between rival criminal groups in Costa Barros, Pedreira complex, following a botched robbery. Thereafter, in October 2015, a woman living in Chapadão was killed by a stray bullet during a shootout between police and drug traffickers.

For Olympic organizers, a stray bullet injuring or killing a foreign tourist attending a sporting event at the Deodoro Complex is the worst possible scenario. High incidences of muggings and car theft in Chapadão and Pedreira also remain a concern for organizers.

Occupations: Before or After the Rio Olympics?

Beltrame has remained coy about exactly when the occupations of Chapadão and Pedreira will take place. Doubts also remain over whether the army will be involved in the occupations, and this uncertainty may lead to delays.

In light of increasing violence in these areas, in October 2015, Rio state governor, Luiz Fernando Pezão, requested the assistance of the army in combating organized crime in Chapadão and Pedreira. However, the army rejected the request on the grounds that it simply did not have the manpower or resources to occupy the favelas at the time.

Currently, approximately 25,000 soldiers are being trained to provide extra security during the Olympic Games, in and around stadiums and tourist hotspots. As a result, it is unlikely the army will be involved in the Chapadão and Pedreira occupations; instead, federal, highway, and state military police are expected to carry out the operations. According to reports, unlike in previous occupations, such as in Alemão and Maré, where special forces police units (Polícia Militar do Estado do Rio de Janeiro - PMERJ) and the army worked together, the army’s involvement in Chapadão and Pedreira will likely be limited to providing backup support to the PM and civil police.

However, the absence of the army is likely to significantly undermine the effectiveness of the occupations, as the army has traditionally been the vanguard of favela security operations in Rio.

Funding shortfalls are also likely to undermine the effectiveness of the Chapadão and Pedreira occupations, and may even delay their launch. In November 2015, Beltrame announced that the occupations of Chapadão and Pedreira would be delayed until 2017, due to budget constraints exacerbated by Brazil’s economic crisis.

According to estimates, it will cost the state government approximately R$1 billion (USD 250 million) to occupy and pacify these complexes, twice as much as it cost to occupy Maré, which is significantly larger. Moreover, a source within the army suggested that the occupation of these favela complexes would require 50 percent more personnel than what was deployed in Maré in 2014, which equates to up to 4,000 forces.

Beltrame, however, may be deliberately downplaying the occupations in an attempt to throw off criminal groups such as CV and ADA. Subsequent statements by Rio State Governor, Luiz Fernando Pezão, suggest that the occupation and pacification of these areas is the state government’s number one priority, and are likely to take place before the Olympics. In January and early February 2016, Rio police carried out a series of raids in Chapadão and Pedreira, likely in preparation for the imminent occupations of these favelas.

Police-led Occupations: Less Effective, More Violence

A police-led occupation of these favelas raises serious red flags, as police occupation of favelas has proven significantly less effective in the past. Since the army handed over control to the PM in Alemão in 2012, for example, there have been growing calls for police and army special forces to return due to increasing insecurity.

Indeed, without the assistance of the army, police forces involved in the occupation of Chapadão and Pedreira are likely to face an uphill battle. Both the CV and ADA are reportedly heavily armed with assault rifles, grenades, and other weapons, while a source in the army who is familiar with army and police intelligence operations indicated that there were at least 40 CV gang members armed with assault rifles in Chapadão, and slightly less in Pedreira. Police are therefore likely only able to prioritize focusing on preventing inter-gang violence in the short term, to mitigate the risk of death or injury to bystanders during the Olympics. The next phase would likely entail establishment of UPP command posts, allowing the police to carry out searches and arrests to crackdown long-term drivers of security risks.

Rio’s police, particularly the infamous Special Police Operations Battalion (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais - BOPE), have a reputation for excessive violence and extrajudicial killings. While the majority of local residents in Chapadão and Pedreira reportedly want UPPs in their neighborhoods -- with Beltrame claiming that he receives daily emails from local residents pleading for UPPs -- in light of reports of increasing police violence, it is questionable whether a police-led occupation is the most effective strategy.

In August 2015, Amnesty International published a damning report highlighting widespread human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, committed by Rio’s police. According to Amnesty’s report, the police’s “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude has been responsible for 16 percent of homicides in Rio in the past five years (or 1,519 murders), excluding incidents involving off-duty police officers. The majority of victims are typically young black men between the ages of 15 and 29. In Rio’s favelas, UPP police officers have also come under increasing scrutiny for killing unarmed individuals before attempting to alter crime scenes.

In the most recent example of flagrant police brutality, four military police officers were arrested in November 2015, after firing over 100 rounds at a car in Pedreira, killing five unarmed passengers, two of whom were underage.

According to Patrick Ashcroft, a writer at Rio On Watch, an non-governmental organization that focuses on favela community perspectives, support for the UPPs has fallen significantly since 2012-2013. A recent survey conducted by the Universidade Cândido Mendes has further highlighted how public support for the UPP initiative has fallen from 60 percent in 2012 to 41 percent in 2014. The report also highlighted growing community opposition to the UPPs with 56 percent of UPP officers reportedly having been struck by objects thrown by local residents.

All this points to a fundamental lack of community and public confidence in the UPPs. Whereas before, social programmes were an integral part of the UPP officers’ attempt to foster relationships with local communities, the state’s strategy now appears to be wholly focused on security. According to a former army lieutenant, UPP officers are now more concerned about their own physical safety than that of local residents.

In July last year, a Rio PM colonel admitted to serious flaws within the UPP pacification strategy, namely that police repression ultimately only alienated local communities and undermined efforts to win back trust. A fundamental disconnect between UPP officers and local communities has in turn fostered a culture of violence within Rio’s police forces.

As Ashcroft points out, in the past, “UPP officers showed disappointment that they didn’t have more ‘action’ and claimed that mediation between residents was ‘women’s work’.” 

He also suggests that the police’s “shoot first” policy is partly attributable to a lack of preparation. Former PM colonel, Paulo César Lopes, has previously cited a lack of “leadership, control and logistics” as other critical factors undermining the UPP program.

In response to growing public criticism of police violence, Governor Pezão recently defended the UPP program and insisted that police who commit crimes in favelas are regularly brought to justice. According to Pezão, over “2,000 police officers have already been fired” for criminal offences.

However, criminal investigations into extrajudicial police killings typically face lengthy delays. For example, authorities only recently convicted 13 PM officers, including a UPP sub-commander, for torturing and murdering a Rocinha resident back in July 2013.

Conclusion: Time to Rethink the Entire UPP Strategy?

Regardless of whether the Chapadão and Pedreira occupations take place before or after the Rio Olympics, they are likely to be undermined by budget shortfalls, inadequate training, and personnel shortages. Furthermore, with an entirely police-led occupation, there is a higher likelihood of serious human rights violations against favela residents. With each case of police brutality, public confidence in the UPPs is slowly dissipating.

The Rio state and federal governments therefore need to fundamentally rethink the UPP strategy and address deep-seated institutional violence within Rio’s police forces if they want to avoid yet another failure of the UPP program, as seen during the occupations of Alemão and Maré.

On a strategic level, occupying Chapadão and Pedreira would only be a short-term and localized solution to ensuring greater security during the Olympics without addressing a far wider organized crime problem in Rio. With no further international sports events on the horizon, it remains to be seen whether the Rio state government will dedicate the resources and personnel required to combat the city’s organized crime problem after the Olympics closing ceremony this August.    


*Lloyd Belton is a political and country risk analyst at the consulting firm S-RM.

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