Is Pacification Increasing Violence Against Women in Rio's Favelas?

The Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) recently released a report on the state of security in Rio's urban ghettos, also known as favelas. The report looked specifically at who is currently controlling (through violence or the threat of violence) the city's favelas, and what this says about the city's year long efforts to reduce violence in the communities before the World Cup and Summer Olympics. But there is so much more to it than the numbers can tell us.

Since 2008, Rio has been in the process of pacifying its favelas. This has meant SWAT-like invasions of the communities by Police Pacification Units (UPP). Afterwards, community police units are installed to maintain order and ensure that the drug traffickers -- imprisoned or scared into hiding -- don't come back. Though this process has been criticized as a "clean-up" before the wealthy white tourists arrive in the city, it cannot be denied that it has decreased violent deaths and improved access to services for residents of the favelas.

However, I'm hesitant to claim a victory for peace, considering the results of UERJ's research. The report, titled "Urban Health-Homicides in Rio's Favelas," explains that in spite of pacification, 45 percent of Rio's favelas are being controlled by militia gangs. These gangs are usually comprised of ex-police personnel (or current members of the force) looking to supplement their measly wages, which in 2012 started at US $964 per month to do dangerous work. They provide protection to residents while charging fees or threatening to limit access to basic services such as gas, water, electricity or unlicensed public transport. Militia gangs are notorious for their violence, and commit nearly half of the city's murders in order to maintain their power.

The report goes on to note that 37 percent of Rio's favelas are still controlled by drug gangs and of the 174 favelas occupied by UPP, only 23 have disarmed the drug traffickers that controlled them before pacification.

What the report spends almost no time discussing is the increase in rape and domestic violence the favelas have seen since pacification. According to the Rio Times, "rape indices went from 1.3 to 4.8 and domestic violence shot up from 27 to 84.6" between 2006 and 2011. Ignacio Cano, head of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence at UERJ argues that this could be the result of two things: as the favelas have faced a change in leadership, it could be that residents are more inclined to report crimes to the police. The other option is that now that the drug lords are not present to maintain social order (otherwise known as the "law of the ghetto"), non-lethal crime has gone up.

Reflecting on the time I spent living in Rio, I cannot help but feel that it is not so simple. I remember going into one of the wealthier, safer favelas soon after it was pacified in 2011. There were police everywhere, with huge guns held at ready. Hoping that they were less intimidating than they looked, I approached one and asked for directions. I was promptly hit on, asked to give these men English classes, wink, wink. These men did not appear concerned for the safety of favela residents. Instead, they were more interested in control through intimidation, threats, and violence.

It is unclear what is causing the increase in violence against women in Rio's favelas. But here is what I do know: Rio has one of the most blatant and fascinating systems of control when it comes to keeping poor people of color marginalized. And even if women are rarely the cause behind drug-fueled violence, I know that militarization often hurts women of color the most.

So yes, I'm sure that women living in the favelas are truly grateful for the services they know have access to. The fear that their sons or brothers will be killed is less present. But to the Portuguese and English-speaking media: Rio's favelas are not any less violent than pre-pacification. It's just that this time, it's the women who are the greatest victims.