From Abandonment to Inclusion: The Role of the State in Violence, Public Security and Human Rights in favela communities in Rio de Janeiro – The Case Studies of Santa Marta and City of God


In the opening weeks of March 2011, the streets of Rio de Janeiro were inundated with revelers and participators of arguably the biggest Carnaval celebration in the world. As tourists poured in from all over the globe, the city prepared for the influx of international and domestic visitors. Celebrations and excitement pulsed through every street from centrally located neighborhoods like Ipanema and Copacabana to the notorious favelas that intertwine throughout the city to the marginalized outskirts of town. In City of God, a favela famed for its name and a film released in 2002, moradores (community members) mirrored the celebrations of their more affluent neighbors in the south zone, organizing events in their local community.

Tony Barros, a local community organizer and photographer in City of God, was documenting and filming the festivities late one night. Amidst music and celebrations, a commotion involving moradores and local UPP officers occurred. Tony, a strong supporter of the local security forces, approached the officers in an effort to mediate the commotion. Almost immediately and with no explanation, UPP officers seized his camera and slammed it to the ground (Barros, 2011; “Imagens Mostram…,” O Globo, March 2011). As the officers present laughed off the situation, community members dispersed into the late night, upset and frustrated at what seemed to be a play on power by authorities who claim to be present in the community for protection.

Since 2008, City of God, along with about a dozen other favelas in Rio de Janeiro, has been undergoing a pacification process planned and implemented by municipal authorities with the verbal and monetary support of the federal government ( In an effort to eliminate drug traffic and violence, the State of Rio de Janeiro sends specialized units, Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE), to drive out drug traffickers and establishes peacekeeping units (UPP) to maintain the calm, yet socially intense environment of favela communities. This effort and strong, original policy change is persistent and continuous since 2008 as the city prepares for even larger influxes of tourists and athletes as the upcoming host of the World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympic Games.

The international community and local residents applaud Rio de Janeiro and the anticipated policy action towards drug traffic and violence. Referred to as Rio de Janeiro’s “parallel power” drug traffickers continue to control a majority of the city’s favela communities with arms, violence and lucrative money to be earned by its young citizens. Since being “pacified,” City of God has – for the most part – become a calm environment of thriving local businesses and family homes. Social services are being established and the presence of State in a once abandoned far away, west zone favela continues to increase. But quietly, discrimination and prejudice continue to build on both sides of the conflict. Personal – or human security – is one of many rights being addressed in Rio de Janeiro’s overall changing policy landscape. With State Governor Sergio Cabral at the helm (and with the support of President Lula) and Secretary of Public Security Jose Mariano Beltrame, the State’s active and human rights based approach can be seen in new policies. Along with a host of NGOs, the State is attempting to address the staggering inequalities and violence that continue to plague the city of Rio and the entire State of Brazil. Through the establishment of the UPP units in various favela communities, the State of Rio de Janeiro is beginning a new relationship with favela residents and setting new tones that reverberate throughout the entire city.

Just weeks after Tony’s camera was broken and the excitement of Carnaval had dissipated, City of God had a first time visitor, President Barack Obama. Videos and pictures show him surrounded by the protective forces of UPP and BOPE while playing soccer with kids from the community and talking to local citizens (Barnes, Christian Science Monitor, March 20, 2011; City of God Welcomes Obama, BBC News). Much like previous reporting from City of God, the media tends to paint a pretty picture of what changing policy looks like in Rio’s most famous favela.4 However, residents and citizens have a different story to tell. The ambiguity of the State, its responsibilities and what it wishes to accomplish in the coming years continue to be blurred through media coverage and the State’s actions. The most affected and confused of all: favela residents. And as media attention rises in the area, the State feels more pressure to perform and finally fulfill the promises and goals they have been making for decades.

The continued growth and expanding, progressive social policies of Brazil – in tandem with its GDP – over the past decade cannot be denied. What this paper aims to do is offer a look – on a microlevel – into Brazil and Rio’s macro level changing security, economic, social and development policies. The city has battled violence for decades in various unsuccessful campaigns, movements and invasions in favela communities. Instead of building trust and confidence, they shatter hopes and expectations. The city’s newest effort, a combination of BOPE forces and UPP units, shows a step in the right direction in reestablishing ties to neglected communities and residents who are referred to and treated as “second class citizens.”


Research and ideas in this paper draw on my experience from living and working in Rio de Janeiro June 2010 – August 2010 and January 2011. I conducted various informal and formal interviews in multiple favela communities during both stays. Most of these interviews took place in Santa Marta (January 2011) nd City of God (June – July 2010). In addition to my work and research in favelas, I also draw upon my personal relationships and experiences outside the communities as well. Interviews and conversations with all residents revolved around the presence of the UPP and what the new security program means to local communities as well as general perceptions of the State of Rio de Janeiro and the federal government of Lula and Dilma.

Analytical Framework

The first section of this paper explores the foundational context of Rio de Janeiro and its history of inequality, marginality and violence in Brazil. I will look at how economic, political and social inequalities stem from centuries of structural violence and how this violence has effectively created Rio’s favela communities in purposeful spatial seclusion as a result of lack of government involvement. Beginning in the 1980s, this structured marginalization resulted in drug trafficking and increased violence in favela communities throughout Rio de Janeiro.

Within this context I will briefly examine past security policy and how the State’s fight to rid favelas of drug traffickers and violence has resulted in multiple failures of fulfilling human rights obligations. This section will be within a human rights based framework recognizing the State’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of all citizens. The State of Rio de Janeiro has implemented multiple policy initiatives since the 1990s – most resulting in higher morbidity and mortality rates and even stronger disdain for government interventions by favela residents. Since 2008 Rio has begun installing UPP units in vulnerable favela communities reflecting a shift in the State’s security policy.

Looking at the State’s investment in security policy in addition to other social and economic programs in Rio’s favela communities, I will use the framework of Amartya Sen’s capabilities theory to analyze the State’s achievements and setbacks as they seek to alter the social and economic landscape of Rio. Using two favela communities – Santa Marta and City of God – I will evaluate the impact of macro-level policy changes and investment in each community. Focusing on the role of the State in fulfilling its human rights obligations in addition to its role as facilitator in economic and social development, I will analyze whether the social well-being of residents is being affected through the enhancement of capabilities and freedoms.

For full paper, including Appendices and Bibliography please see PDF download

From Abandonment to Inclusion: The Role of the State in Violence, Public Security and Human Rights in favela communities in Rio de Janeiro, The Case Studies of Santa Marta and City of God (1617)

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.