By Ariana Criste
As Rio De Janeiro rushes to prepare itself for the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics, they are taking questionable measures to mold itself for the international eye. Politicians and business leaders in Rio problematize the “favelas,” the urban slums that the public views as being centers for poverty, drug activity and gang problems. Pacification and eviction have been the primary strategies for controlling the favela “problem.” Growing police presence in the area has created a noticeable drop in homicide rates, but some argue that this drop in the areas measured is just pushing criminal activity outside of the scope of the pacification efforts.
Police pacification units (UPP) have been deployed to an increasing amount of favela neighborhoods. With this rise in police presence, the homicide rate in the occupied areas has dropped by what some scholars estimate to be 65 percent. With homicide as the measure of success for the program, the drop in homicide in the favelas has led to almost a 30 percent drop in homicide within the state of Rio de Janeiro in general. While this is a significant decrease, homicide should not be the only measure of UPP deployment success. It is also likely that the drop in homicide may be attributable to a displacement of the activity itself, as other regions have experienced increases in their homicide rates. Even still, Rio is under fire for its lack of commitment to addressing the underlying social problems of the neighborhoods that the police presence is occupying.
The deep poverty and lack of opportunities have created an environment that can breed violence and criminal activity. In November 2011, Nem of Rocinha was arrested and detained by the Rio police force. Nem was the head of the drug trade in the Rocinha favela that is situated near Leblon, São Conrado and Gávea, the wealthiest areas of the state. In an area that the capital had long ignored or even outright abandoned, Nem was viewed by residents as bringing order to the neighborhood. Written into the business expenses of the expansive cocaine trade were social benefits for the neighborhood that the drug trade took place within. Compared to many trafficking empires, the empire that Nem created was relatively free of the bloodshed typically associated with the drug trade, and the commanding officer for the investigation that would eventually capture him spoke of how he “wasn’t a man of violence.” In the absence of the order of states and state association, these favelas are run by the criminals and gangsters who fill this political void. In the Antares favela, the Red Commando, one of Rio’s oldest criminal gangs, controls the security and culture. Like Nem of Rocinha, the Commando pumps money into the public works and even hosts social events. What started as a prison group association, climbed the ladder in seriousness of crimes until it reached hegemonic command over the drug trade and the people of Antares. In exchange for social assistance and community events, the Red Commando reigns relatively conflict-free over the culture and commerce of the area. This is not uncommon for the communities within the favelas, which have real economic and social grievances with the state.
Since the capture of Nem, community mistrust against the pacification efforts directed at Rocinha have grown. This is not unsubstantiated, however, as violence has been carried out by the police presence against the favela community. The murder of an innocent bricklayer by the Rocinha favela police force in July 2013 pushed the favela close to a total revolt. In 2013 alone, the number of reported police killings was 2,212. This does not include killings in states that choose to not report. Conservative leaders within Brazil have created political identities based on this state-led violence. As a leader for an institution tracking police issues explained, “There are parts of the middle class that accept killings by the police as a legitimate practice.” Cases of police violence perpetrated against children of these favelas have cycled through national political discourse and still little change in policy has been implemented. This is not far from the norm as many have accepted violence against civilians as a norm in the mission to clean up the favelas.
Police violence is not the only concern of the residents of the favelas, however. Favela neighborhoods are being leveled as the government gears up for the Olympics. Residents were offered money to relocate, as Rio searches for prime real estate for the new Olympic infrastructure it is building. Residents who have chosen to stay in the favelas are cut off from water and electricity. As poor people have been relegated to the peripheries of Brazilian society, poverty has become more problematized. Some are hopeful that, despite the civil and human rights issues that have characterized the planning stage for the Olympics, it will serve as a platform for the world to see the issues of intense urban poverty that countries such as Brazil are experiencing. As international eyes turn towards Brazil, they argue, they will also turn to the income inequality and issues of the favelas.
Image by João Lima