by Tine Vanhee who has lived in the Complexo do Alemão, a consortium of 13 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, that was ‘pacified’ in 2010. Currently, she lives in Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela, where she’s observing the impact of pacification on the daily life of its residents.
Carlos Latuff – Source: Brazilian newspaper ‘A Nova Democracia’)
The tension is escalating again in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In both Rochina and Complexo do Alemão, the armed confrontations between the police and drug-dealers have reached the highest level since the initial pacification of them in 2010 and 2011. Since last week, the army, Rio’s elite police battalion and the navy are re-occupying Complexo do Alemão, as a second attempt to regain the control over the favelas, hereby admitting failure in the first attempt. While the impact of the pacification on drug trafficking and violence has been studied rigorously, the most important, namely the impact of pacification on the life of the average favela resident, is not often discussed. Are their lives improved by the presence of the official security forces in their neighborhoods? An analysis.
In 2008, the municipality of Rio de Janeiro began with the first phase of the ambitious ‘pacification program’ by pacifying the favela Dona Marta. The objective of pacification is for police to reconquer control over the city’s favelas where for decades drug gangs were ruling the area. The first step in the pacification of a favela involves the invasion by heavily armed military police-units, the BOPE, (‘Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais’), in cooperation with a Brazilian army, whereby criminals flee and get wounded or arrested. Thereafter, a permanent unit of the ‘Peace police’ (the UPP – ‘Unidade de Policia Pacificadora’), is installed in order to maintain the new order in the favela. At this point, the favela is considered ‘pacified’ and alas, the population is liberated from the horrible regime of the gangs allowing the community to sleep soundly under proper rule. But, it turns out that it is not this simple.
“The Good Old Times”
Movies such as Cidade de Deus and Tropa de Elite suggest a depiction of life in the favela before pacification. The movies present the favela as a sort of city jungle where drug gangs rule and where criminality, drugs, and violence determine the daily life of its inhabitants; as a sort of Wild West in which the ‘survival of the fittest’ is the only law applied.
But far from all residents agree with this representation of favela life. Viviane Ribeiro, member of the Board of Directors of the association of residents of Complexo do Alemão, explains: “95% of the population didn’t have anything to do with the drugs-traffic and the violence. The kids went to school and the adults worked in order to be able to sustain their families. Lawlessness? No way. There were leaders who ruled the neighborhood and imposed laws, such as ‘Do not mess with innocent residents’ and ‘Do not touch another’s property, nor another one’s wife’. We slept with our doors open. Depending on which fraction ruled, some leaders even took care of community services such as garbage collection and the construction of football fields for youngsters.”
The disappearance of these ‘favela laws’ is one reason why some residents are nostalgic about the time prior to pacification. Last week, a young woman was raped and killed in a bar in Rocinha. Residents were extremely shocked, as this never happened before. A lot of people argued: “This wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. Since pacification, there are no more rules in the favela and no more authority, hence bad people feel free to do what they want to do.”
However, no one has forgotten that prior to pacification there also used to be a lot of violence, at times even more so than the current crime rate. Taking into account that all residents want peace for their favela and that the pacification was a program designed for bringing them peace, it’s clear that something went seriously wrong.
Liberation or Occupation
“One of the main reasons for the negative perception is the violent manner in which everything happened and is still happening,” tells Maria Helena Alves, ex-professor at the Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro and doctor in political sciences, in an interview with the newspaper A Nova Democracia: “It starts immediately with the first phase of pacification: the invasion of the BOPE, which happens in an extremely violent way. Thereafter, violence continues in the form of a permanent occupation of the favela by the UPP. The UPP is officially a ‘peace police unit’, but a lot of residents feel threatened by their presence. The UPP policemen are heavily armed and are allowed to break in doors and to harass and insult residents whenever they want to. These officers haven’t been trained for peacekeeping but to continue the war between policemen and drug-dealers and residents.
Photo: logo of the BOPE. Their motto: ‘Faca na Caveira’, which means ‘Knife in skull’. The first step towards peace?
Moreover, she continues: “The gangs were bad, but at least they belonged to the community: their sons went to the same school as your kids, their wives went shopping in the same shops,… If you didn’t interfere with them, they didn’t mess with you. This is not the case for the police: they don’t know the community and consider everyone as potential criminals.”
No Peace Without Poverty Reduction
A second problem is that the municipality and the national government didn’t fulfill the promises they made to accompany the pacification with social projects that would benefit the inhabitants of the favelas. This led to further disappointment, frustration, and a loss of confidence in the pacification.
In the first PAC for example, the Growth Acceleration Program (a gigantic investment program set up by ex-president Lula in 2007 to stimulate a revival of the Brazilian economy), roughly 400 million dollars were allocated to invest in 4 favelas. Soon people criticized that the money was being used in a very inefficient way for projects that didn’t benefit the population.
The best example of such criticism is the discussion about the teleférico in Complexo do Alemão, an extremely expensive cable car (Price tag: 100 million dollar, nearly half of the allocated budget for Alemão), which opened in 2011 and which connects the 6 highest peaks in the favela. The official rational for this gigantic construction project was that it would provide better transport for the inhabitants. However, many residents have voiced concern to the municipality arguing that this cable car is a pure touristic project. Research shows that because of the inconvenient and hardly accessible station locations, only 17% of the population actually uses this Teleférico, while health care in Alemão, a basic right for everyone, is still well below all standards.
