Retaking Rio

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.

Tags: brazil, crime, favelas, latin america, military, pacification, policing, poverty, rio, violence, world cup 2014

    • Christian Parenti
    • Christian Parenti is an award-winning journalist and author. A contributing editor at The Nation, he has reported extensively from the Middle East, Latin America and Africa and his articles have appeared in PlayboyMother JonesThe London Review of Books, Salon and The...

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