Rio: the fight for the favelas

At noon on July 27, when thunderstorms threatened to crack Rio’s warm and humid winter sky, a unit from Bope (the Battalion of Special Police Operations) stormed the favela of Quitanda Costa Barros in the north of the city. As the heavily armed officers moved with their hallmark stealth through the unpredictable alleys of the slum, they came under attack from gunmen hidden in the narrow stairwells and higgledy-piggledy rooftops.

Thirty-seven-year-old Anailza Rodrigues Ribeiro heard the commotion and peered out from her kiosk to see what was happening. Firing its way up the street, she saw “The Big Skull” – the colloquial name given to Bope. It refers to the organisation’s official heraldry, a skull on two crossed guns with a combat knife plunged into the top of its cranium.

Ribeiro was shutting up the little shop where she and her 10-year-old daughter, Bruna, sold snacks. “I shouted to her not to come back as I was closing up, but she couldn’t hear me,” Ribeiro recalls. At this point, a bullet hit the little girl in her stomach, destroying one of her kidneys. She died in hospital some eight hours later. Whether the fatal bullet came from a Bope gun or one of the suspects they were hunting down still has to be established. But in a sense that doesn’t matter – if you fire a lot of rounds in densely inhabited spaces, then sooner or later an innocent will take a bullet.

The events leading to Bruna’s death had begun earlier that week, eight miles to the southeast, in another favela called Complexo do Alemão (The German Complex). In terms of area, Alemão is the largest favela in Rio. It stretches over several undulating miles, although most of it lies just a 20-minute metro ride from the swanky districts of Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana.

In contrast with the townships of South Africa, which are almost all several miles from the city centre, a large number of Rio’s 900-odd favelas sit cheek by jowl with some of the fanciest real estate in Brazil. Several of these slums creep up the mountains, which ascend steeply just hundreds of yards from the city’s fabulous beaches. Favelas take their name from a hardy plant which survives in the arid northeast of the country (which happens to be where most of the slum dwellers hail from). Not only do vicious thorns protect the favela against predators but, if ingested, its leaves can kill you with a poison that mimics the effects of cyanide.

Inside Complexo do Alemão, Rio’s largest favela

Notwithstanding the risks, Rio’s property developers look longingly at two of the most famous favelas, Rocinha and Vidigal, because one can enjoy by far the most spectacular views over Rio from their corrugated-iron shacks.

Starting with next July’s World Catholic Youth Day, which is likely to attract more than a million people, Rio is preparing for a remarkable three years. They will include not only Carnival every February, but football’s World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. London’s spectacular Olympics have just proved that if you do it right, a big sporting event can bolster your reputation and inject a concentrated shot of feel-good into a city.

For Brazil, the stakes are even higher than for Britain. It is the Bric which struggles to get noticed. This is a puzzle. Its mineral and agricultural resources are staggering, but not the only reason for its burgeoning economic influence; its cultural and footballing prowess is dazzling. Moreover, for the west, Brazil is our kind of Bric: a proud democracy; probably the most racially diverse country on the planet; its people are not hung up about sex, partying or booze; and the country has been helping drive a shift in relations between North and South America in favour of the latter. And yet, set against the excitement generated by China and India, it is hardly noticed.

So 2014 and 2016 are opportunities for Rio and Brazil to use cultural and sporting diplomacy to project itself for what it is: a big, big player on the 21st-century stage. To succeed, it must overcome two significant challenges. The first, and probably most important, concerns the infrastructure for the sporting events: will everything get built on time? The second is the persistent presence of the militias and drug gangs controlling its favelas, these fearfully poor but hardy communities located all across town, from the very centre to the far periphery. After countless bitter lessons, these communities have learned to be wary of anyone claiming either to represent them or to improve them.

The juxtaposition of opulence and misery in Rio highlights the moral disgrace of Brazil’s historical legacy. At the same time, it forces the authorities to make good on the genuine commitment of President Dilma Rousseff and her two predecessors to banish the scourge of chronic inequality.

There is no better place to focus than Rio. And that is why the violence that culminated in the killing of Bruna Ribeiro in Quitanda this July has put the authorities on edge. Is their strategy for integrating the urban poor going to hold?

Police officers from Bope, the unit set up to 'pacify' the favelas

Bope had been ordered into Quitanda in search of gang members who, they believed, were behind the killing of Fabiana Aparecida de Souza, a 30-year-old police officer deployed in Alemão four days earlier. She had been on patrol close to her station one evening when at least three teenage gangsters opened fire on her. One round penetrated her bullet-proof jacket and killed her. Her death was especially disheartening, as she was reputed to be a leader against corruption among her peers.

