Soothing Rio’s Slums
By Nick OlleFebruary 8, 2012
Millions of law-abiding Brazilians live amid criminality in shantytowns. Now, 20 of Rio de Janeiro’s 1,000 favelas have been “pacified”.
Nestled in the hills above Rio de Janeiro's affluent Zona Sul (South Zone), the 30,000-strong community of Vidigal has one of the city's most spectacular views, trumping even the Sheraton that lies below it.
What might seem odd is that lately a permanent, 246-member police force has taken up this beat, patrolling the inhabitants of this prime real estate.
Why? Because Vidigal is in fact one of more than 1,000 of Rio's favelas — Brazil's slum settlements — and one of just 20 where a new policing policy is in action.
At Home in Rocinha, Rio De Janiero
But the new recruits are welcomed, at least by Vidigal's community leader and president of its Residents' Association, Wanderley Ferreira. At a favela meeting recently, Ferreira spoke enthusiastically of the newly arrived muscle.
On this same ground, he said, drug dealers committed cold-blooded executions of rivals as recently as a year ago.
Ferreira's response to the overwhelming police presence in his community receives unanimous approval from the gathering; likewise they seem to approve of the explanation of the move from Rio's state governor, Sérgio Cabral, and security secretary, José Mariano Beltrame.
The 246 officers, sent in by the State of Rio de Janeiro are members of a Pacifying Police Unit, known by its Portuguese acronym, UPP.
The brainchild of the security secretary, the UPP is made up of officers trained in community relations. The idea is that they create a "state" presence in selected favela communities such as Vidigal. Once the favelas have been rid of their less benign elements, such as drug lords — and soon we will get how this is done — the UPP officers can oversee the provision of infrastructure, health and social projects.
Rio's favelas have traditionally been defined as urban squatter settlements in the "informal" city. They are generally considered to be illegal, lacking in basic services and rife with criminal activity and poverty.
But Janice Perlman, an academic who also serves as a senior advisor to the World Bank's Urban Projects Department, says these characterisations are misleading.
In her book Favela — a four-decade study of Rio's shantytowns and her second book on the subject — she notes that the legal status of favelas is in limbo. Land ownership in some has been regularised and most, she writes, now have access to water, electricity and sewerage. Even the politicians responsible for pacification say the criminal element is small in favelas. Nor are they the exclusive domain of the poor.
"Not all of the people living in favelas are poor, and not all of the urban poor live in favelas," Perlman says.
The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) lumps favelas into a catch-all category called "subnormal agglomerations," which also include a variety of other "slums" and "poor communities."
But despite the discussion — largely academic — of what they are, favelas are easiest to mark visually. Most rise up from the formal city in a grid-like pattern, hugging the curved contours of the Rio hillsides.
What they all have in common is a social stigma. "Perhaps the single, persistent distinction between favelas and the rest of the city is the deeply rooted stigma that adheres to them and to those who reside in them," Perlman says.
Also, perhaps because of the stigma, they tend to be strong communities. They are notably resilient; they've had to be, to deal with government favela policies that have run the gamut from eradication to integration -from "razing to raising," as Perlman puts it.
ENTER THE UPP, the Pacifying Police Unit.
Pacification is a Rio phenomenon. And Under-Secretary of State Security Edval Novaes justifies the concept by asserting the government is merely "occupying communities that had been taken over and controlled by criminal elements using weapons of war.
"The aim is to rid these areas of criminals and to re-take the land for the state so we can provide services," he says.
A noble aim, supported by many a favela community. "Community policing" and "service providing" sound innocuous.
The first phase of favela pacification, however, is carried out by an altogether scarier police unit.
Phase one is a forewarned raid to wrest control from the drug dealers and, more importantly, to take their weapons.
These raids are usually carried out by Brazil's controversial urban warfare and counter-terrorism unit, the Special Police Operations Battalion, better known in Brazil as BOPE.
What they do isn't exactly family-friendly. The unit has a fleet of armoured fighting vehicles and, as security under-secretary Novaes proudly relates, its officers have trained even the Israeli police.
Recognisable by its black combat uniforms and knife-in-the-skull logo, the battalion has been accused by Amnesty International of repeated human rights violations, notably unlawful killing. According to Amnesty, on April 24, 2008, BOPE officers killed 11 people, including a 70-year-old woman, in an operation in the City of God community (which, contrary to common perception, is not a favela but rather a conjunto, built by the government on government land for refugees of demolished favelas).
In a 2005 report on extra-judicial executions, the New York University School of Law indicated that BOPE was involved in the assassination of four teenagers on the pretext that they were peddling drugs.
The unit's notoriety is immortalised in Brazil's hugely popular Elite Squad films which depict the unit as violent and corrupt.
Yet BOPE's pacification raids have been casualty free, and the general process has serious support, at least for its second phase.
