Rio de Janeiro has engaged in an ambitious security operation aimed at freeing its slums and ghettos from the control of gangs before the 2016 Olympics. But security is not the only concern, they are also carefully guarding against economic interests and even shame and embarrassment internationally throughout this attempted makeover of Rio.
With a series of major international events culminating in the summer Olympics in 2016, Rio de Janeiro is set to make its comeback on the international scene after decades marked by violence, neglect and an incredible drug trade. A crucial step is to lower the city’s infamous crime rate, mostly concentrated in the gang-controlled favelas or slums. To do so, the state of Rio de Janeiro has engaged in an ambitious favela-clearing program called “pacification” or UPP (for Pacification Police Units), which involves retaking territories through invasions led either by SWAT-like units or the military itself, and subsequently handing daily policing to community police forces while bringing much-needed public services to the area.
Over 30 communities have already been “pacified”, with 70 more to come by the 2016 deadline. The question on everyone’s lips is: will the pacification be successful? And will its success be sustainable over the long term? Yet a far more crucial question remains unasked: how does a democratic country on the path to economic prosperity come to view warfare as the preferable solution to dealing with a matter of national policing? The answer, while complex, provides an insightful glimpse into the practice of urban governance in today’s militarized cities.
The drug factions and gangs that took control in the 80’s rule over most of Rio’s 600 favelas with extreme violence and their wider grip over the city at large should not be ignored as they are serious, large and powerful. In 2002, the Red Command, Rio’s oldest faction and one of its largest, ordered all stores and schools to close for a day in protest against the detention of the faction’s leader. Residents dutifully complied, fearing retaliation.
After drug gangs moved in the 1980s, media reports continuously portrayed favelas exclusively as hotbeds for crime, leading to an increasing spatial segregation of social classes, despite less than one percent of favela residents engaging in violent crime. Such narrow-minded analysis omits the fact that favela residents are the maids, cooks, gardeners, nannies and other poorly-paid employees that have helped middle and upper classes maintain their lifestyle. It also conveniently forgets the role of Rio’s notoriously violent and corrupt police force, whose history of brutality can be traced back to the military dictatorship, and who themselves are responsible for a large number of violent crimes, more than 1,000 homicides each year.
Brazil’s Time to Shine?
If the pacification efforts succeed there is much to be gained by the city residents. In fact economic benefits are probably the most boasted claims by the effort.
The creation of the UPP can perhaps be explained by Brazil’s ambitions to become a major economic and military player on the Latin American and international stages, notably in the war on drugs (the country has launched a massive border securitization program, going so far as to conduct a coca eradication operation in Peru). Brazil’s government has been lobbying for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council for years, and sought to prove its reliability by running the military wing of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, the Brazilian army perfected its counterinsurgency and slum-securitization techniques, which army sources have since deployed in Rio’s favelas – some soldiers who have been posted in both places have even reportedly found their work in Rio more difficult than in Haiti.
But the UPP isn’t just a political affair. The prospect of incorporating millions of residents into the formal economic life means big business for Rio and Brazil as a whole. “There are… significant economic interests at stake, with some analysts estimating Rio de Janeiro’s economy would grow by 38 billion Brazilian Reals ($21 billion USD) should favelas be reincorporated into mainstream society and markets”, notes a 2009 cable from the US Consulate in Rio released by Wikileaks.
The economic gains brought about by the pacification begins with residents starting to pay taxes, as well as utilities like electricity and cable TV (in gang-controlled favelas, utilities are stolen from the grid and sold for a profit by the gangs. Light, Rio’s electricity company, was thought to lose the equivalent of 30% of the electricity it produces). Retail is also a major winner, with dozens of banks, telecommunication companies, clothing or furniture stores moving into pacified communities formerly out of reach, expecting to win dozens of thousands of new clients at a time. Certainly the pacification effort has many advantages beyond merely ousting gang control and most residents would welcome any single benefit as an improvement over the current state of affairs.
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