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…