Pacifying favelas, is it possible?

By Emma Brooks

Lately there has been a lot of noise about how Rio is cleaning up its favelas ahead of the Olympic Games and the World Cup that it will be hosting in 2016 and 2014 respectively. I do recall reading once that this was supposedly not to do with either of these sporting events and simply an effort to try and improve the way of life in favelas, but let’s put this niggling thought aside and assume that the World Cup and the Olympics have indeed been the catalysts of the “favela clean-up”.

On Monday it was announced that the Brazilian police had now taken control of Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela. This is part of a much bigger operation, and follows the capture of the complexo do Alemao in late 2010. The plan is to let police take over the control of the favelas, ridding them of the drug dealers that are usually known to run them. The police “pacify” the favelas, running and providing the usual services but without the notorious drug dealing which is a cause of violence and death in the favelas. The police literally drive the drug dealers out.

But is this scheme of “pacifying” the favelas really successful, and does it really bring peace to them? People who have seen the film Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad) will know that the Brazilian special force police (BOPE) has its own reputation of violence and corruption. Indeed, the film was widely popular in Brazil as well as abroad, and showed the reality of what goes on behind the scenes in Rio.

When I asked two of my Brazilian and native Carioca friends what they thought of the film (both from different social backgrounds), they both told me that it did indeed show the reality. Neither of them tried to deny it, nor did they feel it was an exaggeration. On the contrary, their experience and knowledge of the city meant that they knew it was real.

Not only that, but José Padilha the film’s director encountered resistance by the police when trying to shoot the film. Having obtained authorisation from the don (drug lord) controlling the favela, the police did not want to give authorisation to film at all. Only after a stand-off with the governor of Rio about the censorship of the movie did they finally get the authorisation. Surely this goes to show that the film portrays the reality of the police’s behaviour much more than they would like.

If this is the case and the police are openly violent when entering the favelas, then surely this can not really be called a pacific operation? The police units now running the favelas are not always peaceful and are sometimes corrupt, continuing the drug trafficking business and extorting money from the favela dwellers. Furthermore, though the running of the favelas by drug lords is questionable, they nonetheless provided services to the dwellers such as water and internet, that the police units have been slow to take up.

Another question to be considered when they kick out the drug dealers, is where do they go? I once asked this question to some Brazilian friends who replied that probably 30% died, 30% stopped dealing, and 30% moved on to another favela. Although in the recent case of the Rocinha take over, it would seem that the main drug dealer Nem was arrested, this is not always the case. This means that the drug dealers the police are trying to get rid of manage to escape and will be able to continue their business elsewhere, probably by moving to another favela.

The reality is that clearing the favelas of the drug lords and replacing them with the police is not the solution. The people that live in the favelas do not choose to live there, but circumstances mean that they are forced to due to lack of proper housing and a marginalisation of the poorer people in society. As portrayed in many films, documentaries and TV series, children grow up surrounded by the reality and violence of the drug dealing. Not getting a proper education and not always being able to go to school, they get sucked in to the vicious circle of drug dealing themselves, starting out as scouts.

Rio and Brazil as a whole needs to go to the heart of the problem and start there, rather than making grandiose manoeuvres and taking over favelas for the rest of the world to admire their success at solving the problem. The problem will not go away as long as the market for drugs continues to exist and the favela dwellers continue to be a marginal part of society. If the government does not provide proper housing and proper education to the favelas and if it does not integrate them into society, the problem will never go away.

The government also needs to make sure it keeps corruption under control, steering away from the image given by the Tropa de Elite film, and instead trying to give itself a new and more credible image. Trust in the police and its actions will also be key to the “pacification” of the favelas and solving the greater problem of drug related crime in Brazil.

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