Pacification and its Discontents

Major Priscilla Azevedo (Photo by Bruce Douglas).
Major Priscilla Azevedo (Photo by Bruce Douglas).

2 September 2007. The thieves came as she was leaving for church. Dressed in civvies on her day off, Priscilla Azevedo, a 29-year old captain in Rio de Janeiro’s military police, sat parked in the driveway of her house in her green Ford Focus. As she waited for her mother and grandmother, she saw two armed men approaching. A gun pointed at her head, she surrendered the vehicle. She was blindfolded and driven away. In the boot of the car, as yet undisturbed, was a bag containing several police diplomas and service commendations. She started to pray, and one of the men ordered her to be silent.

They drove her to Morro do Castro, a favela in Niterói, a city to the east of Rio across the Guanabara Bay. The car stopped, and Priscilla was taken out. Five more men appeared. They took turns issuing threats and pressing a pistol against her cheek. Certain she would be killed once they discovered her true identity, she tried to flee. She broke into the home of an elderly couple, but they were frightened by the intruder and chased her out with brooms and shouts, back into the hands of her captors. [private]

By this time, the kidnappers had searched the vehicle, which contained five reais, a mobile phone, an old pair of trainers and the bag full of police material. Pleading desperately with the enraged men, Priscilla told them they belonged to the wife of her lover, a married policeman. They threw her in the boot of the car and she waited for them to set it on fire.

But the fire never came. Abandoned briefly by the gang, she managed to force the boot open and escape. This time she called for help at the first open door.  The boy living there untied her hands, and let her call the police. A day later, Captain Azevedo returned to the favela to assist in an operation that concluded with the arrest of five of her kidnappers. “Of course I was afraid,” she told me when I met her one sunny Friday afternoon in Rocinha, a massive, sprawling favela in Rio’s picturesque Zona Sul. “But fear has its benefits. It stimulates you to survive.”


The last time Eunice de Souza saw her brother alive he was on his way to buy lemon and garlic for the fish he had caught earlier that day. Amarildo de Souza, a 47-year old bricklayer’s assistant and father of six, left his small breezeblock home in the Pocinho neighbourhood of Rocinha on the evening of 14 July 2013. Around 6pm he entered the Bar do Júlio, a small corner-shop down an alleyway close to his house. Inside, five customers sat drinking beer and eating a fish stew, keeping half an eye on the TV coverage of the Flamengo v. Vasco football match.

A local resident popped into the bar, and asked Amarildo to help her carry some bags up the steep slope. On his return, Amarildo boasted he’d just received 30 reais for his efforts; a good day’s work for a man whose monthly salary rarely rose above 300 reais. Then, a group of eight military police officers, led by Douglas Vital, known locally as “Monkey Face”, entered the bar, asking to see Amarildo’s papers. The customers in the bar thought it was a strange request as Vital and Amarildo knew each other. Vital then asked Amarildo to accompany him to the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), the local police station established in the favela a little over a year earlier. Júlio, the bar owner, and another customer, Luiz Carlos, asked Vital why they were taking him. “Don’t you know who I am?” Vital said to Carlos. “I’m Monkey Face”.

As the police officers left with Amarildo, one of the customers, Luciana, climbed up the alley to tell his wife, Elizabete Gomes da Silva; ‘Bete’. Bete waited outside the nearby police command and control centre for her husband to appear. A short time later, she saw him in the back of a police car. She rushed to meet him, but he told her Vital still had his documents. The car then headed on to Portão Vermelho, the administrative centre of the UPP, which consists of eight shipping containers, stacked four by two, located in the upper part of Rocinha, on the edge of a protected area of woodland.


In late 2008, a little over a year after her kidnapping, now Major Priscilla Azevedo found out that she had been appointed to command Rio de Janeiro’s first Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), in the favela of Santa Marta.

Pacification, a project implemented by José Mariano Beltrame, the secretary of state for security in Rio de Janeiro, is designed to extend state control over communities previously abandoned to the control of criminal gangs. Shock troops, accompanied by helicopters, armoured personnel vehicles and a massive media presence, enter favelas searching for drugs, guns and wanted criminals. Once cleared, the military police move in and set up a UPP. Other municipal services, principally rubbish collection, soon follow; as do private companies such as satellite TV providers, mobile phone networks and fast-food restaurants in search of new markets. By the end of 2013, 35 favelas had been pacified.

Prior to the arrival of the UPP, Santa Marta, a small community of 7,500 residents located between the middle-class neighbourhoods of Laranjeiras and Botafogo, was famed principally for providing the backdrop to the video of Michael Jackson’s 1996 hit “They Don’t Care About Us”. A bronze statue in the favela’s main square commemorates the King of Pop’s presence. At the time, Santa Marta was under the control of the Comando Vermelho, one of Rio’s most powerful drug gangs, and the producers had to seek permission from the self-described “owner” of Santa Marta, Márcio Amaro de Oliveira, before filming there.

