Six Months of Rio de Janeiro Governor Witzel in the Favelas, Part 1: Public Security and Governance
Updated: Apr 10
This is the first installment in a two-part article monitoring the actions of Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel since taking office, focusing on public security, governance, and social and economic development. Witzel was elected last October on a public security-driven campaign, promising to “protect police from potential conviction,” raising the question of who would benefit from said security. In this article, we analyze his achievements from inauguration to present day, as well as discrepancies between his rhetoric and practice.
After taking office in January, Wilson Witzel provided his aides with a Plan of Directives and Priority Initiatives of the Rio State Government, outlining 104 goals to be reached within the first 100 days of government, and another 99 goals for the first six months. The plan was made available on the State Government’s website, but later removed. In April, at his administration’s 100-day mark, the governor then released a separate document titled “The Beginning of a New Future: 100 Days, Results from the Government,” in which the State claims that “Of a total 121 initiatives, we accomplished 95 on schedule.” This declaration begs the question, what 121 goals? The Directives Plan had presented 104. Within the 100-day period, Witzel made changes, redacting and dividing, creating new goals and removing others, creating uncertainty and making evaluation much more difficult.
Of the 104 original goals, several do not appear in the “The Beginning of a New Future” document, and many others appear with different wording. These changes complicate efforts to hold the government accountable, especially now that the Directives Plan has been removed from the website. Furthermore, the government does not provide background sources or explain the methods used to calculate accomplishment. The document also presents a “results” section that does not necessarily correlate to the established goals. In this section, the highlighted results, most of them percentages, are considered favorable to the government—for example, the document shows three different statistics for the total number of arrests, two of them showing that there was a 5% increase in pre-trial detentions and a 63% increase in temporary arrests (wherein a suspect is detained while police continue investigations), statistics that many specialists would not call positive. The 100-day New Future document also does not mention the goals set for 180 days (six months), nor has any new document assessing this period’s goals been published, making it impossible to track their progress.
Despite listing transparency as a government priority, the creation of the Rio de Janeiro Transparente program, which aims to provide access to public expense data, is one of those 180-day goals with no progress updates. In another case, the government celebrated its response to 17 requests prompted via the Access to Information Law within the stipulated timeframe, but did not provide the total number of requests or explain whether or not this represents an improvement in comparison to the previous administration.
All of this indicates a long way to go for the transparency of both the government’s actions and society’s participation. The latter was neither consulted in setting the government’s goals nor invited to debate the results.
Below is an analysis of the government’s main goals and actions in its first six months, focused on the “Citizen and Legal Security” and “Governance Management Modernization” pillars as proposed by the governor in the 100-day “Beginning of a New Future” document, with specific attention given to goals and actions that most directly affect the residents of favelas and peripheries.
1. Citizen and Legal Security
In contrast to the government plan laid out during the campaign, the goals in this section refer to “Citizen and Legal Security” instead of “public security.” What could be a positive turn toward protecting people’s rights under a more humane perspective—away from the authorization of police killings—turned out to be a focus on objectives related to safety from natural disasters, a reduction in cargo theft, an increase in elucidation of crimes, and combating corruption.
The first few goals include the training of agents to reduce disaster risks and improve the Civil Defense and Firefighter Corps’ capabilities, maintenance of sirens in risk areas, an assessment of municipal vulnerabilities, and an increase in the number of phones registered to receive text message alerts for risk mitigation. In this respect, the government claims to have trained 125 Civil Defense agents in risk reduction and disaster response and to have conducted siren maintenance, besides having developed a State Calamity Response Plan. The document does not specify if the indicated vulnerability assessment was conducted, but does state that today one million people are currently registered to receive text message alerts (again, no explanation is offered as to whether or not this number represents an increase since the previous government).
Despite their importance, these goals do not cover prevention initiatives, such as hillside containment reinforcements, and are instead limited to post-disaster damage reduction. In practice, we know that during the heavy rains that punished Rio de Janeiro in February (summer rains are typical but have been getting increasingly damaging in recent years) post-disaster actions could not prevent the deaths of at least six people or keep hundreds of others from losing their homes. The governor opted to blame the City government and irregular hillside occupations, insisting on the need to “remove people from high-risk areas“—a misplaced, albeit recurrent, government priority. It is necessary to remove the risk itself from the area, rather than removing the people themselves. April rains claimed another ten victims.
