Brazil is a democratic state but there are places where democracy does not reach; the favelas in Rio de Janeiro have been long abandoned by the government.
With firearms and violence the drug lords called themselves bosses, and for years, basic services like electricity and water were provided by the drug mafia. In exchange for the inhabitant’s silence, they will be provided for and allowed to live in their territory.
Needless to say that this is an arrangement that forces people to live in precarious conditions and revokes their basic human right to live in freedom and safety. Reports to the Brazilian media reveal that people from the favelas witness crime daily and the terror is constant. Men carrying heavy firearms to guard the favela from policemen is simply part of the scenery.
The authorities that manage to reach the favelas are usually corrupt. For the most part, policemen will take bribes to keep their mouths shut and the drug traffic running. The only force rid of corruption is Battalion of Special Police Operations (BOPE), whose men are specifically trained to deal with urban warfare.
BOPE, however, has been condemned by Amnesty International for “constantly violating the human rights of a large part of the population.” They are said to be just as cruel as the drug mobsters by people who live in the favelas; they are scarcely the image of protection a police force should be.
UN has repeatedly criticized the conditions in which favela inhabitants are found in, but what astounds me the most is the enormous inequality spread all over the city. It is as if the slums are completely different worlds inside of Rio; little totalitarian states with precarious living conditions that exist in a seemingly functional democracy. This is why I think the Rio scenery is so striking: you can see the well-off parts on the planes and incredible poverty up the hills.
Plans to fix this situation have been made before, but none of them worked for long enough to eradicate the real problem; the armed drug gangs. Ex-President Lula’s Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), which is not specifically focused on the improvement of favelas, but on the improvement of the less privileged and aspects of Brazil’s infrastructure, has barely scratched the surface.
The issue here is that PAC is only a half-hearted attempt to fix things – building a football field there, a new museum here, etc. These projects are blatantly ignoring the problem; how will a mother ever let a kid go play football with the drug gangs carrying loaded guns everywhere? How can people walk to and from home when a war between the drug gangs and the police can erupt at any moment?
But even if these projects were to make a big impact on society, only 3,8% of the projects planned by PAC in Rio were ever completed anyway and the rest sits unfinished. So even if there was a legitimate plan to save the favela population, it would probably fail – the government doesn’t seem to complete many of their projects.
However, a new pacification program seems to be working and breaking through my cold skepticism; the implementation of Peacemaking Police Units (UPPs). These units appear to have sprouted from the long due realization that most people in the favelas are not drug mobsters and really need the authorities’ protection. They are implemented to impose order, prevent crime and protect the population in the favelas.
The program started in 2008, with the pacification of the favela Dona Marta. Things changed; electricity and cable companies have managed to establish good relations with the people and provide them with safe and legal services. Businesses that were afraid to expand because of the violence have now flourished and the value of property has doubled.
Unfortunately, however, for the unit to be implemented the drug gangs must be eradicated from the favelas first.
The police are sent in to rid the area of drug trafficking; last November, Rio was in a veritable civil war when a mass operation to pacify 20 favelas was carried out. The 17,500 police officers who were operating to rid the favelas of drugs had to be aided by 800 army soldiers. Around 150 arrests were made and an estimated 17,000 children were left unable to attend lessons. An official number of deaths was not released.
At the time I was at loss at what to think about the invasion because there were an incredible number of news stories about innocent people being murdered by stray bullets or cruel retaliation from both sides of the war. One of the most shocking things for me was a quote from the BOPE Captain, Rodrigo Pimentel: “I believe the task of forgiving the drug mobsters is up to God. With us, from the Special Forces, lies the task of promoting the encounter between them.”
But now I can see that maybe this is a program that will follow through with its promises; the UPPs are going to stay, this is not just a temporary development. The reason for this is the international scrutiny that Brazil is under at the moment because of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. In fact, this is why the program is being implemented in the first place and why its objective is to occupy and pacify 100 favelas before 2014. It has to work because the country’s reputation is on the line. It is definitely not the right reason to fix the problem – but hopefully it will have the right result.
I’ve always been told that Brazil is the country of the future and never believed it – how could it be if the government failed to protect so many people every day? Maybe this is the start of an era where I can start believing.