Since the arrival of the UPP, no one requires permission to enter the favela. Thiago Firmino, 32, is a DJ and tour-guide there. “Santa Marta is safer now,” he said. “There’s no more armed conflict. There are still lots of problems, but no deaths, no stray bullets.” I contacted him initially on Facebook to ask what he thought of Major Azevedo. “I love her,” he wrote.

When I spoke to him, he told me the arrival of the UPP had been difficult. “At the beginning it was very tense. She stopped a lot of parties. People were angry. But then they started to understand she was different from the other cops, because she was a woman. She took part in the community’s events; she would go into people’s homes. She would even go and speak to the mothers of kids who had just been arrested in order to give them a last chance.”

Not everyone was quite so enthusiastic. Andre Fernandes, from the Agência Notícia das Favelas, told me that despite Major Azevedo’s success, she had not won over all of Santa Marta’s residents. In July 2013, 300 people demonstrated in the favela, complaining that the state government had not honoured its promise to build a public crèche or a proper sanitation system. Many of the protesters claimed that the improved security was for the benefit of tourists, not residents. Rio is one of the host cities for the World Cup in 2014, and the site of the 2016 Olympics.


Two days after being taken in for questioning by police, Amarildo de Souza’s family officially registered his disappearance. According to the initial statements by the military police, Amarildo had been apprehended because he had been confused with a known drug trafficker. They said he was released later on the evening of 14 July, but that his departure from the UPP had not been recorded by either of the two security cameras that monitor the police station because they were not working. Of all the 84 cameras in operation in Rocinha that night, they were the only two that failed. It was subsequently revealed that the GPS trackers on the unit’s two police cars had also been switched off.

According to the think-tank Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, Brazil is the seventh most murderous country in the world. Over 50,000 people were killed in 2012. That year, Brazilian police killed 1,890 people, an average of five a day. But whereas most police killings remain uninvestigated, Amarildo’s disappearance soon fuelled demonstrations across the country. The slogan, “Cadê o Amarildo?” (“Where is Amarildo?”) spread across social media, newspapers and protesters’ placards. Amarildo had only had two run-ins with the police before: once in 1989, for theft, and again in 2005, for working as a flanelinha, an illegal car-parking attendant.

On 2 October, the state prosecutor, Homero das Neves, announced that he would charge ten police officers from the Rocinha UPP, including its commander, Major Edson Santos, with Amarildo’s torture and murder. Neves said that the police officers had received an anonymous tip-off that Amarildo ran errands for drug traffickers, and they took him inside one of the shipping containers for questioning. There, they spent 40 minutes submitting Amarildo to electric shocks and asphyxiation with a plastic bag. Four police officers from the UPP who have now entered a witness protection programme testified to hearing his screams. At some point later that evening, his dead body was removed from the container. It has not been found.

By the end of October, a further 15 officers from the Rocinha UPP had also been charged with involvement in Amarildo’s death, following further denunciations by their police colleagues. Major Santos was also accused of diverting state funds to bribe witnesses to cover up Amarildo’s murder. All of the accused are in preventative detention. Since the arrest of the police officers, other favela residents have come forward to denounce previous, separate incidences of torture.

In late November I took a taxi to Rocinha, my third visit of five that month. On the way, I told the driver, Daniel, that I was going to speak to the new head of the UPP in Rocinha, Major Priscilla Azevedo, appointed in October after Santos’ arrest. Daniel told me a story about being stopped by the police one night and asked for a bribe. A few months later, he said he saw the same policeman on television being hailed as a hero. “No one here trusts the police,” he said. “I’ll buy you a bottle of cachaça if you prove me wrong.”

Accessing Rocinha is done mostly by motorbike. That does not stop buses, pick-up trucks and the occasional, patient taxi driver from trying to work their way up the manically curved and steeply inclined thoroughfare, the Estrada da Gavea. Low-slung wires criss-cross the main street, feeding power to the burger bars, evangelical churches, and lingerie shops. Open-top trucks full of yellow beer crates trundle up the slope, while the odd half-hearted, luminous-jacketed traffic cop attempts to regulate who gets to take the hairpin bend next.

At the top of the hill, I met Augusto Costas, a worried, weary-looking man selling his acrylic-on-canvas paintings of Rio landmarks on a bend overlooking the city’s lagoon, not far from the UPP. He told me that last year he had been beaten and chained to a radiator by the military police after he was accused of stealing a mobile phone. He said he was only released because his wife’s brother, who works for the civil police, intervened. He would not let me take his photo. “Police here are meant to help, but the violence here has gone up since they arrived.”


