It is 3.30 in the morning, and the sun will rise in three hours. But Felipe Barbosa has to leave his house, his wife, and his 5-month-old daughter now if he is to get to work by six. If nothing unexpected happens, he’ll see them again tomorrow as they are getting out of bed in the morning. Felipe kisses his daughter goodbye, and gets in the car. The drive in to Rio goes smoothly at this time of night, but it is still a 120 km drive from Volta Redonda, where he lives, and running late is not an option when you are a soldier of the Military Police’s Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs. He has been working as UPP soldier for 27 months now; the first twelve months spent at Cerro-Corá were relatively calm compared to the following ten at Manguinhos. For the last five months, Felipe has been stationed at Fazendinha, and he is starting to feel the strain. When he entered the police academy, he hoped that after a year or two serving at a UPP, he might get transferred to the police station in his home town, but he is still in the blue as to when this might happen. In the meantime, he is stuck in Fazendinha; the former stronghold of Comando Vermelho, home of “the enemy”. Felipe doesn’t like it much, shootouts occur almost every day, but he knows that he can’t show any signs of weakness, so he tries to keep up appearances. Two weeks after arriving at Fazendinha he was shot in a confrontation with armed traffickers. The bullet pierced his abdomen right under the bulletproof vest, and by the time his colleagues had managed to get him to the hospital, he had lost 2 liters of blood. Felipe barely survived; nonetheless, he was back on duty one week later. He still gets nervous at the sound of gunshots. The only visible evidence of the event left is a small circular scar right below his belly button. At first, his wife wanted him to quit the job, but after he managed to convince her that it would just be a matter of time before he’d get transferred to a calmer place, she stopped insisting. Felipe doesn’t want to go back to being a street vendor; a “nobody” working for pocket change. Although the pay doesn’t justify the risk at least it lets him provide for his family, and although he knows that many people hate his guts, they still have to respect him when he puts on the uniform.

Felipe arrives at the base at dawn. He is always on alert as he enters the favela. He still doesn’t own his own gun, and feels vulnerable driving the winding access road up the hill where the police station is located. All soldiers know that traffickers are keeping an eye on them as they come and go, and Felipe fears that someday he’ll be attacked while he is are unarmed and defenseless. He parks his car in front of the base, a white and blue building towering over the favela. From the outside, it looks big and impressive compared to the surrounding shacks, but once you get inside it is obvious that it doesn’t fit the 300 soldiers working there. The walls in the wardrobes on the second floor are lined with lockers, and the remaining floor space is filled with more rows of lockers. Ironically, it resembles the architecture of the favelas: with the grey metal lockers dispersed within a room that clearly wasn’t built with this use in mind, the space between the high rows of cabinets look much like the narrow alleyways of Fazendinha. A couple of thin, worn out mattresses, gray with dirt, have been placed on the cramped floor-space that is left. Hopefully, Felipe will get a couple of hours of rest there later this evening, halfway through his 24-hour shift.

Several of Felipe’s colleagues have already arrived, and he greets them as he enters. The room is dimly lit, and there are bullet-holes in the lockers, roof and walls – small reminders of previous attacks to the base. Styrofoam, used as insulation, is drizzling from one of the holes. The thin, insulated aluminum walls do a good job at keeping the heat out, not so much at keeping out the bullets. Felipe changes into his worn out uniform, and heads over to the only bulletproof area of the base, the weapons depot, where he gets a handgun and a rifle. He used to pick up his vest here as well, but he eventually decided that he’d buy his own, as the vests that they hand out at the base are stiff and stinking with old sweat. It’s 6 am. Felipe is ready to patrol the alleys of Rio’s most violent favela. He is Soldado Barbosa, a soldier of Rio’s Pacifying Police Force .


Fieldwork in the favela

The scene I’ve just described is fiction, Felipe Barbosa doesn’t exist, but it is based on the interviews and observations that I’ve made during my first couple of months in the field with the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro (PMERJ), and depicts the reality of many of Rio’s 9000 UPP soldiers. The Pacifying Police Units are the structural backbone of the Rio’s pacification program, one of the biggest public security reforms in modern Brazilian history. Basically, it consists of establishing police stations within the city’s informal settlements, known as favelas, previously under the control of ostensibly armed drug traffickers. The main objectives of the pacification are to take back state control over territories dominated by armed groups, provide peace and security for the local population, and break the logic of war that has characterized the city of Rio. I am currently following soldiers at two different UPP bases. The two can in many ways be said to be contrasts within the UPP project: in the public imagination they represent opposites – the peaceful and the violent, the small and the big, the visible and the invisible, one in the affluent south zone, and the other in the remote and impoverished north of the city.


As Soldado Barbosa, many UPP soldiers live far away from Rio capital. They don’t necessarily want to work in the UPPs, but see it as a necessary step on the path towards a regular police station, or batalhão, closer to home. In some cases, they are police admirers keeping the family tradition alive, in others they have simply been tempted by the possibility of getting a stable income as public employees. When they enter the force, they start at the lowest levels of a military hierarchical structure that gives little room for voicing one’s own opinions and complaints. As soldiers, they are obliged by law to cut their hair short and follow their superior’s orders with no objections. They are not allowed to unionize, and they are not allowed to stage protests, as their counterparts in the Civil Police are.

