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Magazine features

The pacification of Rio de Janeiro

Captain Marcio Rocha on patrol.

Published in the Sun-Herald on June 10, 2012.

There’s a military police car parked at the entrance to Santa Marta, right where the tarmac ends and the favela begins. The men carry assault rifles, but appear bored. “Look around,” Gilson says. “There are pigeons everywhere.” Before, birds were scared off by the flares and the shootouts, when cops and gang members exchanged fire. Now the police are here to stay, it’s just another place to search for crumbs.

Gilson was raised on the hillside and has stayed into adulthood. “My son walks around alone, he’s not worried about anything,” he says. “I always used to be… not scared, but aware that something might happen, that I might have to hide. I saw a guy die once. He saw a police car arriving and when he crept closer to get a better look, they shot him. He fell right in front of me.”

Santa Marta is the prototype for an ambitious project to reshape Rio de Janeiro, known here by its acronym, UPP – Unidade de Policia Pacificadora. This involves sending in an overwhelming force to drive drug traffickers out, then installing a Pacifying Police Unit in the favela. Once security has been established, the theory goes, public services can begin to function in areas that have never known reliable electricity and sanitation, let alone quality education and health care.

There is no good translation for the word favela. Santa Marta is not a slum, although plenty of Rio’s favelas warrant the term. Shanty town isn’t right either, because unlike in Sao Paulo, where poverty is suburban, some of Rio’s poorest people live right on top of rich neighbourhoods, in communities that have grown chaotically up the hill.

“Santa Marta was always ignored by the state,” Gilson says. “The Mayor, the Governor, they never did anything for us. Even the water and light companies didn’t come here. So we felt abandoned.” These days, he is a favela tour guide. He still lives in the same spot, but his family’s former shack is now a three-storey house, with two fridges. He has fathered five children with five different mothers and makes this sound carefree.

Gilson's nickname is Fumaça - Smoke.

In March, Brazil officially surpassed the United Kingdom to become the world’s fifth largest economy, but in the United Nations Human Development Index, it ranks 84th, below Libya and Venezuela. With the World Cup coming in 2014, followed by the Olympics in 2016, the race is on to define Rio’s image: more Girl From Ipanema, less City Of God.

The favela that inspired the film, Cidade de Deus, was one of the first to be pacified, but the true story of a lawless, ultra-violent subculture is still being told: every day, Rio’s newspapers are filled with gunfights and corruption, executions and turf wars. Money is flooding in – prime office space is now more expensive than in Manhattan – but it is still a city where police officers kill 1,000 people in an average year and where more than a million people survive on less than a dollar per day.

There are no roads in Santa Marta. As the funicular railway is out of service, I have to climb the maze of staircases to the new police station at the top. Although I am soon wet through, this is the best way to experience the favela. Christ The Redeemer is in the distance, arms outstretched, framed in a foreground of permanently unfinished houses made of raw concrete, bricks and corrugated iron. Before the UPP, it would have been considered risky to walk around alone and reckless to pull out a camera.

There’s rubbish accumulating in every gutter, so I ask a municipal sanitation worker how frequent the collections are. “Every day,” he shrugs. “But people don’t bring their garbage down.” On the fourth tier of five, there’s a man rolling a joint to start the day.

I’m here to meet Captain Marcio Rocha, the young commander of Santa Marta’s UPP. “Before, there were battles for control of the favela. Gangs would execute people who did something they didn’t like,” he says.

There hasn’t been a murder in Santa Marta in four years, since police set up camp. “People ask me if this project will keep going after the Olympics in 2016. I tell them it could stagnate, but to take it away from areas that already have it… it’s like taking away a public service, like water or light. People have become used to peace.”

We go for a stroll down the hill. The smoker is standing with his family, having finished or stashed his joint. An officer asks him how his grandmother’s doing in hospital, whether she’s over a bout of tuberculosis. Smiles all round.

Violent crimes have dropped significantly in the 23 pacified areas, but reports of theft are up – indicating a willingness to go to the police with complaints. Previously conflicts were resolved by the local drug lord, known in Rio as ‘o dono do morro’ – the king of the hill. “Most of the people who live here trust me,” says Captain Rocha. “They have my mobile phone number. The interaction is real and it didn’t exist before.”

For the project to succeed, police must reset a relationship poisoned by endemic corruption and brutality. They have traditionally entered the favela to make arrests, take bribes, sell guns and shoot people. Changing this institutional mentality is a challenge beyond the reach of any one regime, but the UPPs are a start.

On the way out, I find Gilson, and ask him whether he trusts the police. “I don’t trust them,” he says, then thinks for a moment. “No, I don’t trust them. I’ve got my reasons.” A guy holding a beer, drunk before lunch, beckons me over. “You’ll always be welcome here,” he says. “In Santa Marta, we treat people with respect. It’s not the police. Do you understand me?”

The Governor of Rio De Janeiro, Sergio Cabral, has staked his reputation on the UPPs, but their architect is his Security Secretary, Jose Mariano Beltrame. The first time I visited Santa Marta, Beltrame’s wife was there, showing dignitaries around. It is a special case, not only the first pacified area but also the most successful, in a self-contained community of 8,000 people, with one entrance, one exit and a battalion headquarters at the foot of the hill.

At play in Santa Marta.

In 1995, Michael Jackson danced down the steps in the video for They Don’t Care About Us after his managers negotiated safe passage with the local gang. When Beyonce and Alicia Keys filmed clips there two years ago, their biggest problem was autograph-hunters.

Santa Marta came first in a ranking of the UPPs compiled by Extra newspaper, using statistics from the Institute of Public Safety. In Fallet, Coroa, Fogueteiro and Sao Carlos, all “pacified” favelas, there are regular shootouts between police and gangs. Senior officers have been caught taking bribes.