To get to the UPP, I took a moto-taxi down from the top of the hill. Instead of turning off at one of the sharp bends, I went straight on up a dirt track, past a clay tennis court, a freshly whitewashed barracks, and a new five-a-side football pitch to the collection of containers on the edge of a wood that make up the Rocinha pacification unit. Next year, work is due to begin on a more permanent structure, but for the moment, the place is isolated from the bustle of the favela. Trees laden with the bulbous, green beehives of the jackfruit surround the Portão Vermelho.

There are a few schools nearby, and children occasionally drifted through. On the Friday afternoon I met Priscilla, I chatted to some of the teenage boys playing football. “They’re cool,” Bryan Santos, a fourteen-year old, told me when I asked what he thought about the police. “They run a football class here and it’s pretty good. They’ve got some decent players.”

Priscilla was exhausted when I arrived. She had finished work at 10pm the previous evening, but was called in at 1am, after one of her colleagues was slightly injured when he was shot on patrol. I spoke to her at 5pm when she had been working non-stop for seventeen hours. Two previous scheduled interviews had been cancelled, and it would not have been unreasonable of her to pull out in the circumstances. But as the first Brazilian to win an International Women of Courage Award, she has become accustomed to press attention. As the commander of the first UPP, now running the police unit in Brazil’s largest favela, she is very much the acceptable face of pacification.

We sat on a concrete bench next to a new toilet block, while some boys played football on the pitch near-by. Priscilla, now 36, spoke slowly and thoughtfully. Though clearly used to repeating some of her stories, she engaged warmly, flashing an occasional broad grin. She asked me where I was from, and when I asked her if she’s married, she responded immediately, “Unfortunately not. Would you like to help me out?”

“When we arrived in Santa Marta, we found it was a community that was against the work of the police,” she told me. “A great number of the incidents we had were conflicts between the military police and the residents, but we understood that because the area had been dominated for so long by organised crime, mainly by drug traffickers. Today it is a very laid back place. Of course no place is completely exempt from crime, but now it’s a place that anyone can go at any time.”

I asked her how her team of 120 police officers established their presence in the favela. “You need to get to know the area, get to know the people, understand their difficulties. Put yourself in the place of someone who lives in the favela. All the time they are being judged as if they are criminals, being badly treated, and being slaves to all the crime that’s around them. But it’s also important that they understand the new reality: the police service is for them and for their community.”

On the question of whether her gender helped in her job, she said that being a “novelty” had its advantages. “A woman in charge, a woman in the street, this makes people approach you as they want to get to know you. People are surprised to see a woman in charge. I also get a lot of support from women, especially those over 30. They admire the work that I do, and it encourages them to follow their dreams in their professional life.” But she quickly adds that this is just an observation, not a rule, and should not be the criteria on which the UPP programme is judged.

Priscilla has no truck with the UPP’s critics. “Of course, this is far from being a perfect project, but I think the benefits are huge. I understand criticism and it can be useful, but to be against the UPPs, I don’t understand. How can you be against something that fights to improve residents’ quality of life?”

One of the criticisms of the UPP programmes is that the quality of policing has deteriorated as time has gone on. Whereas Santa Marta may have proved a success, far less effort has gone into policing the larger, more complex favelas. Catalytic Communities, an NGO based in Rio, says the programme has not scaled well.

Priscilla acknowledged Rocinha, with its 120,000 inhabitants, would prove a very different challenge. She said that she would not be able to develop the same kinds of personal relationships as she had in Santa Marta, but that she hoped word-of-mouth would help rebuild the police’s tattered reputation. “We have to take advantage of the little contact we have with people to show them that we are doing a good job so that they tell others.”

I asked her what she believed had happened to Amarildo da Souza. ”What happened exactly, I don’t know. I don’t know the details, but the opinion I have is that it was an unacceptable, absurd act. Thank God a great many of those responsible have now been identified.”

Given more and more allegations of torture are now emerging, I asked her whether she could be confident police abuses were no longer happening in Rocinha. “I have no doubt about that whatsoever.” Really? “At least not on my orders. If eventually it transpires something like this has happened, that’s the choice of the person who did it. He will suffer the consequences of anything like that, but I do not believe that will happen.”

As for rebuilding trust with Rocinha residents, Priscilla’s answer is simple: “work”. At the end of the interview, I tell her about the depth of mistrust towards the police that I have noted from all kinds of Brazilians since I arrived in Rio in December 2012.

“There are 47,000 police officers in Rio today,” she said. “If five of the 47,000 do something wrong, it will stain the reputation of the entire police force. But I have a lot of pride in the institution in which I serve. Of course, I agree we have some problems, but I am working and fighting every day to improve the institution, so that the population can have more confidence in their police.” [/private]

Bruce Douglas

About Bruce Douglas

Bruce Douglas is a writer and broadcaster based in Rio de Janeiro.

Bruce Douglas is a writer and broadcaster based in Rio de Janeiro.

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