“Nobody liked to go out to work in the morning and cross paths with gang members carrying rifles…But the gangs were replaced by policemen who don’t respect residents or treat them with dignity.”
JosČ Martins de Oliveira has seen the houses of Rocinha progressively eat away the hill during the 45 years he’s spent living in the famous Rio de Janeiro favela. The temporary shacks have turned into cement houses as thousands of lower-class families joined this illegal settlement. Today, it is said that up to 300,000 people call Rocinha home, although the exact figure is not known.
Martins has also witnessed the rise of problems common to many Rio favelas-poverty, unsanitary conditions, and the rise of drug gangs. Now, the situation is about to change-at least according to the government’s plan.
“This street used to be lined with drug dealers. It was one of the biggest drug markets in South America,” Martins says while pointing at a busy artery starting off at the bottom of the hill. Now the drug traffic is gone-at least officially-and residents come and go as they please.
Rocinha is part of an ambitious plan led by the state of Rio de Janeiro to reclaim its favelas, free them from the control of drug lords, and formally urbanize them. The program, called “pacification,” contains several phases: military invasion, stabilization, and establishment of a permanent police force, coupled with an “invasion of services,” as promised by the government. About 20 favelas have already been targeted, with many more to come.
The timing couldn’t be more right. With a slew of mega-events in sight (Confederations Cup, World Youth Day, FIFA World Cup, and Olympic Games) Rio has to send a clear signal that it can ensure the security of its tourists in spite of a sky-high criminality rate. Officially, the pacification has nothing to do with mega-events, but most of the favelas that have already been pacified are located in central areas, which suggests otherwise.
The logistics of the program vary as each community has its own geographical, social, and cultural particularities. And the range of responses from the population seems to be just as diverse. In the case of Rocinha, the invasion itself was peaceful, but anger started growing over the past few months as the military handed control of the area to the military police, renowned for being plagued with corruption. Since then, the police have been accused of committing abuses and taking bribes from drug dealers. Last May, three officers were charged with raping a woman who had been arrested for a robbery.
In Cantagalo, a smaller neighborhood located right behind the famous beach of Ipanema, residents have benefited over the years from the arrival of many social and cultural programs, and the new police station has become well integrated in the community-even if clashes with officers still happen occasionally. Alternatively, the Complexo do Alemo, a gigantic and maze-like ensemble of a dozen favelas in North Rio, was the site of a brutal invasion in 2010 after violent clashes between the military police and drug factions ended with a police helicopter being shot down near the legendary Maracana stadium. The army then remained in charge of day-to-day policing until the military police started taking over in the spring of 2012. Residents have been complaining regularly of abuses since the beginning of the process.
“Nobody liked to go out to work in the morning and cross paths with gang members carrying rifles,” says Erika Gloria, a social worker in the favelas. “But the gangs were replaced by policemen who don’t respect residents or treat them with dignity.”
To be fair, the police force is navigating difficult terrain; to enforce the law means they must begin by building a trust that has long been gone. Residents who lived under the law of the gangs for decades now have to suddenly respect the rules of a state that never showed much interest in them in the past-public services such as garbage collection, health, and education are scarce in the informal settlements. Noise restrictions applied to the baile funk parties are seen as an affront to local culture, and newly-applied local taxes have caused a steep increase in rents, causing some families to move out to cheaper and more distant neighborhoods. This gentrification process, seen by some as a more or less deliberate tactic to push the poorest out of the centre, has been dubbed “white removal” by activists and social workers, in opposition to formal evictions regularly conducted by the city ever since favelas appeared in Rio.
Mostly, the frustration comes from the fact that residents don’t feel heard, or that their priorities for their neighborhoods are not being addressed. Indeed, community leaders complain they haven’t been consulted by those in charge of drafting the program and feel left out.
“For me, the pacification should mean to deal with garbage collection, sewers, or health,” says Martins, whose neighborhood has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the country. These basic services, however, aren’t coming fast enough.
Many cariocas, as Rio residents are known, see the pacification program as a much-awaited response to a local issue, and justify the use of such drastic measures by the need to solve a situation that has gotten out of hand. But the reasons why such discrepancies exist between public policy and on-the-ground realities may actually lie elsewhere, such as the changing dynamics of foreign policy as Brazil becomes a big player on the international scene.
“People underestimate the extent to which policing is bound-up with economic policy, foreign policy, and basically global economy,” says Michael Kempa, a professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa and an international policing expert.
Countries like Brazil, which face serious national security issues, need to reassure international trade partners and private investors to prove the state hasn’t lost control. Sometimes, such security reforms are even required as part of trade agreements. With a booming real estate market and oil industry, plus a series of international events coming to town since the 2007 Pan American games, Rio de Janeiro has been reversing a decades-old trend of neglect and decadence, and attracting foreign capitals like it never has before. The gang-controlled favelas might be the last big obstacle to winning the complete trust of their foreign partners.
Kempa says this kind of dynamic pushes countries to look for “best practices,” or examples of programs that have been successful elsewhere and could be applied domestically. Indeed, the pacification program of Rio was directly influenced by a similar one in MedellĖn, Colombia, a city also plagued by gang problems. A more or less direct connection can also be established with Brazil’s role as leader of the military wing of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, where some of the pacification officers cut their teeth. More surprisingly, a 2009 diplomatic cable from the American consulate in Rio de Janeiro and released by WikiLeaks reveals American diplomats have noted similarities with counter-insurgency tactics developed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“That goes to show you how absurd it is for people to think of the security problem in exclusively technical terms,” says Kempa, “but this is what the business of security promotes in people’s minds.”
The cable also notes the economic benefits of the pacification, citing estimates showing Rio’s economy will grow by 38 billion Brazilian reals ($20 billion CAD) if favelas are incorporated into the formal city, by providing them with private services and collecting taxes. Favela dwellers used to be seen as cheap labor for the upper class. They’re now potential taxpayers and consumers, according to the neo-liberal logic.
While the pacification program unfolds in Rio, other Brazilian cities have adopted their own version of the plan, such as Curitiba and Salvador. The city’s influence might soon extend to other countries, as Brazil’s role as a supporter of democratic reform is growing in Latin America. The generalization of militarized interventions in urban settings around the world is raising certain fundamental questions: What justifies using the army for matters of national policing? And what laws and regulations should be applied when these interventions are not conducted in the context of war, at a time when international legal frameworks are already being challenged by the growth of the private security industry?
The stakes for Rio are high. For the rest of the world, they’re even higher.
Flavie Halais is a French freelance journalist, blogger and filmmaker living in MontrČal.