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Rio de Janeiro: Silencing the drug war in the name of football

Nicole Froio

132674291 300x184 Rio de Janeiro: Silencing the drug war in the name of footballThis 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?

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  • rawhead_wrecker

    Pretty much the same as the Chinese did before the Olympics then – pretend to be improving the lot of the common man before going back to business a usual once the parade has left town.

  • malcolmbush

    I am amazed by the US and the UK press describing the events in Rocinha as motivated mainly by the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games in Rio.  Of course, public authorities are aware of the need to clean up the city prior to those games.  But the regular policing and improvement of the favelas have different roots.  When the present Governor of the State of Rio, Sergio Cabral (and the Governor controls the city police) came into office five years ago he announced that a state of genocide existed in the state because of the conditions in the favelas and the public hospitals.  He immediately set out to cooperate with the city and the federal government which his predecessor had singularly failed to do and came up with a variety of important reforms including the project to take back the favelas. The “pacification” of the favelas has taken place in slow stages because of the enormous person power needed to tackle each low-income neighborhood and there are concerns about the public sector’s long-term commitment.  But the planning for this milestone reform started way before Rio was awarded either the World Cup or the Olympics and the motivation is far more than those Games.  It is improving the quality of life for every “Carioca”.

  • turntostone2003

    While gangs in Brazil’s favelas are involved in the drug trade, sending police into the favelas is never going to do anything more than disrupt activities for a short while. Its easy for the police to arrest gang members and claim it as a victory in the war on drugs. The money and the organisation of the drug trade of course take place in the wealthy suburbs and elsewhere, the gangs in the favelas simply operate as expendable participants in the supply chain,  so stopping them is no real victory in tackling the drugs trade. 

    Its also important to note that in places like Rocinha, drugs are incidental to the gangs, who primarily exist in the vacuum that has arisen by successive governments abandoning the favelas and treating their residents as a problem and as criminals. The gangs originated as an alternative police force when governments have failed to regard favelas as legitimate residencies and so have denied them basic services. Rocinha is indeed relatively lucky in this regard, being one of the only favelas with a bus route. 

    The real crime in the favelas is not from the drug gangs but from the failure of the government to engage with favela residents and work with them to ensure provision of basic services such as sanitation and schools. 

  • Mike_Dalton

    This may be difficult for British readers to grasp, but there is more to life and Brazil than football. I might also add that the 2014 World Cup is taking place in Curitiba in South Brazil, not in Rio. Personally I blame the government’s sudden interest in tackling crime in the favelas on a hit movie last year about a detective who does exactly that, but who realizes in the process that unless politics changes, his efforts will be in vain.

    As for the police not daring to act in the favelas, for those British readers who have friends in the police, ask about what they dare do in __________ neighbourhoods.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=509712709 Daniel Joshua Groner

    The WC is played in multiple cities throughout Brasil with the FINAL being held in Rio. Since when does governments react to fictitious movies (Borat)? 

    The Favela issue needed a jumpstart to resolution and with the WC and Olympics coming it is high time to create/force social change in those areas. 

  • elln

    That’s the spirit of football! Defocus people and nations to bring them to their knees and take all their living. If it is necessary give them a world cap, like argentina with the God’s Hand. A goal that argentina payed with many years of poverty! It can’t be that big coincidence that the countries of the bigger football national teams,brazil argentina now its happenning in spain and portugal, got bankcrupted and have the IMF to step in and drink their blood literaly.

  • Junkets

    It seems that the gangs in Rio de Janeiro constitute the only form of welfare the slum-dwellers have. The Government has completely neglected them and left it to the police to contain the fallout of this huge neglect. What’s to be done? I can’t see any other solution than diverting resources away from the rich to benefit the poor. However, the present financial dictatorship we all seem to live under makes such policies increasingly difficult to put into effect.
    PS. In a way, as things presently stand, the drug-trade is a way of diverting resources from the rich to the poor, but not the best way of course.

  • Paul Scarlett

    The film Mike Dalton is referring to (Elite Squad 2) has been a massive box office hit in Brazil. How much the government base their policy decisions on films like this, I’m not sure, but this film certainly struck a chord with large sections of the Brazilian people. The problem with corruption here is that it’s not just a political problem but is also a social problem. It doesn’t just come from the top down but also from the bottom up. 


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