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Rio’s iron heel

As host of the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, the Brazilian government is trying to ‘pacify’ the gangs in Rio’s favelas. But, Mike Davis reports, the needs of the favelados have taken a back seat

June 6, 2013
8 min read

rioPolice patrol the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro

With almost a third of metropolitan Rio controlled by drug gangs or vigilantes, the former Brazilian president Lula and his successor Dilma Rouseff proposed not only to send in the police but to transform them into agents of empowering the poor. The Brazilian media brags about Rio’s ‘surge’, and the government claims it is the dawn of hope in the favelas.

Rio has more than 1,000 favelas; the largest, Rocinha, has more than 250,000 residents. Often perched picturesquely (and hazardously) on steep morros above the beaches and condos of the rich, they are highly evolved examples of what some scholars are calling the ‘new urban feudalism’. At least half of them are ruled by a dono do morro (king of the mountain), who in turn is vassal to one of the three prison-based super-gangs in the state of Rio de Janeiro that war for control of drug sales: Comando Vermelho, Terceiro Comando Puro and Amigos dos Amigos.

The image of the comandos in Brazilian popular culture is ambiguous. The kings of the hill are the patrons of local samba schools, impresarios of gaudy funk parties, microbankers to the poor, enforcers of neighbourhood justice, and, most importantly, employers of youth. The few opinion surveys that have been conducted in Rio’s slums indicate that residents generally regard the paramilitary police as more dangerous and corrupt than the public outlaws of the Red Commando or Friends of Friends.

Yet the only real alternative to the rule of the narco-revolutionaries has been for slum residents – especially in the lowland Baixada Fluminense region – to pay protection money to condottieri of moonlighting policemen, prison guards and ex-soldiers. These militias – usually the tentacles of higher-up, corrupt police intelligence officials or even state legislators – represent a blatant morphing of Rio’s 1990s police death squads into a lucrative, fast-growing industry.

‘I think militias are much worse than drug traffickers,’ Gilberto Ribeiro, Rio’s police chief, told a British newspaper a few years ago. Except for the militias and a few godfathers, however, the wages of urban carnage are surprisingly humble. Most Brazilian drug gang members are subsistence criminals with little future beyond prison or an early grave.

To help convince the International Olympic Committee that Rio would be a safe as well as beautiful site for the 2016 games, first the government had to capture and hold the morros. The trial run in 2008 targeted Dona Marta, a famous cliff-dwelling favela in the south zone, which boasts some of the best samba and funk in Rio. A year later the police pacification unit (UPP) entered Cidade de Deus in the west zone. In each case there was less opposition from gangs than expected and the government invoked early ‘successes’.

Then, just two weeks after huge crowds celebrated the award of the games to Rio, gang members firing a 50-caliber machine-gun brought down a police helicopter over the favela of Morro dos Macacos. Amateur video relayed across the world showed the helicopter’s fiery crash into a local soccer field, killing three policemen and badly burning two others.

Full-bore armed conflict

Jose Mariano Beltrame, police chief and secretary of security for the state of Rio, called it ‘our 9/11’, while the US consul, in emails released by Wikileaks, worried that gang violence had escalated into ‘a full-bore internal armed conflict’ and that Washington had underestimated the extent to which the ‘favelas have been outside state authority’. State governor Sergio Cabral again asked Lula for help from the army, and the army, in turn, volunteered to apply the ‘clear and hold’ tactics it had learned in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where it has been leading the UN stabilisation mission since 2004.

After many months of skirmishes and the establishment of more UPP beachheads, the full might of the Brazilian state was again unleashed against the Red Command in Complexo do Alemao. On ‘D Day,’ 25 November 2010, Marines and BOPE stormed the satellite favela of Vila Cruzeiro, killing 31 people, but the narco-revolutionaries simply retreated deeper into their labyrinth. Army paratroopers were brought in and the authorities broadcast a ‘surrender or die’ ultimatum. The Red Command defiantly replied with bus burnings and assaults across the city. Two days later, 3,000 troops with tanks and helicopter gunships overwhelmed the district. They seized truckloads of drugs and guns, but most gang members slipped away again.

Lula, in his last month in office, tried to put a brave face on military frustration: ‘The important thing is we have taken the first step. We went in, we are inside Complexo do Alemao.’ He described the assault as just the beginning of the campaign to take back the favelas (in fact it was already four years old) and promised ‘we will win this war’.

Four months later the Obamas arrived in Cidade de Deus. The US president had originally wanted to plunge into the exuberant crowds, shaking hands and kissing a few babies. It would have been a memorable image. But a huge security cordon of nervous cops and army sharpshooters – more befitting a visit to Baghdad than to a showpiece of Brazilian civic unity – precluded any spontaneous contact and most favelados never got a glimpse of him. Some began to chant ‘Obama, where are you?’

The president and family were inside a community hall, watching a capoeira exhibition, kicking a soccer ball with some local ten-year-olds, and chatting with UPP officials, NGO leaders, and some selected residents. Later, in his formal speech, he praised the ‘new security efforts and social programmes’ and was warmly applauded when he asserted that ‘for the first time, hope is returning to places where fear had long prevailed. I saw this today when I visited Cidade de Deus.’

Is ‘hope’ a synonym for measurable progress? The UPP website features photos of burly cops holding babies while nurses smile. Supporters of Cabral and Rouseff talk about ‘restoring the huge social debt’ owed to the favelas after generations of neglect, and they praise pacification as the dawn of true social inclusion and shared citizenship.

Military project

Other Brazilians, including the breakaway left wing of Lula’s Workers Party, the PSOL, consider such utopian claims hogwash. Marcelo Freixo, a human rights lawyer famed for exposing the mafia-like crimes of the militias, is now a PSOL deputy in the Rio state legislature. He has publically dismissed the official pacification strategy as little more than the iron heel of gentrification. ‘The UPPs are a project to militarily retake certain areas of interest to the city. This is not done to eradicate the drug trafficking, it is to have military control of some strategic areas for the envisioned Olympic City.’

Indeed, almost all of the 17 slums pacified so far (with the exception of Ciudad de Deus, which was chosen because of its international notoriety) are adjacent to wealthy neighbourhoods, usually with spectacular locations. Their pacification not only creates a cordon sanitaire for World Cup and Olympic visitors, but also opens up the favelas to intense speculation. Three years after the pacification police occupied Don Marta, real estate values had doubled and poor renters were being forced to move to more affordable slums. Their fate is somewhat similar to the traficantes, who have not been defeated, just displaced into other favelas.

Freixo’s critique has found a surprising echo in the recent complaints of Jose Mariano Beltrame. In June 2011 he told Brazilian journalists that Lula’s promised follow-up social investment had failed to arrive in most of the occupied favelas. ‘Nothing survives with security alone. It’s time for social investments. Only then will the end of the divided city become a reality.’

More specifically he charged that the only serious attempt to repair the service deficit was occurring in Complexo do Alemao. Elsewhere the UPPs were deluged by favelados demanding to know when they would receive promised garbage collection, street lighting, social workers, sewers, public transport and so on.

‘The people, with the arrival of the police, can now begin to think that the state is present there,’ says Beltrame. ‘But this state has to present a more tangible, stronger way of serving the communities. It’s something that worries me because we’re messing with people’s imagination. This is no joke.’

Of course it’s no joke. If mighty Brazil, ruled by a broad progressive coalition, cannot ensure that the garbage is picked up and buses run on schedule in a handful of slums, then who can?

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