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Editorial: Rio is Burning, the First UPP was Literally Set on Fire

Editorial, by Stone Korshak

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Last night the first UPP (Police Peacekeeping Unit) station created in Rio was attacked and literally set on fire. The Santa Marta (aka Dona Marta) UPP was the first to be established back in December 2008, and until recently was considered one of the most successful units of the program.

Stone Korshak, Editor and Publisher of The Rio Times.
Stone Korshak, Editor and Publisher of The Rio Times.

The symbolism is huge as the state’s security situation melts down while the world watches with regret. Reports earlier this week showed a major increase in crime since last year, and just last night some resident took a WhatsApp video of the police executing two traficantes in their losing war for the streets of Rio.

Many critics predicted the UPP program would be a flash in the pan, and only for the olhar estrangeiro – the foreigner’s eyes – during the World Cup and Olympics. Maybe it would have had a chance if the oil profits had not run dry and the economy was not in crisis. But that is not what is happening.

The security here is as bad if not worse than when I first travelled here in 2002. Maybe it is not as bad, but having lived through a period where the streets felt safe, the return to ‘old days’ is unnerving. In some ways it must be worse because of the economic crisis; the criminals and police are more desperate than ever.

A good friend, an American who has been here for over eight years, was jumped and stabbed by a group of 6-8 young street kids a month ago. It happened around 4-5AM along Copacabana Beach right in front of one of the hotels, and no one came to help. Maybe he was out too late and should not have tried to run or fight back, but to be fair, it’s not like he was in some dark back alley.

Yet the sun comes up tomorrow, and that same guy just had one of his best friends from home come down to visit for a week – and they had a great time. So as long as you know what you are getting into, employ the appropriate security measures and street smarts, the Cidade Maravilhosa will always be an amazing place to be.

On one of my early writing trips to Rio in 2005 I met a couple of Americans here to study Brazilian jiu-jitsu from Kansas. We got to be friends, and they were just back for a visit to Rio. We sat and talked about how things are similar to how they were then, before the UPP and boom and bust, and what a ride it all has been for Rio.

They now have a jiu-jitsu gym in Colorado, and she is a world-ranked champion, and part of their goal for visiting Rio again was to work with an academy in Cantagalo to set up some type of NGO non-profit relationship to help get some motivated kids trained in positive life lessons, and out of the favela.

The other goal was to enjoy everything in Rio that makes it such a special place; the wonderful culture, music, setting and people. The UPP may be crumbling, but the economy will swing back to some extent, and life as it is in Rio will go on,… so be safe!

UPP in Dona Marta, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
On patrol with the Pacification Police Unit (UPP) in Dona Marta Favela a.k.a Santa Marta, photo by Tim Stevens‏.

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