Police 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.
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.
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?
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency
Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy
Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.