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.