Notes on Dr. Michael Wolff’s presentation: “Pacifying the Slums: Police and Gangs in Rio de Janeiro”

In today’s guest post, Dr. Brandon Morgan, who teaches at Central New Mexico Community College, writes about the recent talk Michael Wolff gave on campus at the University of New Mexico. For more from Brandon, you can follow him on Twitter: @CNMBrandon His most recent publication, “Colonia Díaz and the Railroad that Almost Was: The Deming, Sierra Madre and Pacific, 1890-1896” appeared in the edited volume Just South of Zion: Mormons in Mexico and its Borderlands.

On Wednesday, October 22, Dr. Michael Wolff, Visiting Professor in the Political Science department at the University of New Mexico, gave an engaging talk on the recent history of conflicts between police and gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The presentation was the second in the fall speaker series to promote the collaboration between the University of New Mexico’s Latin American and Iberian Institute (LAII) and Central New Mexico Community College (CNM). As such, the talk took place on the CNM campus, and students and faculty of both institutions attended. I am one of the faculty members working to develop new LAS courses at CNM, so I was very happy to see robust attendance at Dr. Wolff’s talk.


Due to my borderlands history background, Wolff immediately caught my attention with his definition of favelas as places that are just outside the attention and reach of state control. Although common perceptions persist of favelas as impoverished shantytowns (which in certain respects they are), the rise of organized drug trafficking since 1993 has driven the creation of developed micro-cities within the geographical boundaries of most favelas. Between 1993 and 2008, criminal governance allowed for the construction and growth of such micro-cities. Rising rates of violence and the increasing power of drug trafficking groups meant that authorities largely ignored events within favelas.

When police authorities, which in Brazil are under the purview of state governments, did enter favelas in the 1990s and early 2000s, their presence was infrequent and intensely violent. Despite the reality that most of the inhabitants of Rio’s favelas (nearly three million people) were not directly involved in drug trafficking, units like the Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE by its Portuguese initials) targeted residents and traffickers alike. Part of the justification for their indiscriminate violence was the reality that most favela residents offered safe haven or passage for traffickers within their homes. Yet, due to the structures of criminal governance, favela residents had little choice in the matter. If they wanted to continue to receive the benefits of the traffickers’ governance (including general protection from violence, access to prescription drugs and other basic services), they were required to honor the traffickers’ wishes. When their only interactions with state agents were characterized by brutal violence, the decision to support the traffickers seemed to make sense.

In 2008, state authorities, with federal support, initiated a reform project for the favelas known as “Pacification.” The impetus for genuine reform in the way that police, trafficking gangs, and residents interacted in the favelas was inspired by the external pressure of Brazil’s selection to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. José Mariano Beltrame, the State Public Security Secretary, recognized the need to end the system of dual sovereignty that had become the norm in the favelas, and accordingly spearheaded the Pacification program.

In the drive to transform residents’ perspectives of police authority and to break criminal governance in the favelas, Pacifying Police Units (UPP by their Portuguese initials) played the central role. Their main goals were to end intense brutality against favela residents and to find a way to force the drug traffickers to abandon their strongholds. UPPs accomplished the latter with the aid of paramilitary forces that invaded favelas with tanks and helicopters. Their invasion was supported by such intense firepower that, for the most part, drug trafficking gangs declined to engage them directly and most retreated from their bases of power to other, nearby favelas. After the initial invasion, UPP officers established a regular presence in favela communities, registered homes with the state, and enforced the laws to reestablish their legitimacy.

At least initially such measures seemed to be highly successful. Thirty-eight units occupied 264 favelas to serve approximately 1.5 million favela residents. Along with their increased presence came a 75% drop in the homicide rate and a more formalized economy for the favelas.

Despite such initial gains, however, many issues and questions remain. Although the UPP presence broke the dual sovereignty system that benefitted organized drug trafficking organizations, petty crime rates rose in favelas without the traffickers’ violent methods that prevented smaller-scale crimes. The UPPs’ inability to prevent small-scale crime points to weaknesses in their claims on control of favela territories. Since the World Cup, drug traffickers have slowly attempted to regain a foothold in their former areas of domination. And the question looms large of whether or not the political and social capital to maintain the Pacification program will last beyond the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Dr. Wolff framed his compelling and engaging storytelling within the insights of Political Science literature on civil wars and insurgencies. Because the favelas, as spaces beyond state control, have long been sites of high levels of violence, such frameworks provide the insights that I summarized above. Such conceptualizations, however, tend to miss other important elements of the story of Rio’s favelas, including the stories of residents themselves and instances of police collusion with drug traffickers (a well-documented occurrence).

Overall, Dr. Wolff’s use of photos from his time in the favelas and his direct engagement with the audience created an atmosphere in which students of Latin America and the borderlands alike learned much about their respective fields of study.

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