Fair cops in the favelas
On a hilltop high above downtown Rio, an ageing white sign clings to a bullet-pocked water-tank sprouting from the city’s oldest shantytown. “Rio’s state government,” it reads. “Making our people happier.”
For years residents of the Morro da Providência have stared up at the sign and the bullet holes—the result of shoot-outs between police and drug traffickers—with cynical amusement.
Accustomed to the iron fist of the drug faction and sporadic and deadly police raids, the area’s impoverished residents had little to thank Rio’s governors for.
But things may be changing. On a recent morning nearly 100 black-clad special forces operatives swept into the slum, occupying alleyways and sending drug traffickers scattering.
In the past the police would arrest or eliminate gangsters in a hail of bullets before returning to base. This time they stayed. “The police have arrived and will remain,” José Mariano Beltrame, Rio’s state security secretary, vowed.
The occupation of the Morro da Providência is the latest phase of a pioneering government “pacification” project that aims to liberate hundreds of thousands of Rio slum-dwellers, replacing violent drug gangs with a permanent hearts-and-minds-style police presence.
Seven of Rio’s 1 000-odd favelas have been occupied in the past 18 months as part of the pacification scheme, among them Cidade de Deus, the favela that gained international notoriety in Fernando Meirelles’s hit film, City of God.
By the end of the year authorities say 59 favelas will have benefited from the fledgling pacification units, freeing an estimated 210 000 people from the rule of gangs. Between now and 2016, when Rio hosts the Olympics, dozens more occupations are planned.
Said Allan Turnowski, head of Rio’s civil police: “It’s like attacking the main cell—you weaken all the smaller ones around it.”
After decades of clashes between police and traffickers in which thousands of lives were lost, the pacification units are being hailed as a big step forward.
“We’re talking about 100 000 people [liberated from the gangs]. That’s no small achievement,” former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said after a recent visit to one of the communities involved. “Drug use continues — but what is over is the violence, the terror.”
“We can’t guarantee that we’ll end drug trafficking, nor do we claim to be doing so,” said Beltrame. “The idea is to break the paradigm of territories controlled by traffickers with weapons of war, to ensure that citizens can come and go as they please, that public or private services can get in when they want.”
Residents of Morro da Providência have reacted nervously to the arrival of the police.
Deep in the favela, the middle-aged owner of one tiny street bar wore an anxious frown. “Young man, are we being occupied?” she inquired, hours after special forces swept into her slum. Asked whether the occupation was a positive change, she said: “We’re not allowed to have an opinion around here. We have to be neutral.”
But independent polls show an overwhelming majority of slum residents welcome the pacification units, despite sporadic reports about abusive police searches and a handful of flare-ups involving protesting residents whom the police accuse of having links to the gangs.
Earlier this month 12 people were injured when alleged drug dealers torched a bus near the Cidade de Deus slum in an apparent protest against pacification. Some human rights groups point to the outlawing of electronic funk music parties in several occupied slums.
Across town in the Ladeira dos Tabajaras—a favela occupied in January - locals were more forthcoming. “It’s great. Things are calm,” said Elisa Reis Oliveira (58), who has lived in the slum for 25 years.
“Before, the kids would be playing outside and suddenly they’d have to run because of a ‘pa-pa-pa’,” she said, imitating gunfire. “I just hope [it] stays like this.”
“My policing is done on foot,” said Captain Rosana Alves dos Santos, head of the area’s 140-strong pacification unit, as she toured the slum with her Taurus pistol firmly in its holster. “I want residents to trust me and tell me their problems. It’s contact policing.”
Outside a crèche, on the edge of Rio’s Atlantic rainforest, Dos Santos, an extreme-sports enthusiast, suggested setting up a mountain bike trail through the jungle to attract visitors.
Not everything has changed. In January 77 people were killed in confrontations with police, more than two a day. Last month civil police said they shot an infamous druglord nicknamed Rohypnol in a shoot-out in the slum he controlled.
Press reports claimed Rohypnol was shot in the face. Turnowski said such operations would continue.
“The solution is pacification,” he said. “But in the meantime we must keep order — Every day we have these operations to disorganise these crooks and, when the time comes, occupy with greater ease.”
The greatest obstacle to successfully rolling out the pacification scheme, another senior government security official said, was money. He warned that if the authorities did not invest in parallel social projects, job creation and the police force itself, the projects would not last.
Former president Cardoso said the shift from purely repressive tactics was an advance. “Repression, prohibition won’t work. We have to look for alternative paths.”
In the Morro da Providência, police officers had begun plastering their own signs on walls. “A new era of peace starts now,” they read.
City of drugs
Founded in 1897, the Morro da Providência in central Rio de Janeiro was reputedly the city’s first favela. The 1940s and 1950s saw the number of favelas rocket, with thousands of dirt-poor northeastern workers flooding into Rio during a major construction boom.
The communities were impoverished but largely tranquil—until the 1980s saw a sudden influx of war-grade weapons, triggering deadly conflict between police and drug traffickers.
Today many of Rio’s 1 000-odd favelas—home to about 20% of its population—are controlled by one of three main drug factions, or by paramilitary-style vigilante groups comprising off-duty or former policemen.
One recent study found that more than 10 000 people were killed in confrontations with the police between 1998 and 2009 in Rio state, an average of 2,4 deaths each day.
The head of Rio’s civil police recently claimed that in the past two years, 6 000kg of cocaine with a street value of more than R350million was produced in two of the city’s largest slums.—