Though she concedes there is a lot to improve in how pacification is carried out, Professor Alba Zaluar, an anthropologist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, says it's about "modifying" the relationship between policemen and favela dwellers to one of "real policing instead of hasty and violent incursions.
"There is a false understanding that proximity with dwellers will be gained by policemen teaching sports, guitar music, percussion, et cetera, all of them already being taught by local teachers, who do not employ the same military disciplinary methods that policemen tend to use.
"UPP officers are trained in community policing, but there is a cultural legacy remaining inside the Brazilian military police that is difficult to dismiss completely."
Zaluar is referring to a well-documented history of corruption, excessive force and coercion in Brazil's military police, including BOPE.
Militias formed by active and former police officers and other security forces personnel add to the distrust of police in favelas.
Professor Zaluar says the militias grew from 2002 onwards, frequently extorting money from communities through intimidation and informal businesses including illegal gas and cable television connections and real estate deals.
According to Human Rights Watch, the militias also carry out extra-judicial killings.
VIDIGAL AND its bigger, better-known neighbour, Rocinha — Brazil's largest favela — are the most recent of the 20 favelas to have been pacified.
Security under-secretary Novaes says 40 UPPs will be in Rio by the end of 2014.
But Rio's 19 functional UPPs already employ some 3,790 officers. And more are needed, according to the government, which says 1.3 million people already benefit, directly or indirectly, from the pacification program. In fact, more than 300 new police graduates are being specially trained each month to meet future demand.
As one would expect, much has been made of the fact that pacification is supported by all three levels of government in Brazil. The Municipality of Rio de Janeiro is contributing 500 reais (AUD270) for every UPP officer. Brazil's President, Dilma Rousseff, suggests expanding the program to other cities — and already the state of Bahia has implemented three Community Security Bases (BCS), its take on UPPs.
But it seems there are gaps in the lines of communication between the state and municipal governments, as Bernadete Soares Pereira can testify.
Since 2007, Pereira's nongovernmental organisation, Community Social Action Group (GASCO), has been running education and sports programs for about 200 students a day out of a hitherto unused Vidigal building.
She was looking forward to working with the UPP, and the feeling seemed to be mutual — until she received an eviction notice from the municipality.
"There is obviously a lack of dialogue," she says. "One minute we're talking about working with the UPP, and the next we get a letter saying we have to vacate because the building belongs to the municipality."
The letter says the building is to be renovated and used for public projects.
Is bureaucratic bungling, along with police and militia excesses, a reasonable price to pay for new infrastructure? For ridding the streets of drug guns, if not the drugs themselves?
Several ongoing public policy initiatives have brought benefits to recipient favela communities. The Favela-Bairro (Favela-Neighbourhood) program, which began in 1994, has provided basic infrastructure, social services and land titles.
Then there's the national Family Allowance (Bolsa Familia) social welfare program, pioneered by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, formalised in 2003 by then-President Luis Ignácio Lula da Silva and continued by President Dilma Rousseff. It provides low-income families with cash provided the children attend schools and mothers, prenatal care. More than 50 million people — more than a quarter of Brazil's population — benefit from these conditional cash transfers, or CCTs as they are known.
In 2007 the federal government launched the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), which pumped more than 700 million reais (nearly AUD400 million) into infrastructure, healthcare, education, public housing, transportation and social services projects.
The positive impact of these programs for favelados, however, has been offset by the influence of drug gangs in their communities.
Drug traffic came to Rio's favelas in the 1980s. The existing marijuana trade, as well as the favelas' geography, density and lack of policing, made them an appealing location for pedalling cocaine.
The first powerful drug gang to emerge was Comando Vermelho (CV, or Red Command). The CV's main rivals are Terceiro Comando Puro (TCP, or Pure Third Command) and Amigos dos Amigos (ADA, or Friends of Friends). The latter were born of power struggles within the CV.
In fact, the first pacification was an operation in the southern Dona Marta favela, a direct response to the deadly violence that resulted from clashes between these groups.
Alba Alves, 34, has lived with her husband, Marcio, and their son in the Complexo do Alemão, a cluster of 13 favelas in Rio's north, for 10 years. She recalls frequent turf wars between rival drug gangs and says the state government was right to intervene.
After years of sporadic police raids, on November 25, 2010 military police, marines and army units began an operation to occupy the Complexo do Alemão. It would take three days and cost 37 lives, some of them civilian. The army still occupies the complex; the inauguration of a UPP is slated for June 2012.
"It was the right thing to do," Alba says. "Rio needed something like this.
"You'd see hands and body parts all over the place — and the police were right there. They were parked in the next block and when a van would come and dump a body, they acted as though nothing was happening," Marcio adds.
"I remember when I was three months pregnant," Alba says, "I came home from work one day and a gunfight began on the avenue. It was terribly frightening but now, thankfully, these things don't happen. I don't know if it will last, but for the moment we are much better off."