As a campaign promise, Witzel said that he would create the Comunidade Cidade (Community City) program to attend to the favelas most impacted by the rainfall, but the program has yet to launch. In the Rocinha favela, the governor stated the program would be associated with the local Pacifying Police Unit (UPP)—though he had called the UPPs a failure during his campaign, and there is currently a bill in the Rio State Assembly (Alerj) that aims to put an end to the UPPs.
Among his goals for the Military and Civil Police forces, Governor Witzel included and declared that his government had achieved the goals of relocating 400 agents to patrolling, policing cargo theft, and policing corruption. He also set goals for the implementation of a “Program to Reduce Police Victimization” and the establishment of activities for a “Deliberative Security Council,” though neither appear in the accomplishment assessment document. On the issue of prison administration, the governor claims to have achieved the goal of establishing a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) to build a vertical prison as well as initiating the use of drones to capture images for Civil Police intelligence.
What has in fact been realized in terms of security policy can be seen through the lens of necropolitics, which refers to policies of exerting control over who lives and who dies—a policy of killing and leaving to die. In line with his campaign rhetoric, such as when the governor declared that Military Police should aim for the heads of drug dealers and have a legal safety net to keep officers from being prosecuted for those murders, Witzel has since also defended the use of snipers, helicopter fire, and the use of armed drones against favelas. He has even appeared in a photo wearing a BOPE (Brazilian SWAT) uniform firing a sniper rifle, and in a video inside a police helicopter alongside a security agent firing down—a new type of State violence inflicted on favela residents. Witzel has also suggested firing a missile at the favela of City of God to fight drug cartels, defended that police should enter favela homes without warrants, and promised to expand the prison system with ten new facilities. He has also promised to fight against human rights defenders and take on the “pseudo-culture” of human rights, claiming that the only right an outlaw has is to a funeral.
The results of this policy were 881 murders committed by Rio police in the first six months of his government, the highest number on record since tracking began in 1998—a statistic that Witzel incorrectly claimed was not his responsibility to monitor and one that does not appear in the report. “[Our] Security today has been showing the best results in the country,” he declared at an event that marked 180 days in office.
One of Witzel’s first measures in office was to extinguish the State Security Secretariat (Seseg), for creating what he saw as unnecessary bureaucracy. He redistributed its tasks into two secretariats, that of the Civil Police and the Military Police, undoing the integration between different sectors in the field of security, and placing decisions formerly made by civilian authorities in (and under the logic of) military hands. He also restructured the State Public Security Council (CONSPERJ), eliminating civil society voting power and restricting its participation, along with that of the community safety councils, in its meetings. Witzel also proposed the employment of retired police officers in public schools and approved a law that requires students to attend “drug resistance” classes, taught by Military Police, besides promising to train 15,000 new Civil and Military Police officers during his time in office.
2. Governance Management Modernization
Referred to in the Directives Plan as “Public Management Modernization and Efficiency,” this section focuses on actions of organizational restructuring aiming to cut expenses and improve efficiency. The extinction of Seseg, mentioned above, was one example of this.
It also contains goals related to the expansion of the Segurança Presente (Security Present) operation for the neighborhood of Tijuca, which the governor claims to have met, along with similar programs for Leblon and Ipanema (high-income districts), and also announced a future expansion for the neighborhoods of Laranjeiras, Botafogo, Barra da Tijuca, Vila Isabel and Bangu, as well as Duque de Caxias and Nova Iguaçu, in Rio’s Baixada Fluminense region. The Presente program is criticized for overlapping with tasks under the responsibility of established security forces, for including the participation of the private sector in a function of public interest (the program was initially paid for by the Fecomércio trade federation, in a contract signed by the City along with Sesc, a privately run commerce social service, and managed by the state government), and due to the fact that the chosen areas do not necessarily correspond to the areas of greatest criminal activity and security need.
This section also reports the creation of working groups, among them the “Citizenship Rescue” group, to “remove young people from the drug trade”; and the “Temporary Housing” group, which aims to “re-enroll beneficiaries that need to be removed from hazardous areas,” which may corroborate future evictions.
This article first appeared on the RioOnWatch Website. Reproduced with permission from the author.