Rio de Janeiro: Silencing the drug war in the name of football
This week, Rio de Janeiro’s most famous favela was occupied and pacified by authorities without a single gunshot. Rocinha, with a population of 120,000 people and a reputation of bloody gang violence, had been deserted by the government, like most grounds of its kind, since its birth in the 1920’s. Now, with the city’s international esteem on the line because of the 2014 World Cup, the authorities are stepping in to silence the drug war in the name of football. Rocinha’s occupation is denotative of the end of the pacification project to occupy and pacify the city’s favelas but it’s also the beginning of a new question; what is the next step for the occupied slums?
Deeply abandoned by the state, Rocinha was born out of the Brazilian people’s dream for a better life. A lack of regulation and order ensured that the slum grew with the city; especially in the 1950’s when people migrated from the north, hoping to find more jobs and improved homes. Keeping the north’s rural roots, Rio’s new inhabitants had their own little farms that provided food for the city; hence the name ‘Rocinha’, Portuguese for ‘little farm’. At first, the absence of government meant land was for the taking and the newcomers simply built and moved into their flimsy homes; this was a cheap and easy way to move to the city.
But soon enough it became clear that illegal housing meant sub-human living conditions; if the government couldn’t reach those houses, neither could basic services like plumbing and electricity. Today, Rocinha is legally part of Rio and should have all the basic services other more wealthy parts of the city has; but many sections of the slum still lack bin collection service, running water and proper plumbing. The most recent census revealed that only 1.8 per cent of houses in Rocinha are accessible by car and only 31.1 per cent of inhabitant have their streets fully paved.
The police didn’t provide security to the inhabitants of Rocinha – or any other slum, for that matter – and authorities only showed face in the hills of Rio when a drug raid needed to be carried out. These raids, more often than not, took innocent lives; this had become so common that the newspapers reported on it with a sense of banality. For a long time, the solution was to contain the violence to the slums, keep the worst of society to the lower classes.
This reality, of course, is not news to anyone; Amnesty International have repeatedly reported on human rights violations in Rio de Janeiro slums and consistently urged Brazilian authorities to “work with local communities and not against them”. The pacification process Rio is going through at the moment is the most successful anti-drug war project implemented yet; the implementation of Peacemaking Police Units (UPPs) to impose order, prevent crime and protect the population in the favelas.
UPPs have been triumphant in getting rid of violent exchanges between authorities and drug gangs that used to leave many innocent people dead or injured. Despite a few issues of abuse of power from the policeman and the continuous drug mafia, violence rates have diminished and now it is safe to bring basic services to the slums. The first occupied slum, Dona Marta, has shown remarkable improvement since its pacification in 2008; not only have the living conditions improved, people aren’t scared of being killed in their day to day lives anymore.
Authorities put the population on alert before occupying Rocinha because of how close it is to privileged neighbourhoods – but what is really alarming about this occupation is that the next steps seem very unclear because of how unreliable the government has been in the past. The painless way in which Rocinha was occupied this week seems to indicate UPPs are what the population want – of course, the arrest of the most wanted drug dealer in Rio, Nem, also helped the mission – but the reality is that the slums cannot be occupied forever.
At present, there are 18 UPPs that employ 3,500 policeman who benefit 315,000 slum citizens; an amazing presence of authority that has made a difference that can easily be noticed. Many projects to provide proper housing in slums that are in a more advanced stage of pacification are already being announced, amongst other improvements that are to be implemented. But the corrupt government that tends to steal public money from projects like these is a great danger; the only reason this is being done is the 2014 World Cup, what will ensure order and the presence of authority in the favelas after Brazil’s reputation is no longer on the line?Tagged in: Brazil, Peacemaking Police Units, Rio de Janeiro, Rocinha, UPP, World Cup brazil
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