On July 14, community police in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Rocinha took construction worker Amarildo de Souza in for questioning. He has not been seen since. The police insist they released him but there is no evidence they did so. Amarildo’s family—and now much of Brazil—suspects he died at the hands of the police, who then disposed of the body.
Police violence is nothing new in Brazil, and the police in Rio have been particularly notorious for decades. But Amarildo’s disappearance has set off a national wave of outrage and demands for investigation of an intensity not seen in Rio in twenty years. The focus on Amarildo comes in part because of the victim himself, a widely respected, hardworking family man with no known criminal connections (community members suspect that police confused him with someone else, and the police are remaining quiet).
It comes mostly because it catches Rio at a particularly delicate moment, when the future of the city seems up for grabs in a way it has not in many years. The outcome of the investigation into Amarildo’s disappearance may play a key part in determining that future.
Amarildo was detained by officers from Rocinha’s UPP, the Unidade de Policiamento Pacificador, or Pacifying Police Unit. The UPPs are favela-based security operations that begin with military occupation, supplanted by community policing once the favela in question has been deemed “pacified”—meaning, in practice, once drug traffickers or militias are driven out, or driven into hiding. The UPPs are the linchpin of the urban security strategy for the state of Rio. They are also a key part of the branding of the new Rio as a safe destination, and were crucial in securing the right to host the 2014 World Cup final and the 2016 Olympics. To a significant degree, the city of Rio has bet its future on the success of the UPPs. If the program falls apart, or slides backward into the kind of violent, corrupt policing that characterized the city in previous decades, many of the gains of recent years will be lost.
Amarildo’s disappearance also comes in the midst of a wave of popular protests that has swept Brazil since mid-June. These protests started with objections to rising public transportation costs, then accelerated in response to inept police crackdowns. The protests have engaged different issues in each of Brazil’s major cities, but in Rio they have always returned to the divisive issue of the colossal spending on World Cup and Olympic preparation and the opportunity costs that spending represents for the city’s humbler inhabitants.
In recent weeks, undercover police have infiltrated the protests and are widely suspected of inciting violence in order to make protesters look bad. Even more opaquely, undercover officers from the Civil Police may be pursuing machiavellian strategies to make their colleagues from the Military Police look bad, a suspicion lent credibility by the rivalry for resources and political leverage that plagues Rio’s divided security corps.
Outraged by police tactics, protesters in the streets of Rio have embraced the cause of Amarildo’s family, pointedly asking state governor Sérgio Cabral to explain his disappearance. Carried instantly through the social media that have animated the Brazilian protests, the question “Where is Amarildo?” now echoes throughout the nation. All of this makes resolving the disappearance, and if necessary prosecuting any related crime, swiftly and transparently of the utmost importance not only for Amarildo’s family and for Rio’s troubled governor, but for all of the city’s residents.
Transparent investigation will be particularly crucial for saving the UPPs. The pilot UPP launched late in 2008, and the program has gradually expanded to include over thirty key favelas. It has been hugely successful in reducing violence and criminal turf control in those favelas and their immediate environs, and until recently the UPPs enjoyed widespread support both within and outside of the city’s favelas. But as the UPP program has expanded it has run into expected problems. Overcoming decades of entrenched patterns of police violence and corruption is easier to plan than to enact, and previous community policing ventures have foundered. The UPP was supposed to be different, because of the massive federal support pledged to train officers and facilitate administration. But as the number of UPP officers rises, the prospect that some will revert to longstanding practices of abuse rises also.
Rocinha was always seen as one of the key test cases for the UPP, and the program’s chief strategist, José Mariano Beltrame, deliberately waited until the strategy was consolidated elsewhere to take on Rocinha, occupying the favela late in 2011. Rocinha’s residents had endured decades of criminal turf monopolization facilitated by brazen payoffs of the police, a system that had not precluded occasional violent police incursions. They have been understandably cautious about the UPP. Like most favela residents, Rocinha’s inhabitants understand that the UPPs must first pacify the police themselves if they are to have any hope of long-term success. Amarildo’s disappearance seems to confirm their worst suspicions.
There are other possible explanations, beyond extrajudicial assassination at the hands of the police, for his disappearance. The drug traffickers that exercised open dominance on the hill before the arrival of the UPP continue to lurk in the shadows. They have never hesitated to inflict casualties among the innocent in order to intimidate residents into remaining silent. The operation that brought Amarildo in for questioning was designed to root out remaining traffickers and may have fatally backfired. But the police have not helped their own cause: the video cameras at the door of Rocinha’s UPP headquarters–a small cluster of containers–were turned off on the day of his questioning, leaving no possibility of a visual record of his alleged departure. The GPS units in the UPP’s squad cars were also not functioning, raising suspicions that they were deliberately disabled. In one of world’s most densely populated neighborhoods, no one reports seeing Amarildo after he went into the UPP.
The widespread demand to know what happened to Amarildo, contrasting sharply to isolated responses to other disappearances, is potentially one of the most positive things to happen in Rio de Janeiro’s security situation in decades, shining a bright light on practices that police would like to keep obscure. But if Amarildo’s disappearance leads to an abandonment of the UPP, it would be disastrous—the UPP has both flaws and risks, but is better than any security strategy employed in Rio in decades. If the investigation into Amarildo’s disappearance leads to greater transparency and accountability in that strategy, the new Rio may live up to some of its Olympian aspirations. If that disappearance remains unresolved and leads to a reversion to past practices, Rio is in deep trouble.
Bryan McCann is the author of Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, forthcoming from Duke University Press.