Rio police invade favelas ahead of FIFA World Cup and Olympics

As I, along with many others, predicted as soon as it was announced that Rio de Janeiro would host the two most globally important sports mega-events, the Rio authorities have launched a major drive to occupy and ‘pacify’ a growing number of the most significant favelas (informal settlements) in the city.

The rationale behind this is to drive out the gangs which control many of these communities. To this end a series of special police units has been created, the UPPs, which attempt to gain control of the settlements. Early experiments were in three favelas, one of which, Santa Marta, I visited in early 2009, when, along with Paola Barreto Leblanc, I conducted interviews with community association leaders and police.

Just last week the police moved into the largest favela, Rocinha. Unusually with police raids of this kind, there was little overt violence and ‘collateral damage’. This is certainly an improvement on some previous operations. However, not everyone was that impressed. This video from ITN News shows the stage-managed nature of the event, which seems to have been largely a demonstration of the ability of the Rio authorities to produce security on demand. As the reporter notes, only one person was arrested which means that hundreds of gang members (in this case of the Amigos dos Amigos, AdA, or ‘Friends of Friends’) will either have fled or remain in the favela.

The plan is apparently for the net to be widened still further, with Sergio Cabral, the Governor, claiming that 40 UPPs will be established, including very soon in the Mare Complex, 16 favelas with over 130,000 in all, which is vital to the preparation for the mega-events as it is close to the international aiport and other major transport links from Rio to the economic hub of Brazil, Sao Paulo. Many AdA members from Rocinha may have fled to the Mare Complex and at some point the pacification is bound to be become violent and less media-friendly. There are also, at least two other alliances of gangs who occupy other important favelas.

The current authorities have also started to emphasize the ‘community-building’ intention of these pacification measures, but it should not be forgotten that almost the first act that Cabral and his sidekick, the Mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, implemented on coming to office was to cancel the internationally-praised slum-upgrading program, favela bairro (see some thoughts I had on this after my interviews in 2009) of the former Mayor Cesar Maia, which was aimed at a much deeper and longer-term improvements not just at appeasing middle class voters and impressing the International Olympic Committee and FIFA. We will also see whether, like in Santa Marta, the initial community building efforts are undermined (or perhaps aided) by the installation of surveillance cameras

Morro dos Prazares to be demolished?

Eduardo Paes, the hardline Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has indicated that he may try to demolish the favelas that were affected by recent flooding and landslides, including Morro dos Prazeres, where 25 died, and where I visited last year. Paes is no friend of the poor and his concern for their welfare appears feigned. It is more likely that he will use any excuse, including the recent tragedy, to erase the political and security problem that these informal settlements that cover Rio’s hillsides represent. This will of course accelerate as we approach the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics… and as to what will happen to the people who live in Morro dos Prazeres, nothing so far.

Surveillance cameras in the favelas…

Well, my fears have it seems, been vindicated already. Earlier this year, as part of my case-study on surveillance in Brazil, I visited the community of Santa Marta, a favela (informal settlement) in Rio de Janeiro. Santa Marta is interesting because of the amount of investment and effort that has been expended in occupying, pacifying and developing the place, by the new gubernatorial administration of Eduardo Paes, who has simultaneously cancelled Favela Bairro, the widely praised and more extensive favela development programs of his predecessor, Cesar Maia.

Leading the new Community Police efforts in Santa Marta was Capitao Pricilla, an indomitable and well-liked young female officer of the Military Police, one of several rising female officers with a new approach, and we heard from residents how trust was being rebuilt between police and community because of her. At the same time, there were storm clouds on the horizon as the city administration was insistent on cracking down still further with its policies of choque de ordem (the shock of order), which involved harassing illegal street vendors from the favelas, and demolishing illegally-built buildings, and also building walls along the edges of some favelas. The word ‘ghetto’ was mentioned on more than one occasion by our interviewees and in more casual conversations.

Now, just last month, the Military Police have decided to install seven CCTV cameras in Santa Marta, in different areas of the community. This has prompted complaints of invasion of privacy, an there have already, my sources report, been protests about this in he favela, but it seems that this is coming from further up the chain of command than Capitao Pricilla and the community police. She isn’t mentioned at all by the article in O Globo, despite being a bit of a PR star, and instead the justification for the cameras is given by one Coronel José Carvalho, who also stated that there are plans to put cameras into the other two areas currently being targeted for development, the famous Cidade de Deus, and the much less well-known and more distant favela of Batan. This also contradicts what I was being told by the Commnder of the police central CCTV control room we visited, which is quoted as being one of the places where the cameras will be monitored. What is interesting is the cameras seem to be being treated by police almost as a tool of urban warfare: a Major Orderlei Santos talks about their experimental use for determine the deployment of officers in the favela.