De Souza’s death was the first murder of a serving officer in the favelas since the introduction in 2009 of one of the boldest experiments in policing ever witnessed in the democratic world – the UPP (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora). In response to the attack on her, the authorities sent in The Big Skull, first in Alemão, where three arrests were made and a stash of drugs and guns uncovered, and then in Quitanda, where Bruna Ribeiro was killed.

Bope’s heraldry: the force is known colloquially as 'The Big Skull'

The two deaths shook the UPP, the very heart of Rio state’s favela policy. UPP is the acronym given to those police units which are stationed in the favelas in order to “pacify” them. The architects of the strategy hope that these units will rid the favelas of the tyranny of drug traffickers and vigilante militias, the two main generators of violence inside the slums (although the police and their corrupt practices also have an excellent claim to a place on that undistinguished winners’ podium).

UPP has also come to be used as shorthand for the entire programme. Its success or failure is critical to Rio’s ability to entice all the potential guests to the city for the World Cup and the Olympics. The tremors of returning misrule that began earlier this year in Rocinha, and the recent events in Complexo do Alemão and Quitanda are not simply isolated incidents. The UPP has reached a tipping point, although nobody quite knows which way it will fall.

With the support of state governor Sergio Cabral, UPP was hammered out in 2008 around the table of the then-incoming secretary of public safety of Rio de Janeiro state, José Mariano Beltrame. It has made Beltrame one of the most recognised public figures in Brazil, yet he is not a career politician and shows no inclination of wanting to climb up the greasy pole.

Now in his early fifties, Beltrame graduated in law before becoming a senior federal police officer who developed a reputation for fairness and getting things done. When I met him in Rio state’s cavernous Public Safety Secretariat, he was informal, friendly and down-to-earth. Speaking with a frankness uncharacteristic of Brazilian officials, Beltrame explained what prompted him to devise a strategy that was unprecedented and even risky.

“Everybody in Rio knew – every taxi driver, every senator, every sociologist and every journalist,” he says with a hint of controlled anger. “They all knew that Rio was a divided city. But for 40 years, nobody did a single thing about it.”

The favelas, Beltrame argues, were islands from which the state had just decided to absent itself. Their residents were forgotten and ignored, stewing in a toxic juice of extreme poverty, domestic violence and, from the late 1980s onwards, the omnipotence of Uzi-wielding drug cartels or their vigilante alter-egos, the militias, who specialise in blackmailing entire communities. Regular police raids peppered by arbitrary killings and extortion ensured that favela residents regarded the state not as an ally, but perhaps as their worst enemy.

Appalled by this collective inaction and the stain on the city’s reputation, Beltrame decided to do something about it. In times past, he would have struggled to receive the backing from the governor of Rio state to divert public funds into the favelas. But with the World Cup and Olympics looming, the moment for the UPP had come.

A night patrol in Jacarezinho

The integration strategy and efforts by the state and city hall are divided into two stages: UPP Policing and UPP Social.

The first stage sees crack forces storm the favelas in an intentionally intimidating act of urban shock and awe, followed by the establishment of a large civilian police presence inside the favelas for the first time in history.

When occupying Complexo de Alemão, in November 2010, the authorities decided against taking any chances: the army and navy were deployed to secure the perimeter of the entire area as the special forces went in search of the drug kingpins.

Everybody knew that the pacification of two of the city’s largest favelas, Alemão and Rocinha, was of overriding significance. “We chose those territories that were the critical nodes of criminal activity quite specifically, by assessing the fire power of the factions running them,” explains Beltrame. The greater the firepower, the higher up the list for pacification.

Graffiti linked to the Red Command drug gang

The arsenals in Alemão were without parallel, as this was the stronghold of Rio’s mightiest and most notorious criminal gang, the Comando Vermelho, or Red Command. This group was spawned under Brazil’s military dictatorship, which held sway in the country for 20 years from the early 1960s. During that period the country’s jails started filling up with political prisoners, who started mingling with the common criminals from the favelas (thanks to a military law that identified bank theft as a political crime).

On Ilha Grande, the tropical island south of Rio where one of the most wretched prisons was located, the leftist inmates taught prisoners from the favela how to organise. They reasoned that this would give the revolutionary movement a firm foothold in the favelas. And when the common criminals first returned to Alemão, they did indeed form the Red Falange with the aim of promoting social justice. It was not long, however, before this mutated into the Red Command, an organisation which combined Leninist discipline with the ruthless money-making urges of the mafia.

But the decisive moment came with the introduction of cocaine into the equation. As production in Colombia spiralled upwards during the ascendancy of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two Brazilian ports, Belém in the Amazon delta and Rio, became transit hubs for cocaine going to the US and west Africa (and then on to Europe) respectively.

