Retaking Rio

Retaking Rio

With the Olympics coming to town, the state seeks to reclaim the favelas.


Rio de Janeiro

The black police helicopter floats above Rio. Ahead of us looms the huge mountaintop statue of Christ, arms outstretched to the city; below us lies the long, wide expanse of Ipanema Beach. Inland from the posh neighborhoods on the water rise abrupt mountains of solid rock topped by lush jungle. Stacked up haphazardly along these steep slopes are the favelas: the densely packed unplanned neighborhoods of the poor and working classes.

If the contrast of white beaches and dark mountains defines Rio’s postcard-perfect geography, it is the surreal inequality of luxury condos overlooked by impoverished slums that defines Rio’s social landscape. Originally built by squatters from the rural northeast, and named for a hardy weed of that region, the poverty- and crime-plagued favelas are the open sore on Rio’s welcoming smile.

The police are giving me an airborne tour of the city and explaining how the state, long absent from the favelas, is planning to reimpose order through an ambitious "pacification" campaign. Despite a multifaceted security crisis, Rio will host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. "The state is going back to occupy territories from which it was absent, both in terms of public security and in terms of social investment," says State Governor Sérgio Cabral.

As we approach Favela Vidigal, the pilot steers the chopper out over the water in a wide defensive arch. Vidigal is "hostile," under the control of the Comando Vermelho (CV), one of Rio’s gangs, and known to shoot at police helicopters. The cocky young pilot, wearing a blue jumpsuit and dark shades, made sure to point out three freshly patched bullet holes near its tail rotor just before we took off. (Damage the tail rotor, and the chopper spins out of control.)

In October gunmen from the drug gangs shot down a police helicopter. It was part of a daylong firefight between two rival gang factions and the police, in which three officers were killed and four were badly injured. Twelve civilians—gangsters and bystanders—were also killed. In the surrounding area young men firebombed ten buses. It all happened just a mile from the stadium that will host the World Cup final and the Olympic ceremonies.

The gangs of Rio run the favelas and much of the city’s retail drug trade. Inside the communities they carry machine guns openly, as if they were the police; tax local economic activity; and operate informal courts that mete out justice. In one case, they shot a 14-year-old girl through the hands and feet because she stole a cellphone. More often they simply execute people accused of snitching, stealing or causing trouble. The gangs have killed journalists, and their turf battles account for much of the murder rate in Rio. Roughly the size of New York, Rio has a murder rate six times higher. In 2009 about 5,000 people were killed here.

Typically, the police enter the favelas only for short and brutal raids—arriving at night in armed columns to ransack, torture and kill. For the most part, they have not established police stations. According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, the Rio constabulary kill more than 1,100 people every year. Only four Rio police officers have been convicted of abuses in the past decade, but Rio’s cops face other risks: almost ninety died in the line of duty last year.

If that weren’t enough, now a third source feeds the violence: off-duty police, firefighters and prison guards have formed illegal militias to check the gangs. But these vigilantes can be just as criminal as their enemies. In 2008 such militias even tortured journalists from the city’s biggest newspaper.

The state’s pacification plan aims to quell all this mayhem and restore law and order, at least in the crucial Zona Sul area of the city, where the games will be held. The plan runs as follows: first, Rio’s military police special forces—known by their Portuguese acronym, BOPE—will invade the favelas and suppress the gangs. Then regular military police units will establish permanent bases and begin patrols. Once an area is secured, government services—such as healthcare, education, cultural facilities and civil courts—will be moved in. (Yes, it does sound like the Afghanistan strategy of "secure and hold.")

So far, ten of Rio’s roughly 1,000 favelas are undergoing pacification. By the time the World Cup begins, 100 communities are supposed to have permanent police stations and a bevy of new public services. And, perhaps because there will be general elections this October, politicians appear to be making a genuine effort to get resources into these communities.

Despite serious and ongoing police brutality, many residents—those with stable jobs outside the favelas or who own property that might become more valuable if crime decreases—are happy about the changes. Others, like many young people, the extremely poor, the extended families of powerful underworld figures, are not so happy. Most of all, the gangs are not pleased. And in some cases they are taking revenge on the larger society, occasionally firebombing com-
muter buses down on "the pavement," as non-favela Rio is called.