Protests and discontent
Nonetheless, during my second week in Rio, 2000 military and civil police officers and their families staged a Sunday protest on Copacabana, under the heat of the scorching sun. They were manifesting their contempt with the high death tolls among the city’s police officers. According to the Worker Union of the Civil Police (SINPOL) 390 officers were killed in in Rio in 2013, and 116 were killed in 2014. The mothers of killed soldiers staged the protest with the support of SINPOL. At first, I found it difficult to understand exactly what the demands of the protesters were, as it seemed that their main demand was for more severe punishment of police killers. However, when I talked to protesters I was also met with a cacophony of other demands. Some wanted to lower the age of criminal responsibility; others wanted the police to spend more resources on solving the murders of police officers; and some demanded that soldiers should be allowed to carry their service guns with them off duty. Demands were fuelled by a sense of impunity for police killers. The general public, the local and national governments, and the police institutions of Rio were all targeted in the range of different demands and complaints. 

A recurring theme among protesters was the direct critique of “the human rights” [sic], without really specifying what “human rights” they think are worthy of critique. According to soldiers that I’ve spoken to on other occasions, the human rights discourse victimizes criminals and criminalizes the police. They argue that the media and government are eager to criticize human rights violations committed by the police, but that they tend to ignore cases of police victimization. Local and national politicians have fueled this logic – most likely because it serves them well to shift the blame for the horrendous working condition of soldiers; because they are arduous defenders of hard-hand policies; or because it allows them to tap into the discontent among officers and gain some quick votes. The protest has become an anchor point in my consequent inquiries into the field, as I have tried to understand the logic behind the demands, and their relation to the institutional culture of the PMERJ.

Lack of support
The PMERJ is in the middle of a process of institutional reform, trying to rid itself from the legacy of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Important sectors within the PMERJ are advocating the demilitarization of the police, and I’ve found evidence that this is a demand made by many soldiers as well. They claim that the military hierarchy of the institution is responsible for the general demotivation among soldiers. The desire to demilitarize seems to be connected to a pervasive victim ideology among soldiers. They see themselves as the government’s scapegoats, the pariah of Brazilian society, and the powerless subordinates of their superiors. Soldiers feel abandoned by the state due to the lack of social intervention programs in the pacified favelas. They argue that the police are expected to solve all the challenges in the favelas single-handedly. Furthermore, they critique the underfunding of the police, evident in the lack of appropriate infrastructure and equipment. With regards to civil society, they claim that the media portray a negative image of the police to the public, focusing exclusively on police abuses of power, and not on the sacrifices and hard work of soldiers. Furthermore, many soldiers still see residents of the favelas as in alliance with traffickers, although this perception is not as straightforward as is often claimed. I’ve spoken to several soldiers and officials who have a relatively nuanced view of the relation between traffickers and civilians, recognizing PMERJs violent past and present as part of the equation, as well as civilians’ fear of retribution from traffickers, should they cooperate with the police. Lastly, soldiers feel that there is a cultural and hierarchical gap between them and their superiors. Soldiers are careful not to openly criticize officials, mainly due to the fact that they believe that they can be punished for expressing their discontent. I’ve had unconfirmed reports who claim that “rebellious” soldiers are assigned bad shift-arrangements, or transferred to violent UPPs.

Proximity to civil life
The support for institutional reform seems to be biggest among officials. A group of officials within the PMERJ are pushing for closer collaboration between the police and civil society. They see the UPPs as pilot projects in this larger process of institutional change. In the last weeks, the first UPP do asfalto – the first police station based on the philosophy of proximity policing outside of a favela – was inaugurated. The goal is to encourage approximation between police and civilians within the entire PMERJ. There seems to be a genuine recognition within the institution of the need to reduce the lethality of the police.

During the recent release of the Brazilian chapter of the annual Amnesty International World Report, former state security coordinator and anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares stated ‘The policemen in Rio de Janeiro are working in similar conditions to slavery.’This sentence was written by a representative of the Public Ministry in Rio de Janeiro.How can we expect respect of human rights from them?” In many ways, this statement highlights part of the problem: the extreme working conditions of soldiers contribute to their general discontent with the human rights discourse. However, it is important to also note the role of politicians, who play up human rights and the victimization of the police against each other; either to relocate blame, or to gain support for their own political agenda.  

Whenever the UPP project is discussed, scholars quickly draw the connection between the pacification, the Olympics, and the neo-liberal model of urban development adopted in Rio. Clearly these are fundamental and defining features of the public security policy of Rio today, as it is in mega-cities in other parts of the world. However, I believe that an ethnographic approach to the inner workings of the military police might contribute to a deeper understanding of how other processes, such as the continuities and ruptures with the military tradition of the dictatorship, also shapes and influences the carioca’s idiosyncratic experience of policing.


RioTomas Photo: Tomas Salem
Rio2Tomas Photo: Tomas Salem