RIO DE JANEIRO – A recent report released by the Institute for Public Security (ISP) revealed that levels of violence in Rio de Janeiro are similar to those reported in 2008, a year considered to be one of the most violent of recent years for the Brazilian city.
In the first three months of 2014, 1,459 people were killed in Rio de Janeiro. Thefts from restaurants and commercial outlets increased by 85 percent compared with last year, while the number of robberies on pedestrians went up by 45 percent.
The news came scarcely a month ahead of the World Cup, which is expected to bring 600,000 foreign tourists to Brazil. Rio de Janeiro, one of the 12 cities that will host World Cup events, swiftly responded by pulling more than 2,000 members of the state military police out of vacation and onto the streets in an effort to quell the recent surge in violence.
It was not a novel response by the Rio de Janeiro government, whose police force has been engaged in a daunting territory dispute against heavily-armed gangs across the city for more than two decades. In a recent statement, the state governor called the engagement a “war,” restating his intention to persevere.
“When crime spikes, the government dispatches police onto the street in order to achieve the quick, short-term effect of lowering crime rates,” said Sandro Costa, the vice-coordinator of human security at Viva Rio, an NGO monitoring violence in Rio de Janeiro.
In recent years, the government has taken additional measures – including the introduction of homicide units and special task forces – to reduce crime rates. The most notable of these measures has been the Police Pacification Units, introduced by the state governor in 2008 in response to a particularly severe crime wave.
The pilot program promised to regain control of the gang-controlled facelas by placing permanent police units in the most dangerous parts of the city. By the end of 2013, the number of operating UPPs in Rio de Janeiro had grown to 37 and by the end of 2014, the state intends to add three more. Yet in light of the recent spike in crime, many questions remain as to whether police-based responses in Rio de Janeiro are achieving the desired outcomes.
“The deployment of 2,000 additional troops to the streets is a purely political response meant to appease the middle class,” said Edson Diniz, founder of the Redes da Maré, an organization that promotes the development of favela communities. “If they behave anything like the police officers currently on the job, it will only make things worse.”
In the face of human rights abuses, corruption allegations, and high levels of impunity, one of the police’s main challenges will be salvaging their legitimacy in the eyes of community members. The report published by the ISP not only revealed an increase in crime, but also showed an increase in the number of deaths resulting from police actions, which increased from a total of 67 cases in February and March of 2013 to 104 deaths during the same period in 2014 — a 55 percent increase.
Yet many question the intention of policies that have placed police officers as protagonists on the road to public security. At a recent community event in the Maré, a massive complex comprised of several favelas and informal communities housing more than 130,000 residents, Luiz Eduardo Soares, the former secretary of national security under President Lula da Silva, criticized the role of police officers in Rio’s marginalized communities. “Occupation by the military police represents the defeat of a state that was unable to resolve its security problems, he said. “They were left with no choice but to resort to a quick fix that is both artificial and provisionary.”
His sentiments echoed those of Jorge Luiz de Souza, 43, a lifetime resident of the Maré. “Things won’t get better with more police,” said de Souza. “Because violence isn’t our only problem. And police can’t change the fact that we have the worst teachers and the worst doctors in the city.”