The contradictions of the occupations—which pivot on class divisions within the communities—were evident when I visited the recently pacified favela of Tabajaras de Botafogo in late February. To tour the place, I met the president of the residents’ association, Cláudio Carvalho. Every favela has one of these organizations, which generally started in the 1960s to agitate for rights and services. These days the associations exist in varying degrees of autonomy from the gangs: some are merely the political face of the criminals; others are genuine community organizations.

"The old residents’ association was corrupt," says Cláudio. "The man who ran it turned it into a private business. We are rehabilitating the association because we want this community to have services."

Did the association collaborate with the gangs before they were driven out? "Whoever has the guns is the law," says Cláudio cryptically. For years this favela was subject to a constant struggle between the CV and a rival gang, Amigo dos Amigos. "When one of theirs was wounded, they would dump the guy—bleeding, half dead—at the association, and we were expected to take them to the hospital."

When I visited, police had occupied the community for about a week. "When the BOPE came in, there was excessive brutality," Cláudio explains. Now officers carrying machine guns have a checkpoint at the favela‘s entrance and patrol its maze of hillside paths and stairways. Thus far the residents have not received any new services along with the police crackdown. In fact, about 100 families have had their water cut off.

Living at the top of a ridge, these households had tapped into the water mains of a nearby housing development. (That’s how Rio is: battleground slums can be wedged against a huge lush national park or gated condos.) Now that the cops have cleared out the CV, the owner of the middle-class apartment buildings wants the pirate customers in the favela to pay up.

In a misting rain, Cláudio and I hike up a long staircase toward the waterless homes. At our feet, gray sewage water trickles down the gutter; above sags a tangle of jerry-built wires for power, telephone and cable TV. Some side paths lead off into tight wedges of squalor and menace. Others reveal scenes of tidy domestic bliss. My guide points to bullet holes here and there; and farther up on the ridge, in a wall marking the edge of the community, are a few crude openings where CV gunmen knocked out bricks to make secure firing positions from which to shoot out upon a nearby road.

At the top of the favela we meet Jose Louis and his sister Solange. They live with Jose’s wife, and they haven’t had water for a few days. Both are squat and pale. His name and his looks are Spanish. Jose works as a porter in an open-air market downtown.

"I’ll pay a little for water. That’s fine as long as it is reasonable. It is the price of peace," says Jose. "They have to keep this occupation. It has been wonderful." Soon I can understand why: he wants to sell the solid whitewashed cottage he built on squatted land, which he now owns, thanks to recent urban land reform. He thinks he can get $50,000 for it. But if the gangs return, Jose’s home will again be engulfed in the endless war among factions of nihilistic and heavily armed teenagers.

In Dona Marta, the first favela occupied, back in November 2008, and said to be a showcase of social programs, I meet a group of unemployed young people. They may or may not be enrolled foot soldiers of the CV, but they see the occupation as all stick and no carrot.

"They are just beating people up. Two weeks ago they took four guys. These guys had work papers, but the cops arrested them on drug charges anyway," says a short, tattooed 23-year-old named Max. He wears red shorts and plastic flip-flops and leans on the wall of the old wooden shack where he lives with his wife, Amanda. A small radio blares a tinny stream of baile funk, essentially Brazilian hip-hop, as Amanda does dishes by an outdoor tap just off one of the main stairways. A few other young men, shirtless and wearing baggy shorts in the heat, gather as we talk.

"Most people just want the cops to go away and find someone else to harass," adds Amanda. "They treat us like criminals. They force us inside after 11. If you have what they think is too much money, they take it from you."

"They push us around when we leave or enter the community," says another guy, his arms heavily tattooed, who goes by the nickname The Moor. "They take us in for minor crimes; they kick us, grab our crotches, search us, kick in our doors, beat us up. They do whatever they want. And we can’t 
fight back, or we get killed."

"This whole ‘social vision’ is not well thought out," says Max. "They promised daycare, clinics and jobs. But all I see are cops."

Everyone I spoke with agreed that the police are too violent and indiscriminate, yet two weeks of visiting various favelas reveal interesting class divisions: the working class seems pitted against the young and unemployed, the "dangerous classes" without stable connections to the larger society. For the youth who don’t own homes they can sell, occupation may mean a few jobs, but mostly it means constant searches, shakedowns, possible beatings from the police and no late-night dance parties.

