Amid crippling budget cuts and broken public confidence, authorities in charge of Rio De Janeiro’s flagship security initiative are refusing to respond to calls from certain areas considered "high risk," shining a spotlight on the slow unraveling of the once-lauded program.
According to incident reports obtained by Extra, Rio's Police Pacification Units (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP) have been declining to respond to calls where there is an expectation of violent confrontation with criminal elements.
In one instance earlier this month, the UPP in the neighborhood of Vila Cruzeiro refused to respond to a report from a resident who said he had found his sister's dead body.
"The favela is dominated by gangsters," one UPP officer told Extra. "There are areas you can only get into in a group. We're not going to put our lives at risk."
A similar incident was reported in October 2017. UPP agents refused to respond, saying the residence where the body was found "is in a risky area, and to be able to access the area would require a large operation."
The UPP program, started in 2008, was once widely-praised for initial successes in bringing down violent crime rates in parts of Rio de Janeiro, but it has come under increasing criticism in recent years as the city's security situation has backslid.
Since 2013, a budget crisis stemming from mismanagement and corruption resulted in Rio’s security expenditures being cut by 32 percent. Last year, the administration of some UPPs were merged into the nearby military police battalions, and the budget for 2018 assigned only 10,000 Brazilian Reals (about $3,000) for the upkeep of the entire program.
Recent administrative changes were not the first sign of trouble for the program. Repeated human rights abuses by members of the UPP, including the 2013 torture and murder of Amarildo de Souza, a bricklayer from the favela of Rocinha, have left community confidence in the program shaken.
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The UPP program, once championed for leading to initial improvements in security in Rio, has suffered from a perfect storm of statewide economic woes and a lack of public confidence that have contributed to the units' inability to operate in areas they were meant to reclaim from the control of criminal groups.
The original idea of the UPP program was to flood areas under criminal control with security forces, which would allow the state to begin building a legitimate presence through socioeconomic initiatives aimed at undermining community support for crime groups.
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However, budget cuts hindered the implementation of the planned socioeconomic programs, while increasing the incentive for corruption among police whose salaries were not being paid on time or in full. Moreover, problematic training and oversight practices contributed to a pattern of abuses by the UPPs, reducing community trust in their mission. (Recent studies show the UPPs are less likely to be seen positively by those most likely to interact with the program.)
The refusal to respond to calls due to security concerns underscores the shortcomings of the UPP program so far, and will likely further reduce trust in the already much-questioned initiative.
At the same time, Rio's ongoing financial difficulties will complicate efforts to change course. Top officials, including the head of the army, have warned against the increasing reliance on the military to assist civilian authorities with security operations. But the trend toward militarization seems set to continue, given the lack of political support for alternative anti-crime strategies.