The sybaritic children of Rio’s wildly rich (and almost exclusively white) elite ensured that there was also a healthy domestic market for cocaine. Before long, the Red Command’s bosses were raking in immense profits and it was only a matter of time before turf wars broke out.

Adriano, 37, is a rare survivor of the fearsome drug wars of the 1990s. Sitting by a dusty road in Alemão, in the regulation favela dress of football shirt and shorts, he outlines with an almost academic authority the secret history of warfare between Rio’s gangs. “In 1992, our boss, Jogador [The Player], was murdered and all hell broke loose,” he says. “Jogador was a narcotrafficker, but this was his home and he established some rules. For example, kids under 16 were not allowed to join [the gang].”

Jogador’s assassination triggered the most violent period in Rio’s history as the Red Command fought a merciless battle with two splinter groups, Amigos dos Amigos and Terceiro Comando, the Third Command. Because of his experience in the military, Adriano’s job was to clean and prepare all the weapons for the Red Command.

As the economic and political power of the gangs grew in the favelas, the deeply corrupted civilian police force, along with local politicians and judges, established links with the narcotraffickers (as the gangs are known throughout South America). There would be no attempt to curb their activities as long as these groups were paid off, which resulted in up to 50 per cent of the drug lords’ profits going to the police and officers of the criminal justice system.

An autodidact, who is now hoping to go to college, Adriano explains to me that, left unchecked, the cocaine wars triggered a huge build-up of arms in all the favelas, and above all in the two headquarters of the Red Command and Amigos dos Amigos, Alemão and Rocinha respectively.

Life gets back to normal in a 'pacified' favela

Like most people I speak to in the favelas, Adriano is relieved at the drop in gun crime as a result of the UPP programme. Nonetheless, he has a more cynical view of the plan than its author. “The rich elite felt it had to protect itself because the gangs, especially from Rocinha, were moving out of the favelas and into the asphalt,” he argues. (Rich districts are known as “the asphalt” because in contrast to the favelas, the roads there are paved.) “Not only were the gangs dealing drugs to the rich kids, but they were starting to get into the kidnap game as well. They wanted to put an end to this and so Beltrame came up with the idea of the UPP.”

Only Beltrame can know if his motives are cynical (although even some of his harshest critics concede he is sincere), but few people can argue with the results of the UPP so far. In the most comprehensive study of the consequences of the police deployment, the independent think-tank the Brazilian Forum for Public Security has established that in those areas where the UPP has been implemented (still covering only about one fifth of favela inhabitants), the homicide rate has dropped by a staggering 80 per cent. The aim of expelling the huge arsenals of the drug lords appears to be working and it is hugely popular, both outside and inside the favelas. In particular, the mothers of adolescent boys (who used to suffer the highest death rates in the favelas) can breathe more easily when their children go out to play.

But there is a flip side to this huge success – a dramatic increase in other forms of crime, notably domestic violence, robbery and rape. This is because while the drug lords used guns indiscriminately in their business, they kept a degree of order within the community. If a girl was the victim of rape, she could appeal to the gang bosses for justice and if the perpetrator were found, he would be executed.

Alemão from its new cable link, one of the UPP’s infrastructure projects

Such draconian sanctions imposed under the rule of the gang bosses have now disappeared and the newly deployed civilian police simply do not have the resources to carry out their normal policing functions. Although a lot of money has been ploughed into Alemão – the cost of policing and infrastructure investments in that one favela alone during the first year of pacification has been estimated by Rio state at around R$230m (£70m) – the UPP officers remain tense.

I spoke to two young policemen ordering their morning coffee just yards from their brand new UPP station, whose paintwork and expansive design stood out against the ramshackle hovels that make up the favela. They had, it emerged, only recently finished their training and, like most UPP officers, they would prefer to be stationed anywhere but in Alemão, a fact supported by the Brazil Forum study which noted a marked antipathy of serving UPP officers towards their job.

Their inexperience and youth is a conscious policy – older officers, it was thought, might already be involved in corrupt networks with the drug gangs. And the young men and women of the UPP have certainly succeeded in achieving the programme’s primary goal, inasmuch as the heavy weapons are largely gone. According to residents, however, there has been little let up in the drug trade. Indeed, on a 15-minute stroll one morning, I passed at least three men who were evidently extremely stoned. But while drugs without the violence may not be ideal, it is an incalculable improvement on what went before.

