Points of view: Rio’s plan to clean up city has serious drawbacks

Eric Vining
Eric Vining
Eric Vining

By Eric Vining
Copy Editor

Violent drug cartels have been a deep and visible scar on the political and social landscapes of Central and South America for decades, but a social “clean-up” program by the Brazilian government may finally offer a viable solution to the age-old problem.

Created in 2008 by city officials in the Brazilian mega-city of Rio de Janeiro, the Favela Pacification Program aims to clean the city’s slums of drug dealers, organized gangs and violent vigilante groups before the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

The city’s tent-city-like slums, known locally as favelas, have been problematic for the Rio city government for decades. The areas are notorious for an entire spectrum of organized crime, and city officials are concerned that this crime could spill over from the poverty-stricken favelas into higher-income areas of the city.

The program operates in a two-step process. First, state military police identify a favela as “problematic” or “at risk” and raid areas where drug dealers and other organized criminals are known hold their positions and operations. Once the criminals have been removed from the area, a Pacification Police Unit (UPP), a type of peace-keeping police unit, is permanently stationed in the area in an effort to keep organized crime at bay in the area.

On the surface, the Favela Pacification Program is largely successful. Nearly 40 favelas have been cleared of organized criminal activity in just over two years, and UPPs are in operation in nearly all of these favelas.

Despite these successes, the program also has numerous unexpected downsides that may jeopardize the program as a whole.

First, the program is more of a damage-control effort than an end-all solution to Rio’s organized crime problem. Rio has nearly 1,000 favelas surrounding the city, and there is no way the city government could possibly address all of the crime in these areas. Instead, the program only aims to clear what are called “fringe” favelas that border Rio’s higher-income urban neighborhoods.

Second, the program inadvertently causes more crime than it eliminates. In driving out organized crime from problematic fringe favelas, large criminal organizations will tend to migrate to favelas farther from Rio’s city center the government does not plan on cleaning up, particularity in Rio’s predominantly poor North Zone.

Since the beginning of the program, more than a dozen favelas have experienced escalated turf wars as a direct result of the program. Turf wars also increase the presence of off-duty police vigilante groups in favelas, which have a reputation for answering the demands of powerful criminals with violence.

Third, and most importantly, the program sets a very dangerous precedent of infringing on the rights of innocent civilians, which could become very problematic if similar programs are introduced in other Central and South American countries.

In the United States, the Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizure by law enforcement agencies. In the eyes of the Rio city government, it is acceptable to raid hotbeds of criminal activity and the homes of innocent civilians for the sake of the greater good of protecting the general populous.

Other hotbeds of criminal activity in Latin America, especially Mexico, Columbia and Bolivia, have been seeking ways to curb the increasing influence of drug cartels in their countries, and to them a program similar to that being implemented in Rio now may cause more problems than it solves.

Rio’s Favela Pacification Program does solve many of the city’s immediate crime problems and is a necessary and proper method of eliminating crime in the area before being thrown into the world spotlight. If Rio wants to find a long-term solution to the problem, however, it may need to re-think this program and the many unintended problems it presents.

Eric Vining is a freshman political science major from Houston. He is a copy editor for The Lariat.