Pacification is also a type of "enclosure" in 
which the "commons" of pirated utilities—like electricity, water and TV—are turned back into commodities that cost money. For the hard-working homeowner, this formal commodification of the pirated commons is a price worth paying. But for the most marginalized elements, pacification is oppression.

Scholars argue that Brazil’s crisis of violence is rooted in its history of slavery and frontier conquest. But its more recent origins lie in the country’s intense economic inequality and period of military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. The story of the largest and oldest Rio gang seems to reveal that.

According to its veterans, the Comando Vermelho was founded in prison as a revolutionary organization, when captured Marxist guerrillas from the Falange Vermelha (Red Phalanx) united with elements of the criminal underground. At first the CV functioned as a political organization and a beneficent society for prisoners and ex-convicts. It reached into communities, armed in the name of self-defense and revolution, and started taxing the drug trade.

As the ’80s progressed, Brazilian society was wracked by IMF-sponsored structural adjustment programs, which cut state spending, increased unemployment and spurred further migration from the countryside to urban slums. From 1980 to 1990, Rio’s overall population growth rate was 8 percent, but the favela population surged by 41 percent. As the favelas grew, social relations within them frayed.

"By 1991 the CV had become purely criminal. There was no ideology anymore," explains Cmdr. Rodrigo Oliveira of the Civilian Police Special Forces (Rio has several types of police). I met Oliveira in his office to discuss the gangs and the war on them. "Now their goal is power, plain and simple—not even huge private fortunes for the slum ‘owners,’" he says, using the colloquial term for the gang leaders. "Mostly it’s just about organizational power, weapons and status."

The one bright spot is that there is some investment in the pacified favelas. In Dona Marta a new tram runs to the top of the slope; a clinic now operates at the base of the community; and a legal team has visited to help residents with issues related to their social-service and welfare rights. In another favela, Pavão-Pavãozinho (Peacock-Little Peacock), I saw hundreds of public housing units being built. Residents are already moving into them. But more common was talk of social workers, sports facilities and clinics that "are going to arrive soon" but have not yet come.

According to experts, it all hinges on the social services. Criminologist Enrique Desmond Arias, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, did years of ethnography in some of the favelas that are being pacified. "I’ve seen programs like this in the past—some work; some fail. The essential thing is to systematize and institutionalize the social programs." Arias describes how earlier pacification efforts throughout the city always foundered because of the ad hoc nature of the social services, which were often left to NGOs or the random initiative of individual police commanders. "If the federal government really provides resources and coordination, that will make a huge difference."

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, clearly takes such matters seriously, and his government is in a position to make real social investments. In the past eight years Brazil has paid off its external debt and built up reserves of 
$240 billion. Though he arrived the son of a São Paulo favela dweller, Lula, a former trade unionist who lost a finger on the shop floor and promised something like Roosevelt’s New Deal, has instead delivered on the scale of Johnson’s "war on poverty"—making meaningful changes but no systemic transformations.

One of Lula’s central economic programs is the Bolsa Família. It gives payments of up to $104 a month to poor families. Mothers with children are rewarded for sending kids to school, getting vaccinations and following proper nutrition. The program was started in the 1990s by state governments and expanded under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then expanded again very widely by Lula. Now one in four Brazilians depends on the Bolsa, and it has helped lift some 21 million out of poverty since 2003. The cost is minimal: Brazil spends less than half of one percent of its $1.6 trillion GDP on antipoverty programs.

Lula’s other big initiative is the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), a macroeconomic and infrastructural policy—classic Keynesianism—that began in 2007 with an initial investment of $4.2 billion. The PAC is building roads, power lines and ports. Lula’s finance minister has called for investment of about $250 billion in these infrastructure schemes.

Many PAC public works hire favela residents to improve their own communities. But large-scale, capital-intensive projects outside the favelas are more common. Regardless, the PAC has helped maintain Brazil’s robust economic growth, predicted to be 5 percent this year. Even during the worst of the recent world economic slump, Brazil did well. And inequality is decreasing. Under Lula the top 10 percent of Brazilians have grown 11 percent richer, but the bottom tenth have seen their incomes rise 72 percent.

Sadly, Lula’s attempted tropical New Deal will not stamp out the violence. At best, pacification in Rio will create a cordon sanitaire of tamed favelas in Rio’s Zona Sul. This might have a calming effect citywide and could be built on later, but police corruption, drugs and violence will remain entrenched for a long time to come.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy