Accessibility links

Rio Police Take Soft Approach In Tough Neighborhood

  • Jeff Swicord

As Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the World Cup and Summer Olympics starting in four years, an ambitious program is underway to pacify some of the city's drug ridden neighborhoods. In the second part of his series on favela pacification in Rio, our correspondent looks at the efforts by police to improve relations with poor communities after the drug gangs have been removed.

It's afternoon physical education at a day care center in the Rio Favela, The City of God. But, with a twist. The teacher is a police officer, a member of Rio's Police Pacification Unit or UPP. It's part of an ambitious program to improve relations with residents in one of the city's most violent neighborhoods. Captain Jose Luiz de Medeiros runs the UPP program in The City of God.

"With the work that we are doing with children, we can guarantee that pacification can become a more permanent thing," said Captain de Medeiros. "Particularly with children from the age of four months to four years, that don't have any memory of a violent past in the community."

For decades, the City of God was ruled by violent drug gangs. When the police entered there were shootouts, and residents were often killed by stray bullets. Residents are afraid of the police, who have been accused of corruption and even murder. But that is changing.

Today, the drug gangs are gone, forced out by police. The job of mending a frayed relationship with the community has begun.

This community center features classes in Karate, music, and computers, all taught by police officers. Some have been taken off foot patrol to teach. Larisa Santos is taking English.

"Before, I was very scared of the police. But now I come here, and I take lessons and it changed my mind."

The police say they are working to change their methods as well. UPP officers still have the same physical conditioning and self defense regimen as other military police. But their training is different.

"We go through the same training methods as the military police," said Captain de Medeiros. "But there is much more emphasis on community policing, human rights, and conflict resolution."

Captain Medeiros says he instructs his officers to take a respectful tone in the community. But after decades of confrontation, earning trust is not easy. Ulysses Dacosta lives in The City of God. He says police conduct is still a problem.

"They come out of training to combat drug trafficking which doesn't exist anymore in a UPP area," said Dacosta. "It doesn't feel like they have sufficient training to stop and search. So they treat a resident like a drug dealer. I feel the police need to be pacified first."

"It is legal to do stop and search under certain conditions," said de Medeiros. "But it must be justified. And it must be conducted in a professional manner. The humiliation is something that we worry about. Performing a stop in search in a humiliating manner will not be tolerated."

Captain Medeiros says his best chance to end the cycle of violence in communities like The City of God are social services like this day care center. It serves working mothers whose children spend up to 11 hours a day at the center.

Director Vania Ricci Winzap says it would have been impossible to bring social services like this into the community before the UPP program. There was too much violence. She says fears that UPP will disappear after the World Cup and the Olympics are irrational.

"It is impossible that UPP won't continue," said Vania Ricci Winzap. "Because if the drug traffickers come back, they will come back with so much force that it will be a disaster."

Police officers say it could take a generation to bring real change, but they are committed, one step, one child at a time.