The inauguration of the 18th Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in Mangueira, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, March 11, 2011.
While Rio de Janeiro gears up to host the 2014 World Cup and 600,000 foreign tourists, health disasters such as the dengue fever epidemic in 2007 and 2008 loom large over discussions of human security. The epidemic totalled about 300,000 cases of this mosquito-borne illness, including 240 deaths, and I witnessed first hand how inundated hospitals closed their doors and left sick people to seek treatment at ad-hoc hydration tents scattered throughout the city.
The calamidade, or calamity, as locals called it, inflamed anxieties about personal health and safety in the city. Dengue fever, also called “breakbone fever” for the excruciating muscle, joint and bone pain it causes, is the world’s most rapidly spreading mosquito-borne viral disease. The number of dengue cases in Rio in 2013 was double that of 2012, and in 2014 the city is headed for a “situation of risk” for a dengue epidemic, according to Brazil’s minister of health.
It also exposed long-standing social cleavages: middle-class residents blamed the scourge on inhabitants of favelas from which waves of dengue supposedly emanated. State health agents with tools to stem the tide of infections either could not or would not access favelas controlled by outlaw regimes of narcotraffickers. The impasse exemplified how decades of political abandonment of Rio’s poor crippled the state’s ability to maintain order in favelas and hindered public health responses to serious disease threats.
Yet Rio’s dengue crisis also signaled an inflection point in the government’s stance towards favela communities. At the height of the epidemic, authorities ushered in new assemblages of public security in favelas in the form of Pacification Police Units (UPPs). With UPPs, Rio pivoted from a policy that historically neglected favelas, to one that intensely engaged them. Today, as the UPP project enters its sixth year, its public relations campaign circulates images of a friendly police force and claims that UPPs benefit more than 1.5 million residents in the pacified areas.
Critics dispute these numbers, however, and pacification policing is increasingly controversial. Nevertheless, UPPs reconfigure established practices of managing social difference in resource-poor settings of Rio de Janeiro, and offer a window into cultural assumptions about collective health, social control and the social worth of the poor in a post-authoritarian democracy.
- While threats to public safety in the favelas often capture the limelight, public health concerns are also contributing to high levels of human insecurity. Middle-class Brazilians have been able to fortify their houses against violence, but not against mosquito-borne illnesses.
- Improvements in sanitation, healthcare, and social services appear more likely in favelas where Rio’s new Police Pacification Unit (UPP) project is underway. The project aims to re-establish state access to politically abandoned urban areas, so that state authorities can deliver social services while also addressing the cycles of violence in these urban areas.
- Healthworkers say UPPs makes their job easier, and other services such as trash disposal have improved in these areas, yet claims are on the rise of human rights abuses at the hands of UPP officers. The presence of the officers is also creating new social disparities.
- The UPP unit does not address the larger issues of entrenched inequality, health problems, and other fundamental causes of human insecurity, and Brazil must face the limits of militarized approaches to addressing urban fragility and the gamut of human security concerns it encompasses.
Twenty percent of Rio’s 6.3 million residents, or approximately 1.3 million people, live in the city’s poorest, most densely populated communities, known as favelas. For the most part, the communities are tight-knit and vibrant, though many middle-class residents of Rio regard them as hives of disease and drug-related violence. This is because in the early 1980s, the Andean drug trade expanded into Brazil, and drug traffickers began competing with established favela resident associations, which for many years had secured votes for politicians in exchange for state services. As narcotraffickers consolidated their power in favelas—in part by employing local residents and helping the poor—hundreds of favelas across Rio became no-go zones for ordinary police.
As violence increased, a chronic sense of vulnerability pervaded favelas. Innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire during gunfights between Rio’s Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE) and traficantes practically constituted an epidemic: stray bullets hit an average of one person per day in Rio in January 2007.