The “Pacification” of Rio’s Favelas

December 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

In a TV commercial aired in Rio de Janeiro and sponsored by the current state government, we see a police car arrive to a favela and from its back doors emerge not armed policemen, but rather a doctor, a teacher and other basic service providers, signifying the positive changes that the “pacification” of Rio’s poorest communities is supposed to bring.  The commercial asked for continued public support for the new Pacifying Police Units, or UPPs, installed in dozens of Rio’s favelas over the last three years.  This new program has revolutionized law enforcement in Rio de Janeiro by literally invading urban areas previously controlled by drug-trafficking gangs, and replacing it with a permanent police presence.  These occupations occurred with backing of military troops, armored tanks and Brazil’s renowned Special Operations Police Battalion, or BOPE, a force of such magnitude that most gangs fled to avoid imprisonment or death, and thus allowed these occupations to take place rather peacefully, sometimes without a single shot being fired.

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Photo by Marino Azevedo/Imprensa RJ

The discourse deployed by government officials and by the mainstream media in Brazil is that favelas are being “liberated” from organized crime by the UPP program, and will transform these neglected communities into proper neighborhoods with improved infrastructure and an expansion of public services.  There is no question that violence has sharply decreased and, for the first time in Rio de Janeiro’s history, urban areas that were previously completely neglected by the state are now receiving millions of dollars in investments, including the construction of a sports complex in Rocinha, a cable car that provides free transportation at Complexo do Alemão and a new public library in Santa Marta.  Community leaders have complained, however, that the social component of the UPPs is being administered top-down by state officials, rather than arising from dialogue with members of the community to address their needs.  For the construction of the cable car at Complexo do Alemão, for example, many families were forcibly evicted and relocated elsewhere.

Additionally, there are many direct consequences to the “pacification” of favelas that might irreversibly alter these communities.  In the first place, the main purpose of the UPP program is obviously to reduce crime in the city, with the aim of increasing security for the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic games in 2016.  The occupying police, therefore, are given complete authority over the favelas they supervise, and there are worrisome reports about abusive police searches and the outright forbidding of dances and other social gatherings.  In the second place, the legalization of basic services such as electricity, Internet and gas will represent a sharp increase of monthly bills for low-income residents, who are accustomed to acquiring these services through informal, extra-legal means.  The public and private companies that offer these services will profit immensely from their legalization, despite offering reduced rates to low-income families.  Thirdly, “pacified” communities have seen a sharp increase in property values and rental fees, which might lead to a process of gentrification that will push out the most vulnerable community members to more peripheral neighborhoods.  Favelas that have the nicest views of the city, particularly those located in close proximity to wealthy neighborhoods, will likely see family homes being replaced by hostels, as tourism in the favelas becomes a popular option for those who seek a more “authentic” Brazilian experience.

There are also troublesome questions about how committed the state government is about fighting the growing number of militias, made up of former members of the military police, which control urban areas previously run by drug-trafficking gangs.  Those favelas that are controlled by militias have been largely left untouched by the UPP program.   There are also signs that drug sales continue as usual in favelas with UPPs, despite the gangs having been largely dismantled, and no one knows yet who is profiting from these new schemes.

Nonetheless, there is still hope that UPPs could still become a more democratic form of organizing the city, in contrast to previous forms of urban control that were rife with human rights abuses, crime, police corruption and the indiscriminate assassination of Afro-Brazilian youth.  It’s the promise of lasting peace that makes UPPs have the support of most favela residents, giving the idea of “pacification” a much more positive connotation in Portuguese than it has in English.  Rio de Janeiro has struggled for decades against its poorest residents, criminalizing and isolating them rather than trying to integrate them into civil society as citizens.  For once, favelas are seriously being considered as viable and valuable parts of the urban landscape, and the counterdiscourse emanating from these communities is resonating more loudly within the public sphere.  It remains to be seen whether the mega sporting events that are the main motivations behind the transformations of Rio’s landscape will reinscribe the differences between the morro (hillside shantytown) and the asfalto (asphalt), or will help undermine that dichotomy once and for all.

By contributing author, Alvaro Jarrin

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