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April 7th, 2016
Cities • Justice

Fighting drug crime in Rio de Janeiro’s ‘favelas’

In the late 1980s, Rio de Janeiro was rocked by violence as drug gangs moved into the slums and shantytowns of the city. Observing the failure of conventional forces, the state governor invited José Mariano Beltrame, an experienced narcotics officer, to come up with a solution. He decided to apply a community policing strategy that had previously proved successful in combating Colombia’s drug barons.

The initiative

In 2006, Sergio Cabral, the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, identified potential reforms and José Mariano Beltrame, who had previous experience in narcotics investigations, was the first name on his new security team. In 2007, working with the support of the governor, “the state's secretary for public security, José Mariano Beltrame, and his colleagues tried a new approach”. [1] Beltrame responded by creating the Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (UPP), a unit within the state military police.

The aim was to provide a continuous police presence and help in extending the government's reach in areas of conflict. Beltrame's main goal was to disarm the gangs and then implement public and private services effectively in these areas. The overall aim of the programme was “to increase security by restoring state control in the favelas and by integrating the favelas and their residents into the formal city." [2]

Beltrame collected intelligence about the favelas, identifying 100 favelas with very high crime rates, and created a detailed, long-term action plan. After this intelligence-gathering phase, plans were made to establish the UPP in 40 of the 100 identified favelas by 2014.

The challenge

From 1897 to 1985, the state of Rio de Janeiro had been periodically affected by violence in the favelas - the slums and shantytowns of the city. The military police relied on frequent raids in order to control the violence in these areas. In the late 1980s, the drug trade moved south from the Caribbean into central Latin America.

One of the results of this movement was an increased level of urban violence in the Rio favelas, both between rival drug-trafficking gangs and between gangs and the police. Members of the public were often caught in the crossfire, frequently being shot by the police. Poorly-trained and underpaid officers working in the favelas were susceptible to bribes from the drug traffickers, and the state government was concerned that some areas of Rio were in danger of becoming beyond the reach of the law.

The public impact

The UPP programme sharply reduced the homicide rate in Rio and reduced drug-trafficking by removing weapons from the affected communities. The homicide rate in the state and city of Rio “dropped dramatically from 42 homicides per 100,000 in 2005 ... to 24 homicides per 100,000 in 2012”. [3] However, it should be noted that, despite this drop, “in 2012 there were still 4,041 homicides in Rio de Janeiro state and 1,209 homicides in the city of Rio de Janeiro.” The number of homicides in London in the same year was 89.

Stakeholder engagement

The main stakeholders were Sergio Cabral, José Mariano Beltrame and his team at the UPP, along with the external stakeholders: the Brazilian government, the private sector, and the inhabitants of the Rio de Janeiro favelas.

There was intense pressure on Cabral from the external stakeholders to find a solution to the drug-related violence. His general management style was to delegate authority to members of his cabinet in return concrete results. When Beltrame proposed the plan for the UPP's community policing strategy, he approved it and put his political weight behind it.

Political commitment

The UPP received significant funding from the state government. For example, Beltrame's UPP recruits received an additional BRL 500 per month, together with new uniforms and equipment. This was in recognition of the very real dangers involved in trying to break up gangs in the favelas.

Public confidence

The violence was very high in Rio de Janeiro, but the public had little faith in the government’s ability to control it. The UPP’s eventual success resulted in an “incredible reversal of public opinion”. [4]

Clarity of objectives

The objectives of forming the UPP were clearly stated – to disarm the drug gangs and clear them out of the favelas. There was a clearly quantifiable corollary to these actions: Rio’s homicide rates.

Strength of evidence

Many gang control programmes in Rio's history had met with partial or temporary success; Beltrame reviewed these programmes in order to identify the problems that had caused such reform efforts to fail in the past. He and the other UPP staff also took inspiration and evidence from a successful public security programme that had been adopted in Medellin, Colombia to fight its endemic drug trafficking.

In Rio, the UPP programme was initially rolled out on a trial basis. The first favela to be tested was Santa Marta. The Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE, the Military Police) conducted operations in Santa Marta to remove weapons and then the UPP moved in. This process was then repeated in subsequent exercises for the other favelas.


The UPP’s new recruits underwent intensive training and an NGO, Viva Rio, engaged the young recruits in community policing case studies and role-playing exercises to prepare them for interactions with local citizens.


There was a clearly-defined management structure such that each UPP unit had its own headquarters, bases and operational equipment and was run by its own commander-in-chief.

There was also a coordinating body, which oversaw the totality of UPP operations. The UPP was composed of officials and high-ranked personnel and had a strong management structure and skilled managers.

Each UPP was administratively connected to a battalion in the Military Police.


The State Department of Security's statistics showed the decline in homicide rates from 2005-2012 (see Public impact above). However, there is no evidence to suggest that the specific objectives and actions of the programme were measured other than qualitatively.


José Mariano Beltrame and his team in the UPP, the BOPE and the governor, Sergio Cabral, were well aligned with the agreed goal of reducing violence and an agreed strategy to achieve it. The local NGO sector was also aligned, Viva Rio providing instruction on community policing. The private sector also provided financial support, but only once the programme was in place and showing positive outcomes.

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