Brazil to close half of its 'peace police' units in Rio

The idea behind Rio's 'peace police' units was to have a local team of officers who would live and patrol inside the favelas in a bid to displace drug traffickers (AFP Photo/TASSO MARCELO)

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Brazil is to close half of its "peace police" units operating in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the government has said, referring to a 10-year-old project that had once raised hopes for restoring order in the city's crime-ridden slums.

The decision, announced late Friday, will see 12 of the 38 so-called pacification police units (UPP) shut down and seven others merged into existing operations.

"Nobody wants to close the UPP. But were these units actually meeting their objectives? Let us be realistic -- they weren't," said Public Security Minister Raul Jungmann in announcing the closure.

The UPP units were first introduced in 2008 in a bid to "pacify" the city's main favelas and force out drug traffickers ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The idea was to create a local force of police officers specially trained to handle violence and drug problems, who would live and patrol in their communities, winning locals' trust and displacing the traffickers.

Over the past decade, 38 such units were deployed to police 264 impoverished, crime-hit neighborhoods housing more than 1.5 million people.

Initially, the strategy appeared to work, with violence declining in these areas.

But in 2013, allegations began emerging that the peace police themselves were involved in corruption and arbitrary actions.

- 'Lost control' -

A recent military police report confirmed the special units had "lost control" in most of the favelas, which were again being plagued by shootings and drug-related clashes. That study prompted Friday's decision to shutter half of them.

In February, President Michel Temer ordered the army to take over security in Rio following a breakdown of law and order in drug-ravaged neighborhoods. It was the first such military intervention since democracy returned to Brazil in 1985 after 20 years of dictatorship.

Although regular police are still doing most of the work on the streets, the decree put the generals in command, with troops available as back-up.

Press reports said the closures would affect UPP units in Rocinha, Rio's biggest favela, which is home to around 100,000 people. Since September, Rocinha has been caught in the crossfire of a turf war between narco gangs seeking control of trafficking in the area.

Despite recent criticism of the force, the decision to close half of the units has sparked concern in the favelas, which are home to nearly a quarter of Rio's population of 6.4 million.

A 2016 study found that although seven in 10 favela residents thought the UPP had failed in its mission, 60 percent wanted the units to remain.