Rio de Janeiro is suffering from rising violence, exacerbated by a brutal war between rival narcotics trafficking cartels being played out on the streets of informal communities or favelas. Street gangs use sophisticated weaponry, including rocket launchers and automatic rifles. Accordingly, police and military enter favelas with small armies, leading to deadly prolonged armed confrontations. Violence is intense and state-authority is openly challenged or usurped by organised crime in many communities.
From 2008 until 2011, Rio appeared to have the answer to violence, experiencing a decreasing trend according to most measures. This was attributed by many to the success of the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacification Unit) programme (UPP).
However, by 2011 apparent success gave way to a return of violence in many supposedly pacified communities, and from 2016 to 2017, as a new war broke out between two of Brazil’s major cartels, violence dramatically increased across the city. Most poignantly in September 2017, outbreaks of violence were reported in the Santa Marta favela, the community which had been the first recipient of the UPP programme, and along with Rocinha, had been the poster-child of UPP.
In February 2018, Brazil’s president ordered the military to take over the response to violence in the state of Rio, putting it directly in charge of policing. Subsequent security operations in favelas led to an increase in fatal violence, further stirring debate over whether this response worsens or improves security in the city. In March 2018, the assassination of Marielle Franco, a Rio city councillor and staunch critic of the deployments, sparked widespread protests.
Current analysis of violence in Rio relies heavily upon statistical data, and the voices of violent perpetrators themselves are missing. Although there are many books and studies covering the subject, they have tended to provide superficial treatment of the issue and are often sensationalised, with only a limited number of in-depth qualitative empirical studies conducted. There is urgent need for in-depth qualitative assessment of urban violence and its responses in Rio, including a re-evaluation of the UPP programme in particular. Why did it appear to succeed initially, and why has it since appeared to fail?
An assessment of the militarised responses to violence in Rio can be instructive for the city itself and for other cities worldwide, including Cape Town which is considering similar kinds of troop deployments. Drawing on comparative research of other cases in this study, the potential for a public health-centred response as an alternative or complimentary form of intervention in Rio can also be assessed.
During 2017-2018 I am a Visiting Fellow at the Igarape Institute. During April-July 2018 I will be conducting an evaluation of a programme run by Fight for Peace (Luta Pela Paz) in Maré. Fieldwork in Rio has already been conducted in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, drawing on strong ties with local research organisations and NGOs with vast experience and deep roots in affected communities. Particular focus is given to the Complexo da Maré group of favelas, which are some of the most affected by violence and were subject to 15 months of military occupation, ending in 2015.
Fieldwork in Rio uses a combination of focus groups, one-on-one interviews and surveys to document local views and experiences of violence and responses to it. In depth qualitative interviews with former and current gang-members are also conducted. Perspectives of community and political leaders, police, military and other relevant stakeholders are also included to provide a rounded picture of the drivers of violence and the effectiveness of different interventions.
Publications and Outputs
- ‘Public Health and Violence’, Critical Public Health, Vol. 29, Issue 2, 2019.
- War by Another Name? The ‘Urban Turn’ in 21st Century Violence
T.note Vol. 59, Human Security Issue 7 – 23 April 2018 (download)
- ‘Guerra con un altro nome? La violenza urbana nel XXI secolo’ Human Security No. 6, March 2018.
Header image: Morro da Babilônia favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 5 March, 2016 © Kieran Mitton.