HAVANA TIMES, June 2 (IPS) — Four decades after Washington declared its “war on drugs” and began to spread the doctrine south of the U.S. border, the government of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro decided to shift away from that approach towards a strategy focused on community policing.
The new focus has already produced results in some of the city’s favelas or shanty towns, which were long off-limits to outsiders, including police.
The process began in 2009 with the installation of “Police Pacification Units” (UPPs) in the favelas. The new model of public security and crime prevention aims to forge ties of trust between the local population and the police.
The UPPs are based in police stations built in favelas once controlled by drug traffickers or paramilitary militias, to establish and maintain a sustained police and state presence.
In the past, the police only staged violent raids in the favelas, which claimed a large number of civilian victims, produced few results in terms of law enforcement, and did nothing to change the change the balance of power between state authorities and armed drug gangs.
Besides the new focus on relations between the police and the local communities, the government is making an effort to bring running water, sanitation, education and other services to the favelas.
The idea is simple, says the secretary of security of the Rio de Janeiro state government, José Mariano Beltrame, on the UPP web site: “To reestablish control over territories lost to drug traffickers. In turf wars with rival factions, these groups began an arms race that escalated in recent decades, a war in which the rifle reigns absolute.”
Chapeu Mangueira, home to 200,000 people, is one of the 16 favelas where UPPs have been installed. Already graced with one of the best hilltop views of the sea, the neighborhood is now also the site of public infrastructure works that are improving the lives of local residents.
Most people in Chapeu Mangueira still do not dare talk about these issues in public. They are afraid that the police will pull out and leave them exposed once again to reprisals from drug gangs.
But Josivaldo da Silva, one of the few willing to talk to IPS, said “Everything has changed for the better. Job training courses have started to be held, health agents have come – we’re getting everything here now.”
Statistics from the Rio de Janeiro Institute on Public Security show that the number of homicides in this state went down 18.4 percent between July 2009 and July 2010.
Margio Sergio Duarte, the head of the military police in the state, attributes the success to the shift from the idea of “the war on drugs” to the concept of “pacification of the city.”
“That’s the approach now,” he said in an interview with IPS. “In the past we had a war against drugs, and we lost, and we were going to keep losing because our strategy was wrong.”
Duarte stressed, however, that the new focus has not meant the abandoning of drug prevention and interdiction efforts, or of the fight against drug addiction. He said it is a process of “pacification,” a “new term” that he defined as the recovery of areas previously in the hands of drug gangs and the restoration of the lost civil and social rights of the local populations.
“Along with that, we are winning the war against drugs, because the criminals no longer stroll around freely with their guns in full view, and drug sales have been reduced in these areas,” he added.
Nevertheless, some criticize the new public security policy, because the result is not defeated enemies held up as trophies.
“But wasn’t that precisely what we wanted?” sociologist Ignacio Cano asks in response to those who complain that former drug dealers now participate in social programs in their communities.
Cano, a long-time outspoken critic of the abuses committed during police raids in the favelas, applauds the results achieved by the new strategy.
Although he says the UPPs have not had much of an impact on drug dealing, Cano, an expert at the Rio de Janeiro State University Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence, said emphatically that they have managed “to interrupt the cycle of violence and the armed control that these groups exercised over the local population” in the favelas.
“Everything indicates that the trafficking continues, but with a much lower profile, and no longer heavily armed – just as it exists anywhere in the world,” he told IPS.
Other UPPs are located in or adjacent to upscale neighborhoods or tourist areas in the city.
The next ones are to be installed in favelas near the world-famous Maracaná football stadium and other sports installations, as part of the preparations for the 2014 World Cup football championship and the 2016 Olympic Games, to be hosted by Rio de Janeiro.
The goal is to have UPPs in 40 communities by 2014: a small number compared to the size of the city and the number of favelas.
According to the city government, there are 750 favelas home to one million people in the city proper, which has a population of 6.3 million. (Greater Rio is home to 11 million people and the state has a total population of 15 million in this country of 191 million people.)
Cano acknowledges that the strategy has been “selective,” but says that regardless of this, “it is showing people and the police themselves that there is another way to interact and operate, which is much more successful than the traditional approach.
“Let’s hope this new anti-drug strategy will expand to the rest of the city and state, replacing the old model of armed raids and firefights,” he added.
He says society should demand that the government carry out a complementary policy in areas where there are no UPPs, to combat, for example, the high number of deaths at the hands of police and to improve police salaries.
The city’s police force has a reputation as one of the world’s most violent. According to a report by rights watchdog Amnesty International, the police in Rio de Janeiro killed 855 people last year.
Cano also said it will be necessary to convince the residents of areas where UPPs have been installed that the process is irreversible and that they won’t be abandoned, as in earlier shifts in strategy.
“The people in these communities are still scared that this will be temporary and that after the Olympic Games, when the funding runs out, everything will go back to how it was before,” he said.