A Bope unit moves into Jacarezinho, October 2012

So UPP Security is a qualified success. Its critics don’t object to it per se, but argue that Beltrame has initially concentrated on those favelas that surround the rich areas. Three weeks ago, however, he ordered the pacification of Jacarezinho and Marquinhos, two of the most notorious centres of the drug trade far away from wealthy districts. The inhabitants have been especially enthusiastic in welcoming the new UPP administration. Nonetheless, critics continue to point out that the strategy has ignored the great majority of favelas which are not run by drug lords but by violent militias, which include not just former police, soldiers and firemen, but serving ones as well.

“It is quite simple,” explains Pedro Henrique H.F. de Cristo, the founder of the Cidade Unida, a social movement that brings together organisations from Rio’s various favelas. “The favelas in UPP were chosen to protect capital. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a socialist – but the great bulk of the ‘pacified’ favelas are here in Rio’s south zone, where 7 per cent of the population live but which accounts for 50 per cent of the formal employment in Rio and produces 33 per cent of the city’s GDP.”

Despite having a doctorate from Harvard, 28-year-old de Cristo lives in Vidigal, one of the south zone favelas. His two rooms still look only semi-built, with electric cables hanging out of the walls and a shower that sometimes dribbles cold water. But as a native of Paraíba state in Brazil’s northeast, he speaks the same language as the hundreds of thousands of labour migrants from that region who make up the majority of favela residents. So despite being middle class, de Cristo is not regarded as an outsider. He says that among the northeasterners, there is now a widespread fear that the UPP functions as the first step towards the gentrification of the favelas, especially those with the best views.

Social activist Pedro Henrique H.F. de Cristo on the streets of Jacarezinho

Getting to the top of Vidigal involves hopping on the back of a motorbike taxi, donning an ill-fitting helmet and holding tight as the driver shoots up the winding, potholed roads while avoiding the down traffic, scrawny animals and people scuttling across his path. At the top, you feel as though you have just got out of a tank on combat duty, but this sensation is soon surpassed by sheer wonder at the vista beneath, sweeping across Ipanema beach and into Leblon.

As de Cristo explains, Vidigal is now attracting a new breed of inhabitants. Alongside the impoverished day labourers and seemingly destitute children, there is a growing club of IT engineers, artists and bohemians, whose presence has led some to describe this place as the “Shoreditch of favelas”. De Cristo points out a four-bedroom house (which, like most of the houses here, looks as though it has been cobbled together in a couple of days). “The guy who lives there bought it for US$7,500 three years ago and he’s now selling it for US$125,000.”

A restaurateur is building a fancy guest house at the very top of the favela while Eike Batista, Brazil’s richest man, who donates R$20m every year to the UPP programme for the purchase of vital equipment, announced at a conference this year that he wanted to “adopt” a favela.

De Cristo returned to Rio after being awarded his Harvard doctorate – which argued that schools be used as development hubs for the integration of favelas – and immediately began working as a strategist for UPP Social, the second stage of the pacification programme. This new organisation is theoretically responsible for consolidating the security gains in the favelas by ensuring the provision of all those services – education, health, sewage and water – which the favelas have traditionally lacked.

But de Cristo resigned fairly quickly. “There is no doubt that Beltrame has done a very positive thing with UPP Security,” he argues. “But he has no control over UPP Social, and since its beginning it has been little more than a brand. There has been no attempt to map the extent of the problem or to set targets, especially in the area of primary and secondary education. And if the government of Rio fails to deliver on this, then the programme will have been in vain.”

Back in Alemão I meet Lucia Cabral, who outlines what that means in practice. “Tia Lucia” (Auntie Lucia) is a migrant from the northeast, who has been battling to raise local literacy levels for many years through her own NGO. She shows off her new offices which are constructed from 40ft sea-going containers. “All this was provided by the British embassy,” she says, “because they heard about the work I was doing and Prince Harry wanted to meet me on his visit to Rio.”

She has welcomed the police presence in the favela and the reduction in drug violence. But she says it was indicative that the Brazilian state had provided her with nothing, while the British embassy had constructed an entire school within a matter of days. “The UPP Social has done absolutely nothing here, just nothing.”

This is out of Beltrame’s hands. He controls the security operation, not the socioeconomic and infrastructural follow-up. The only time during our talk that he shows any frustration is when I ask him if he has to prod his cabinet colleagues on this issue. Raising his eyebrows, he mutters, “Yes – a lot. A lot.”

And for Beltrame’s well-laid plans, that is a problem. If the authorities do not follow up the largely successful security operation with schools, clinics and the asphalt roads enjoyed by the richer parts of Rio, the gangs will once again fill the void. And if that happens, Rio 2016 will struggle to rival the glory of the London Olympic Games.

Misha Glenny is the author of ‘DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia’ (Vintage, £8.99). He is currently researching a new book on Brazil

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