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Rio de Janeiro: the ‘pacification’ of the favelas

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Rio de Janeiro’s Pacification: From a Divided City to Divided Favelas?
by Verena Brähler*

Rio de Janeiro is currently undergoing rapid social transformations. Spurred by the successful FIFA World Cup and Olympic bids and steady economic growth, the city is undertaking major infrastructure projects, as well as the regeneration and integration of formerly neglected areas.

For several decades, Rio’s favelas had been controlled by drug trafficking factions or militias. At the end of 2008, special community policing Governor Sergio Cabral opens the UPP in the Comunidade do Morro dos MacacosGovernor Sérgio Cabral opens the UPP in the Comunidade do Morro dos Macacosunits were created, the so-called Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPPs), with the intention of recapturing state territory, arresting or expeling drug traffickers and improving the community-police relationship; the idea was to overcome finally the stigma of a ‘divided city’. The UPP pacification is complemented by the mayor’s UPP Social Programme, which aims to promote social development and bring social services into the community in order to fully integrate it with the rest of the city.

Until now, around 20 favelas have been pacified by the UPPs. Furthermore, Rocinha and Complexo do Alemão, two former drug trafficking strongholds, have been occupied by the armed forces and will receive their proper UPP units soon. Rio’s state secretary of security, José Mariano Beltrame, plans to have 40 communities pacified by 2014 and a further 60 by 2016. For the residents of the pacified favelas, life has considerably changed: many drug traffickers and criminals have left the communities and the number of shootouts, homicides and extrajudicial killings has decreased.

However, whereas living conditions in pacified favelas are steadily improving, in many non-pacified communities security and social services are still at a critical level or even deteriorating. According to the 2010 Census, there are a total of 1,332 favelas in the state of Rio de Janeiro with a population of more than 2 million inhabitants. The pacification strategy only envisions installing UPP units in a rather small fraction of these  (100 favelas) by 2016. Thus, some people have voiced the concern that Rio de Janeiro is changing from being a divided city into one that has divided favelas, because of the increasing differences between the pacified and non-pacified communities.

One such place that has not been pacified yet is Vila Aliança, a favela of 13,000 inhabitants in the West Zone of the city, around 40km from the city centre. Vila Aliança is Latin America´s first planned housing complex, constructed in 1961 as part of US president Kennedy´s Alliance for Progress programme that offered technical and financial help to Latin American countries in order to prevent the Cuban Revolution from spreading further. Carlos Lacerda, Rio de Janeiro´s state governor at the time, used this funding to remove favela residents from the city’s prosperous South Zone (e.g. Morro do Pasmado in Botafogo) to three new housing complexes in the city’s remote West Zone: Vila Aliança and the neighbouring Vila Kennedy in Bangu, along with Cidade de Deus in Jacarepaguá.

However, even though Vila Aliança was fully urbanised from the beginning with planned streets and a flat topology, it had until recently one of the lowest Human Development Indices of the city. After the pacification of Rocinha and the Complexo do Alemão, it is also one of the few remaining drug trafficking strongholds in the city – firmly controlled by the Terceiro Comando Puro (TCP), whose boss, Marcos José Sabino, called Matemático, is Rio’s most wanted fugitive. Shootouts between the police and the traffickers are the order of the day and innumerous people – policemen, traffickers and civilians – have lost their lives in the drug war over the years.

In 2008, a group of three residents – Samuca, Jê and Binho – decided to do something about this negative image of their community and the lack of opportunities for young people. They founded the Centro Cultural A História Que Eu Conto [Cultural Centre The Story That I Tell, CCHC] which provides social development opportunities for the community´s adolescents who are at risk of becoming involved with crime and for those that are already involved and want to start a new life.

The founders’ own path of life is rather indicative, as well: Samuca, for instance, lost his mother as an adolescent and started assaulting people as a 16-year-old. When he was 18, he became involved with bank robberies and kidnappings; his nickname at the time was moleque sinistro [sinister boy] and he was soon one of Rio’s most wanted criminals. At the age of 22, Samuca was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison; it was there that he promised to himself to change his life and to stop other youngsters from making the same mistakes. After having served seven years in prison, Samuca returned to his community. One of the young rebellious youngsters that Samuca took under his wing and stopped from entering the world of crime was Jê, at the time 17 years old and famous for his graffiti. The two joined forces with Jê’s older brother, Binho, who was already involved with community work (he had founded the community’s first library in 1998) and together they founded the CCHC in 2008.

The history of the CCHC’s building — a former primary schoo —  is as characteristic for Vila Aliança as the life story of its founders. After a huge police operation in 2008 during which 14 traffickers were killed, the community´s primary school was abandoned because the students and teachers had witnessed the massacre and were too traumatised to return to class. Samuca, Jê and Binho, also called os três loucos [the three crazy ones], wanted to turn this empty space into a cultural centre but their official proposal to the city´s major and the secretaries of culture and education was rejected. So they decided to occupy the territory, in line with the city’s statute that a public space needed to fulfill its social function. After two years of lobbying, they w ere finally granted a 10 year lease by the mayor.

Today, the CCHC offers different arts and education courses, such as graffiti, theatre and cinema, to adolescents at risk and provides social assistance to the adolescents’ families. Over the years, the centre has turned into a regional benchmark for grassroots community development and has succeeded in maintaining a fragile balance of powers – it is equally respected by the community´s residents, the drug traffickers, politicians and NGOs. Meeting the interests of the different groups, while remaining true to its roots, is not an easy task, says Binho: ‘The favela is a big gold mine, the target for exploitation by electoral politics. Great researchers and filmmakers win prizes because of it. But what is the legacy that they leave behind?’ Still, the struggle seems to pay off: the CCHC has received project funding (R$100,000) from  the Casa da Moeda and even won a highly prestigious Petrobrás grant (R$200,000) for 2012.

Meanwhile, the community of Vila Aliança continues to lack many basic social services. The life of its residents is significantly restricted by the drug trade and the frequent shoot-outs with the police. Rio de Janeiro’s state governor, Sérgio Cabral, and the secretary of security, Beltrame, have stated on several occasions that Vila Aliança and its neighbouring favelas will be pacified in the near future. Some residents fear that the occupation and pacification of the community could be as violent as the one in the Complexo do Alemão in November 2010. Others fear that the pacification could happen too soon and that the community is not ready to absorb it. New local leaders have to be trained in human and civil rights and access to justice. Binho, co-founder of the CCHC, is also worried about the general future of favelas in Rio de Janeiro. When assessing the pacification policy so far, he observed that only pacified communities benefitted from further social development programmes and wished that the state would fulfil its obligation to bring public policies to all of the 1,332 favelas – whether they had an UPP or not.

* Verena Brähler is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for the Study of the Americas (ISA), London, currently living in Rio de Janeiro to conduct field research about the “Inequality of Security”. She works part-time as a Consultant at the International Council on Security and Development.