High above the Complexo do Alemão, is a 3.5-kilometre cable car system connecting six of the favelas with the city's rail network. For Alba and Marcio, this and other post-occupation infrastructure projects, such as new roads, are welcome improvements that have added value to their home.
But are these a temporary measure to "beautify" Rio for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games?
This is certainly a fear. Julia Fisher of the nongovernmental organisation Community in Action, at the Complexo do Alemão, says while most are grateful to see fewer guns, many still prefer the former 'regime.' Or at least they say they do for fear that pacification is merely a temporary pre-Olympic Games measure.
"I hear people complain daily about the lack of rule of law and that money would be better invested in improving health care and education than on flashy infrastructure," Fisher says, adding:
"Making space for new infrastructure like shopping centres and cable car base stations has resulted in forced evictions. Some evictees are provided alternative housing options and others are simply forced out of their homes and social networks and left to fend for themselves."
This, it seems, is the realisation of a fear expressed by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso who wrote, in his foreword to Janice Perlman's Favela, that the greatest fear of favelados 30 years ago was displacement, "to be uprooted and carted off from their homes to a distant, unwelcoming government housing project far from work and community.
"Today they fear for their lives - never knowing when they may be caught in the crossfire of drug gang violence or shot indiscriminately during a police raid."
Indeed, among the low points of the governments pacification program was the forced, wholesale removals by the military government of the southern Praia do Pinto and Catacumba favelas in 1969 and 1970.
Under-secretary of state security Edval Novaes says the pacification process has been a learning experience for both favela communities and the state but insists it is "forever."
"In truth we've been learning every step of the way, and we are getting these jobs done more peacefully now, without firing a shot," he says.
"Now the reaction is that it is pointless to confront the state because the police are here to stay."
One of the great challenges for pacification — and for favela policy in general — is that each community is different and faces distinct sets of problems. And for one at least, drug peddling has been a part of the solution.
Rocinha is situated on prime land and has been relatively unscathed by deadly violence for years because it's been under the control of a single drug gang, the ADA. The heavily armed ADA has run a highly lucrative drug trade there since 2006; but with no turf wars, their arsenal has represented potential rather than actual violence.
And the residents don't seem to mind the ADA. Eliana is 36 and has lived in Rocinha all her life; she did not want her surname published. She says the ADA maintained a system of order that was well understood in the community. Overseeing it all was ADA boss Nem (whose real name is Antônio Francisco Bonfim Lopes), who ran the operation from his three-storey mansion atop the favela.
On November 10, 2011, Nem was caught escaping from the favela in the boot of a Toyota Corolla. His entourage reportedly posed as diplomats from the Democratic Republic of Congo and tried to invoke diplomatic immunity. They also offered a bribe, reportedly of 1 million Brazilian reais (AUD540,000), which was refused. He was arrested and charged.
Three days later, on November 13, the BOPE took control of Rocinha in an incident-free, 90-minute operation labelled "Peace Shock."
Rocinha is still waiting for its UPP, but Eliana says the first few months of police occupation haven't impressed. While UPP officers are trained in community relations, the military police occupying the favela now are not, and
Eliana says they've been heavy-handed and disrespectful.
"On Thursday night they were playing music at the Borboleta Bar at 11pm — after the 10pm curfew — and the police came in and let off pepper-spray bombs," she says.
"Recently there was a small family party in another part of the favela and the police came in and broke the sound system. If they'd just asked them to turn the music down, they would have."
Pointing from her concrete terrace to some abandoned construction work on her property below, Eliana says a police ban on construction means she can't finish her new kitchen and bathroom.
"They should be more concerned about health infrastructure and housing for people who have lost their homes in landslides," she says; the poorer parts of the hillside community are still susceptible to landslides in heavy rain.
Eliana says the police regime compares unfavourably to Nem's in terms of security. There are still guns in the street but now they are in the hands of the police. While she is glad that since police occupation, armed traffickers are no longer seen in the community, she says there has been a steep rise in petty crime.
"I don't support the drug traffickers but things were safer before, there was more security," she says.
"Everything gets stolen now, from clothes off the clothesline to TVs from inside people's houses."
None of this was tolerated by the ADA, which maintained and enforced — sometimes brutally — its brand of extra-judicial community justice. Eliana says that under Nem's regime, certain types of criminals, most notably rapists, were killed.
And Eliana says a plan to convert a community area known as the "quadra" into a UPP base has done little to endear the police to residents. A run-down space high above Rocinha with a small bar and a concrete five-a-side football field, the quadra would offer obvious surveillance advantages to police. The residents see it as appropriation, to snatch back drug-related property
It is going to take time for the UPP to win the community over, Eliana says. And her judgment may be a while coming, as she adds: "Let's hope they really are staying after the Olympics."