Financial Times – March 27, 2014
By Samantha Pearson in Rio de Janeiro
Rusino cannot decide which is worse: living under the control of drug gangs or the police.
“I was in bed with my wife one night and the police just burst into our place – they think everyone around here is a drug dealer,” says the 30-year-old hairdresser, sitting on a kerb in the Manguinhos group of favelas in Rio de Janeiro. His sister cuts him off, terrified: “Why do you always have to talk so much? Just act deaf and dumb like the rest of us!”
Tensions are running high in the area. Last week the captain of the favelas’ new so-called pacification police unit, the UPP, was shot – the latest in a wave of attacks against police that comes less than 80 days before hundreds of thousands of tourists descend on Rio for the football World Cup.
Manguinhos, a 15-minute drive from Rio’s international airport, now resembles no-man’s land as military police clutch assault rifles to their bullet-proofed chests, eyeing groups of men who sit staring at them from piles of rubble across the road.
Community organisations say Rio’s latest escalation of violence represents one of the biggest crises yet for Brazil’s offensive against the criminal gangs and militias that have haunted the country’s second-largest city for decades.
After seven attacks on the UPP since the beginning of last month and several police murders, Rio’s state governor Sérgio Cabral announced this week that the army will be brought in to assist the police in the Maré group of slums that borders the main road to the airport.
Rio began the UPP pacification programme in 2008, using its elite police “Swat” team to drive out gang leaders from favelas, before installing police units to keep watch over the newly conquered territories.
Rio now has 37 UPPs serving 257 communities and 1.5m people – a result that has been widely applauded by international groups and Brazilians of all political stripes.
As such, it is only natural that the country’s most powerful criminal gangs, such as Comando Vermelho (Red Command), should want to try to regain influence, says José Mariano Beltrame, Rio’s state public security secretary.
“In areas where the state was absent during decades, criminals took on the role of legislative, executive and judiciary lawgivers,” says Mr Beltrame. “The people who always made a living from crime will not give up so easily and we knew this.”
The timing of the latest wave of violence is no coincidence either, says Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper, a Brazilian higher education institute. The city is in the spotlight as it prepares to host the World Cup and then the Olympics in 2016, encouraging gangs to exploit “a moment of visibility and the vulnerability of the government”, he says.
Brazil is already under fire over its shoddy infrastructure and delays in building the required stadiums, which threaten to turn the event into a source of international ridicule rather than the coming-of-age moment it had dreamt of when the country won the bid in 2007.
Growing revulsion among favela residents over the excessive use of police force also makes it an opportune time to act, says Professor Melo.
Military police officers patrolling Rio’s favelas say the retaliation may be linked to the country’s upcoming gubernatorial and presidential elections in October – a view backed by Sandro Costa, vice-coordinator of human security at Viva Rio, the NGO.
“Aside from the drug trafficking itself and the whole industry that surrounds it such as the payment of protection money, there has also been a history of political involvement in Rio too,” says Mr Costa. In the past, aspiring political candidates in the city have been accused of making deals with militias in order to enter otherwise forbidden favelas, giving them exclusive access to pools of voters, he says.
However, while the timing of the showdown between Rio’s gangs and the police has left the government on edge, the attacks against UPPs is likely to die down during the World Cup itself, says Mr Costa. “Murder and crime rates in general always fall during carnival so we’re expecting the same pattern for the [World] Cup.”
For the residents of Manguinhos and the city’s other more than 1,000 favelas, however, the one thing everyone craves is stability – with or without the UPPs. While most welcome the pacification movement as it has driven away powerful drug lords and removed heavy weaponry such as grenades from their streets, it has not come without problems. Common crimes such as robberies have risen in ‘pacified’ slums as the police are largely less feared than the former drug gang leaders, who would often mete out their own barbaric punishments.
The traffickers who remain in pacified favelas are also increasingly recruiting children as they are more difficult for the police to stop, say officers. In Brazil, under 18-year-olds can only be detained for a maximum of three years regardless of how heinous their crime is.
“The drug trade is still here – it’s just that the traffickers have adapted to the new model,” says one officer on patrol outside Manguinhos.
However, as in war, the next step must be to win over the hearts and minds of residents like Rusino, by using police intelligence rather than just brute force and by bringing more public services to the favelas to alleviate acute social problems, say academics and NGOs.
“At the moment, the police are just putting out fires,” says Insper’s Prof Melo. “The real battle will be to attack the root of the problem.