President Obama's Visit to a Favela in Rio: Below the Surface Calm

A part of President Obama's visit to Brazil is to be an outing to a favela, a slum neighborhood, in Rio de Janeiro.
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A part of President Obama's visit to Brazil is to be an outing to a favela, a slum neighborhood, in Rio de Janeiro. Rio's government wants to show off the progress of its so-called Pacification Plan (UPP) designed to address the criminality, underdevelopment, and lack of state presence of these poor neighborhoods.

Historically deprived and neglected in their economic development, social integration, and provision of public safety, Rio's favelas are ghettos of thousands to tens of thousands of people. When I visited one notorious favela, the Alemão complex, last year, I had to pass through a checkpoint manned by drug gang members with AK-47s and be accompanied by a "fixer" trusted by the gang. Inside, ramshackle houses with pirated electricity and without water or sewage systems precariously lined steep hills of narrow unpaved alleys. Many of the houses were riddled with bullet holes from periodic and bloody urban warfare between Rio's police and the gangs. In the main square, a table, guarded by about ten young men with machine guns, was spread out with packets of cocaine for purchase.

The purpose of UPP is to retake the favelas from gangs like the Comando Vermelho. The goals are to beef up security in Rio before the 2014 Soccer World Cup and 2016 Olympics, assure Cariocas (how the residents of Rio's nonfavela neighborhoods are known) that their fear of street and organized crime often blamed on the favelas is being addressed, and hopefully to improve the living conditions for the favela residents. First, heavily-armed SWAT forces known as BOPE are sent to retake a favela. After fighting subsides, the heavy police forces are replaced by community police, and socio-economic provisions are brought in to secure the allegiance of the population to the state and to wean the community from the drug gangs. The takeover of Alemão in December of last year, after previous failed attempts, was widely applauded as a major success.

Modeled after similar programs, such as Virada Sociale in Sao Paolo and GPAE in Rio in the 1990s, the strategy has several points of vulnerability. First, the heavy forces often fail to capture the gang leaders and many gang members who either escape to another favela or the outskirts of Rio or blend in among the raided favela's population. Favela residents at best do not trust the police; at worst deeply resent its presence, seeing it as an occupation force. They thus lack motivation to provide intelligence to the state.

The persistence of the gang leadership and structure becomes especially a problem after the handoff to the community police, which is much more lightly armed. When the BOPE teams arrive, the drug gang often chooses not to fight, but then tries to retake the favela after the BOPE forces leave. Rumors have persisted for months, for example, that the drug gangs have been mobilizing hundreds of combatants to retake another prominent favela, Cidade de Deus. Although they haven't succeeded, their shadow presence continues to intimidate the favela community and scare it from cooperating with the state.

Second, the UPP operations are very resource-intensive, and Rio lacks enough community police to retake all the favelas and maintain a sufficient law-enforcement presence. Moreover, Rio's police forces are notoriously brutal, corrupt, and deeply penetrated by organized crime, including drug gangs and anti-gang militias. Rio is now focusing on undertaking comprehensive police reform, but it is a slow and painstaking process.

Third, building trust in the community takes a long time. Often the immediate consequence of the suppression of a drug gang is the rise of street crime and the collapse of dispute resolution mechanisms in the favela since the drug gangs often function as sole providers of order and rules. The community police often struggle to suppress street crime. Access to formal and effective justice is slow to arrive in the favelas.

Similarly, the socio-economic package is often meager and frequently comprises limited handouts, such a clinic here and a water tank there, rather than being comprehensive enough to turn the life of a community around and generate sustainable development. Rio is trying to beef up the program, such as by bringing mobile medical teams to the favelas on a regular basis. The toughest challenge is generating jobs in the legal economy for the young men who have been employed in the drug trade, which underpins much of the favelas' economic activity. Finding alternative jobs for them and other favela residents with limited education and mobility is difficult, especially since Cariocas are frequently reluctant to hire someone with a favela address even for menial jobs.

The UPP faces a tough road ahead: despite the tragic violence, the BOPE takeovers are often the easiest part. But after years of repressive policies alternated by neglect, UPP is the best chance that favela residents have had.

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