In a little-observed story last week, Brazilian military troops announced that, after occupying several favelas since 2010, they were withdrawing from a number of favelas in Rio de Janeiro. In their stead, members of the police’s Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacifying Unit; UPP) will monitor and patrol the favelas.
Certainly, in some obvious regards, this means the ongoing militarization of the favelas. However, the shift is not without meaning; that the military is leaving and the police are entering suggests that the presence of drug violence in these favelas has declined. Additionally, while the UPP can and does carry out targeted actions against drug gangs, they are also just one part a broader strategy developed in the past few years that focuses on increasing the government’s presence in favelas in order to provide infrastructure and social services. Whereas previous strategies for dealing with drug gangs in the favelas involved quick in-and-out raids that left people dead but did little to change the lives or conditions of residents in favelas, this new strategy attempts to improve the lives of the majority of favela residents (who are not tied to the drug gangs, no matter how Rio newspapers might characterize them) and undermine the popularity of gangs that previously provided such social services as money for food or medicine. The theory is that a greater state presence is more beneficial for all: residents’ lives improve with the infrastructure the state provides, and the state can be seen as an institution that provides social services, rather than as a primarily-armed force that only exists in violence (an impression left with the old model of militarized lightning-quick strikes).
Again, this is not to say that the presence of the militarized state has disappeared, nor is it clear that the program will work in the long run (though it has had greater successes than the previous tactics and strategies did). And there remain some very real problems and criticisms of the new model of “pacification” in the favelas. Still, the fact that this type of transition is taking place is pointing to at least some real transformations in the administration of the favelas, to say nothing of the lives of people who live there.