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Rio de Janeiro state police operation to regain control of favelas

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The operation, which began at dawn, is part of a permanent effort to increase police presence and improve services in at least two favelas, Jacarezinho and Muzema, according to Rio state governor Claúdio Castro. More details will be released on January 22, Castro said on his social media.

“We have started a great process of transformation for the communities in the state of Rio. We spent months developing a program that changes the lives of the population, bringing dignity and opportunity,” Castro said. “The operations today are just the start of that change that goes well beyond security.”

Some 1.200 police officers were deployed to Rio de Janeiro’s Jacarezinho favela and its surroundings, marking the start of a state effort seeking to “reclaim territory.” (photo internet reproduction)

On videos shared on the Rio police’s official Twitter, officers could be seen with their rifles drawn cautiously entering the streets of the vast favela, where the city’s deadliest raid took place last May, killing 28 people and injuring several others.

By Wednesday afternoon, dozens of individuals had been arrested, police said, but there were no reports of violent confrontations or shootouts.

Violence in Rio’s metropolitan region has gone down. Official data shows that homicides between January and November 2021 were nearly 8% lower that during the same period a year ago, with nearly 2,000 deaths.

But Rio’s police have historically resorted to storming favelas and engaging in deadly shootouts as a means to disrupt criminal organizations and seek out targets. And for years, officers have faced repeated accusations of summarily executing suspects. Some residents of Jacarezinho alleged executions took place during the raid last May.

In its 2021 annual report published this month, Rio-based organization Fogo Cruzado, which compiles and verifies reports of shootings throughout the metropolitan region, highlighted that the number of incidents where 3 or more civilians are shot dead has increased. There were 61 such events in Rio’s metropolitan area, most of which occurred during police operations.

The idea of instead introducing permanent police units within Rio’s favelas to enhance security and tackle drug trafficking echoes a prior initiative: police pacification units, known as UPPs.

The ambitious program launched in 2008 and aimed to install a state presence inside favelas ahead of the 2016 Olympics. Gangs control many favelas that are home to 1.7 million people in Rio’s metro region, according to the 2010 census.

The UPP program scored initial success expelling gangs, and won broad praise. But the expensive initiative expanded too far, too fast into dozens of favelas as state finances cratered, causing a devastating backslide that enabled gangs to recover some of their lost grip.

“There was no planning,” said Brazilian Forum for Public Security analyst Daniel Cerqueira, referring to the 2008 effort. “Each community has its peculiarities. To find the right remedy and dosage for each one of them, you have to have a picture of the social and criminal reality of that place, and then start planning.”

The program also suffered severe reputational damage after police were suspected to have tortured and killed a resident of the massive Rocinha favela who wasn’t involved in trafficking, which prompted weeks of protests. Several police were eventually tried and convicted for the man’s disappearance.

In Jacarezinho, few residents were willing to speak on Wednesday, for fear of retaliation. Antônio Carlos Ferreira Gabriel, who twice led the local residents’ association, shared his misgivings about the government’s fresh promises to not just intensify policing but also improve public services.

“For God’s sake, we don’t want 1,200 police officers like we’re seeing today,” he said. “We want 1,200 social, cultural, sports, health, economic projects. That’s what we need.”

The local activist stressed that no association or civil society group from Jacarezinho had been invited to take part in the framing or implementation of the new program.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes was also caught by surprise. “I was informed yesterday at the end of the day by the governor himself. There wasn’t prior planning with City Hall,” Paes wrote on Twitter. “I support the initiative and we’ll work together for the good of our people.”

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