Could the old macho, male, approach to policing as a war on the poor be trumping the new trust being developed by community policing? I hope not, but everything points that way.

(thanks once again to Paola and David for keeping me in touch…)

Big Mothers not Big Brother? Women changing Rio

The Guardian today has an interesting report on how women are getting to more senior positions in the police in Rio de Janeiro and changing the way policing is done as a result. I reported on my own observation of this back in April, an whilst there are many bright young female officers who want to do things differently, the top echelons of Brazilian policing are still a long way from being feminized and these young guns may not ever get much higher up to where policy is made. There’s also suspicions that such officers are being used largely for their PR value and to defend the police against being just another macho gang.

Of course, there’s more going on than just in the police. A whole generation of men lost to the drugs war has left women in more influential positions within community organisations in the favelas of Rio – we met several during our research. Considering the lack of effective state surveillance and the relative increase in power and local knowledge of these women both in community associations and the police in Brazil, I jokingly referred to them as ‘not so much Big Brother as Big Mothers’…

The Shock of Order: Building and Demolition in Rio de Janeiro

I may have been slightly worried about the most recent drugs war that was going on as I arrived, but as usual this appears to have been exaggerated by the press who largely serve the richer, middle-class community, and who appear to want to have their fears stoked on a regular basis. The ‘war’ is a trafficker conflict that involves traffickers based in the large favela of Rocinha, who belong to the Comando Vermelho (CV, Red Command) the oldest and largest of the prison-based umbrella groups of Rio drug traffickers, attacking another favela, Ladeira dos Tabajaras, whose traffickers are backed by the ‘Amigos Dos Amigos’ (ADA, ‘Friends of Friends’). This kind of thing is happening on and off all the time, but what made it a concern of the paranoid middle class in this case, was geography: in order to get to Ladeira dos Tabajaras, the Rocinha gang had to go through the rich high-rise area of Copacabana… to say that it is exaggerated is not to say that it is not dangerous: 8 people have so far been killed, but they are all traffickers and, I believe, all killed following police raids into the favelas.

It is probably no coincidence that this display of force by the Rocinha traffickers is happening just as the city government of Rio has started to implement a policy of the current Mayor, Eduardo Paes, known as ‘choque de ordem’ (the ‘shock of order’), which involves sorties into communities like Rocinha largely to enforce planning regulations by destroying recent illegally built constructions, which are pushing the favelas even further up into the hills. In the last few days, this policy has resulted in the demolition of one particular controversial building, the Minhocão in Rocinha. This was due to start on the 17th, but was halted by a judicial decision, before going ahead in recent days.

There is more than a degree of irony here. The purpose of these demolitions is supposedly to enforce urban planning regulations and ‘protect Rio’. The Secretary for Public Order, Rodrigo Bethlem, is quoted by O Dia as saying (in my translation):

“We cannot permit an entrepreneur to come into Rocinha to build and make easy money by exploiting people. We cannot allow Rio De Janeiro to be destroyed by speculators, who want to make money without following any rules and who aim only at profit.”

Yet, I only have to glance out of my window here to see the towers of the Centro, built by wealthy speculators, which have almost completely destroyed the beautiful Parisian-style boulevards and belle epoque architecture that used to be ‘Rio’. And turning the other way, the coastline it dominate by the secure condominiums long the beaches, which I am pretty sure were not constructed out of the kindheartedness of developers, and whose development no doubt involved corruption at higher levels of urban government. Looking uphill, I can see the often dubiously if not illegally-constructed houses of the rich that cut into the edges of the National Park.

Can we look forward to the demolition of all of these disfigurements of Rio? Of course not… and the reason is obvious. The demolitions in Rocinha are about power projection. Local state policy towards the favelas goes in waves that alternate between socio-economic solutions and violent authoritarianism. For all its negative aspects, many people who are concerned with social justice here recall with some nostalgia the progressive populism of Leonel Brizola who was mayor in the 1980s. His administrations installed infrastructure, built schools and improved houses in the poorest areas.

The current administration of Eduardo Paes is taking a very different and harder line, concentrating on law and order, a stance which was laid out clearly during the Pan-American Games when the police effectively occupied several of the favelas in an Israeli-style security operation. There would be nothing wrong with this if it were backed by some kind of progressive social imagination too – some favelas like Dona Marta, which I will be visiting later this week, have apparently been transformed through a combination of strong control and surveillance with real social improvements.

Instead there are apparently plans to further marginalise favela residents by building a wall along the major highway from the international airport into the city, so that all the city’s elite can feel so much more secure, and of course, visitors will not have to even see the favelas (some or Rio’s most miserable) which line the route… there’s more than a whiff of Israeli tactics about this too. Whether by building or by demolition, urban planning seems to be currently used as a weapon against the favelas and their inhabitants.