Challenges Facing the UPP Program

Pacifying Police Units, known as UPPs, were a policy solution designed in 2008 shortly following the announcement that Rio de Janeiro would be hosting the 2014 World Cup. At the time, Rio was one of the most dangerous cities in terms of crime and violence in the world. Government officials knew they needed a different, visible approach to make the city safer for international tourists.

Enter UPP, the Rio State government’s solution branded as “community-based policing.” The rhetoric surrounding the introduction of UPPs in Rio centered on expelling criminal and gang elements from favelas and improving city services for favela residents.

As with many ambitious policies, the implementation of this vision has stumbled in some key ways. Favelas with established UPPs, which are mostly around the tourist-heavy areas, have seen only mixed results in terms of improved safety. While personal safety has improved somewhat, there are abundant accusations against the police regarding human rights violations.

While favelas with UPPs have seen a 78% decrease in violent death rates, there has been a simultaneous increase in disappearances and a rise in other lower crime reports such as threats, rapes, and domestic violence. It is possible the growth in reporting is because the police are actually present in the community now and thus able to take reports, whereas before favela citizens would take their complaints to the drug lords. Besides the increase in disappearances, there has been a sort of “squeezing the balloon effect” that pushed the drug activity to nearby favelas without UPPs instead of eliminating the activity entirely. This has increased violence in other favelas. As recently as January 19, 2015, the BOPE (a special battalion of Rio’s military police who specialize in urban guerilla warfare against drug lords/gangs) invaded Morro do Juramento, a favela without a UPP that has seen an recent increase in violence.[1]

Beyond the questionable impact on security in Rio, the establishment of UPPs coincided with a rise in police brutality. Police kill an average of 6 people per day in Brazil and are often not prosecuted for the deaths even if the evidence indicates the death was execution-style.[2] Human rights complaints by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch allege police officers regularly engage in brutal tactics against accused drug traffickers such as beatings, electric shocks, and use of plastic bags/toilets to simulate (or perpetrate) suffocation/drowning.

The long-term capacity of the Brazilian government to continue funding the existing UPP program, much less expanding it to other favelas, is unclear. Brazil continues to deal with an enormous national debt and once the international spotlight leaves Rio post the 2016 Olympics, it is hard to imagine a national (or even state-level) willingness to continue the program long-term.

Lauren Burdette
MPP ’15

[1] Flueckiger, Lisa. “Rio’s Military Police Enter Favela After Weekend Shootings.” 19 January 2015 Rio Times Online <;.

[2] “Brazilian Police Kill more than 6 people a day, study finds.” 12 November 2014 CBS News/Associated Press <;

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