Watching Them Watching You

The city government of Rio de Janeiro has voted 46 to 3 in favour of installing video surveillance cameras inside all new police vehicles, and overridden the veto of the Governor, Sergio Cabral.

Cabral, who is otherwise all in favour of video surveillance, did everything he could to stop this law, but in vain. The reason that the pro-police governor is so against this particular law and order measure is that the cameras are supposed to be installed not simply to ‘protect’ police officers but also to prevent abuse of power, corrupt practice and police violence against suspects. This is a huge issue in Rio (and Brazil more generally), and we saw a good example of this recently with the inhumane actions by officers after the fatal assault on Evandro, the founder of Afro-Reggae.

However, I do wonder how officers will take this development, how the cameras will be used in practice, and how many of them will conveniently experience technical failures at important moments…

(Thanks to Paola Barreto Leblanc for the heads up)

At the Instituto de Segurança Pública

Paola and I had a very productive interview with Colonel Mario Sergio de Brito Duarte, the Director President of the Institute for Public Security (ISP) in Rio de Janeiro. The ISP is a state-level organisation with multiple functions including research on public security and the compilation of crime statistics; professional development for the police services (and also more broadly to encourage greater cooperation and coordination between military and civil police); and community involvement and participation in the development of security policy. The Colonel gave us an hour and a half of his time to explain his view on a wide range of issues around crime, security, the problems of the favelas, and the potential for surveillance, social interventions and policing in solving these problems.

As with many senior police (and military) officers with whom I have talked over the years, the Colonel is an educated, thoughtful man who has strong views based in his experiences as a front-line officer with the Policia Militar in Rio (including some years in BOPE, the special operations section) – as detailed in his book, Incursionanda no Inferno (Incursions into the Inferno). Despite how the title may sound, he was far from being gung-ho or authoritarian in his views, emphasising throughout, as with almost everyone I have talked to, that socio-economic solutions will be the only long-term guarantee of public security in Rio. And he certainly had no sympathy for the illegal actions of militias, despite understanding why they emerged and continued to be supported by some sections of the community.

However, it was also clear to him that current policies like Mayor Eduardo Paes’ ‘choque de ordem’ strategy which involves demolitions of illegally-built houses in the favelas, was absolutely necessary as well. He spent some time outlining his view of the history of how drug gangs infiltrated and gained control of many favelas, an in particular the importance of their obtaining high quality small arms – though he was vague on exactly where these arms came from – I have, of course, heard allegations from other interviewees that corrupt soldiers and policemen were one common source of such weapons.

From the point of view of surveillance studies, it was notable how profoundly indifferent the Colonel appeared to be towards he growth of surveillance, and in particular CCTV cameras. He argued that they might be a useful supplement to real policing, but he certainly did not appear to favour a UK-style ‘surveillance society’ – of which, at least in Rio, there seems little sign as yet. He was similarly indifferent towards other central state social interventions like the Programa Bolsa Familia (PBF), and initiatives like ID cards – of course they might help in some way, but he certainly made no attempt to ague, as the UK government has done, that such technology will make a big difference to fighting crime and terrorism (indeed it was interesting that ‘terrorism’ was not mentioned at all – I guess that, when you have to deal with the constant reality of poverty, drugs and fighting between police and gangs, there is no need to conjure phantasms of terror). Even so, the Colonel recognised that the media in Rio did create fantasies of fear to shock the middle classes, and that this sensationalism did harm real efforts to create safer communities.

There was a lot more… but that will have to wait until I have had the whole interview transcribed and translated. In the meantime, my thanks to Colonel Mario Sergio Duarte and to the very nice and helpful ISP researcher Vanessa Campagnac, one of the authors of the analysis of the Rio de Janeiro Victimisation Survey, who talked to us about more technical issues around crime statistics.

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.