Photo: the controversial teleférico of Complexo do Alemão
In Rocinha there are plans to construct a similar cable car, which has already led to several protests. Most residents argue for covering the 26 open sewers in the favela prior to the implementation of this mega-prestige project, which serves, according to them, mostly as an eye-catcher for the millions of tourists that Rio is expecting for the Olympic Games in 2016.
Photo: Poster in Rocinha protesting against the construction of the planned cable car: “no to the white elephant- yes to basic sanitation’ (poster made by the NGO Rocinha Sem Fronteiras)
Favela Culture Under Pressure
Which is nearly always either forgotten or underestimated in the discussion about pacification is that it had serious cultural and economic consequences for its residents, hence for their discontentment or contentment about the pacification.
There was, for example, the ban on the so-called bailes funk, enormous funk-parties where thousands of youngsters gathered daily on the streets. Ellen Sluis, co-founder of the cultural and research center Barraco55 in Complexo do Alemão, explains: “Here in Rio, funk is favela and favela is funk. The music came from Miami to Rio and developed itself in the favelas into a completely unique style of music. Many lyrics speak very openly about criminality. While fans think that funk is nothing more than a report on the real life in the favela, the authorities see it as an ode to criminality. That is one of the reasons why the bailes got prohibited in the pacified favelas”. This prohibition caused a lot of discontentment among the partygoers. Fans feel like it’s an attempt to suppress favela-culture.
“Everybody who depended on the money of the drug-dealers had hard times to endure”, claims taxi driver Manuel Vale, 48, in an interview with Eliane Trindade, journalist for the local news-site Rocinha Noticias. Hairdresser Cleide Oliveira, for example, 45, was forced to close her beauty salon. “There are not as many bailes as there used to be. Hardly anyone spends much time and money on beauty care anymore. Every dealer had 10 wives and took care of them, their mothers, sister-in-laws and, by extension, the whole family. That brought in a lot of money for us.”
Another consequence for example, was that all moto-taxis and the small vans you find everywhere in the favela were forced to declare their activities and to pay taxes. Also, more residents were forced into paying for electricity and water, while they used to illegally pirate such services.
On the other hand the pacification has created other economic opportunities, i.e. tourism. Some local residents are being employed as guides for foreign tourists who want to get to know favela life. Some entrepreneurial residents open hostels and tourist markets have appeared in various favelas. The biggest power of the favela is hereby the incredible flexibility and creativity of its inhabitants.
The Big Transformation
At the moment, favelas are experiencing a great transformation. Due to the increasingly high rentals in Rio’s centrum and beach areas, middle class people have started moving into the favelas.
This phenomenon is highly visible in the pacified favelas of Vidigal and Rocinha, situated on the desirable seaside adjacent to the chic but expensive Ipanema and Leblon. “Perhaps this is even the biggest consequence of the pacification,” Viviane Ribeiro declares. “Some people from ‘o asfalto’ (term used to label all of Rio’s inhabitants who don’t live in the favelas), consider the favelas safer now and dare to go and live there. This has enormous consequences for the original inhabitants: the rentals multiply and people who lived their whole life in the favela cannot afford to stay there anymore. They are obliged to take their refuge in favelas further away from the city, from their family and their work. These favelas often have worse public services. For them, it’s a regression to their former standards of living.
To Pacify or Not to Pacify
The opinions of favela residents about whether or not life was better before the pacification differ significantly depending on both the nature of the regime of the gangs who ruled and on the intensity of the violence that occurred in their specific neighborhood. It’s rather ironic that a lot of residents claim that, in all actuality, not that much (has) changed. “The pacification was one big charade. It was a deal agreed upon on forehand between police and criminals, whereby one would leave the other in peace in exchange for a part of the profit of the drugs trading that is still going on. Do you really think that without any deal, the gangs would have surrendered that easily?” explains a bartender born and bred in Rocinha.
Unrest in the Favelas
In the mainstream Brazilian and international media, it seems that few protests or demonstrations are occurring within the favelas. However, this is far from the truth. More and more manifestations are happening in which the residents ask for justice, in which they blame the police for murders and the ‘disappearing’ of people, or in which they bluntly ask the ‘Peace Police’ to leave their favela.
Furthermore, the war against the gangs and the police is yet again worsening. Several favelas are being terrorized by heavy shootings; according to the Brazilian media-giant O Globo, the worst residents have experienced in years. Another bartender in Rocinha tells us: “Everybody in the favela knows that the ‘bandidos’ (term that all residents use to point out the drug-dealers in the favela) have never been gone. Now that there is a lot of international media attention on Brazil, they want to show the world that they are not yet dead. They are challenging the police and they claim that they will stir hellish trouble during the world cup.”
Whether or not this is merely bragging, the city of Rio, with the world watching, can in no way afford this kind of violence. The simple conclusion is: the repression will be fierce.
Future of the Pacification
If the Brazilian government really wants peace in and control of the favelas, they must get the residents on their side. However, this will cost a lot of energy and money, and it’s a big question mark if the Brazilian government will continue to invest in these neighborhoods and its resident, especially after the Olympic Games of 2016 when the world’s eye will be turned away from Brazil.
Hence, whether pacification will succeed or not, is in the hands of the government. Either they choose to listen to the residents, change tactics, and acknowledge their mistakes, or they continue the same way and fail.