The violence statistics are impressive – there has been a 68.5% reduction in the number of people wounded by stray bullets in four years – but nobody pretends fewer drugs are being sold. Tyndaro Menezes, a veteran crime reporter, said the traffic has never been more lucrative: “Before, gangs spent a fortune on weapons, ammunition, soldiers to protect their territory. Now they don’t need to spend this money because the police are there, protecting them. Before there were various police to pay, now there’s only one police station to corrupt.”

There are four main gangs in Rio. The largest and most military in culture is Red Command. In the city’s segregated jails, more than 13,000 men are housed in Red Command units. Pure Third Command is the second largest, followed by the Friends Of Friends. Militias like the League Of Justice, led by a former military policeman known as Batman, control areas in the west.

For a cut, these paramilitary groups provide services to the favela that public utilities deliver elsewhere, such as electricity wired illicitly from the mains, known as “cat light,” or a satellite signal, split into scores of “cat net” accounts. The factions are commonly referred to as “o poder paralelo” – the parallel power.

Rocinha, which covers the hill between two of Rio’s richest neighbourhoods, Leblon and Sao Conrado, is a city in itself, home to something like 180,000 people. Police invaded last November, but it has not been pacified. A policeman, Rodrigo Cavalcante, was recently shot dead on patrol. The same week, a community leader named Feijao was executed in plain daylight. There have been gunfights between groups vying for control of what Beltrame calls “the largest drug market in America,” despite 700 cops on patrol at all times.

This is an unintended consequence of the pacification process. Days before the invasion, the reigning ‘dono do morro,’ known as Nem, was captured trying to escape in the boot of a car. “I’ve known Nem since he was a little boy,” a friend’s housekeeper from Rocinha told me. “People in the community respected him and people who were alright, he respected them too. There’s always someone who maintains order in the favela. Now we hope that’s going to be the police.”

She didn’t want her name to be used. She’d heard that a Red Command leader, Dudu, had returned to Rocinha. “Everyone’s scared he’ll come back and take over. He kills like he’s slaughtering a chicken,” she said. Her kids often missed school because of shootouts. Now grown, her daughter is a physiotherapist, her son a carpenter – members of a Brazilian middle class that has grown by 40 million people in the last eight years, integrating cities faster and more effectively than any project can.

In April, a Civil Police Intelligence Unit report about the pacification of Rocinha was leaked. It accused commanders of taking bribes of $35,000 per month to allow drug runners to use the alleys. Governor Cabral has signed a decree requiring police and firefighters to make an annual declaration of their assets, in an attempt to stem corruption. A new bonus system has been introduced, but as the basic wage is less than $900 a month, graft is still the only way to get rich.

Professor Ricardo Henriques is in charge of UPP Social, the agency which determines how increased government spending should be allocated in the pacified favelas. This means listening to residents and setting realistic goals – better rubbish collection, subsidised nurseries, improved sports facilities – but to Henriques , this is a precursor to more fundamental change. “Rupturing the symbolic frontier between the favela and the city is just as important as the material improvements we need to make,” he said. “Is it better to have no guns in the favela? Obviously. But this by itself is not enough to integrate them. Our objective is to bring this concept of a divided city to an end.”

In Rio, people talk about “the hill” and “the asphalt”. In the south zone, shanties are tucked behind luxury apartment buildings. It is no coincidence that the first areas to be pacified were those closest to the chic barrios. “The crime statistics have been questioned, but they show a big drop,” said journalist Julia Michaels, who writes the Rio Real blog. “Five years ago in Ipanema you could not talk on the street with your cellphone, because someone would grab it off your ear.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests the south zone is a less dangerous place than it used to be. There are fewer horror stories: the day my wife encountered two men with submachine guns on a back street near her apartment, the time a man waving an iron bar tried to drive my mother-in-law off the road, a close friend who was kidnapped and taken to the ATM at gunpoint. A Copernicus Institute survey, released in May, found that 74% of Rio’s residents feel safer now than they did three years ago.

House prices have risen sharply since Rio was awarded the 2016 Olympics. The trajectory is steepest near UPP areas, thanks to declining numbers of stray bullets, muggings and break-ins. In Santa Marta, people complain that everything is more expensive, especially electricity. In his tiny flat there, a subdivision of a subdivision, stinking of damp, a rapper and community leader, Fiell, told me his bill for a fridge and a fan comes to $50 a month.

Fiell raps about life in the favela.

“Real estate speculators are charging higher rents, but the guy who lives here is still earning minimum wage,” he said. “How’s he supposed to keep going? People will sell up because they can’t afford to live here and the millionaires will be waiting, desperate to invest.” In Vidigal, a German investor has been buying up houses, convinced that the favela’s view of Ipanema beach is undervalued.

The next challenges for Beltrame’s forces are sprawling shanty cities in the north zone, such as Complexo do Alemao, which the army invaded two years ago following a wave of bus-burnings. Complexo da Mare is a vast slum, the first visitors see on their way downtown from the airport. Between them they are home to more than 200,000 people.

Many worry that the gangs have simply been driven to the periphery. “It’s like a cockroach,” an NGO worker told me. “Stamp your foot and it goes to your neighbour’s house.” Statistics from the Institute of Public Safety show that burglaries have tripled in Niteroi, the city across the bay. Last month, residents staged a protest, demanding UPPs of their own. Although Rio’s police academy is turning out 6,000 new recruits each year, this is nowhere near enough to meet demand.

Research by academics Bruno Vaz and Claudio Ferraz showed that people in UPP areas were more likely to vote for Governor Cabral in state elections – an unstated aim of the project. In Santa Marta, people complain about the early hours curfew that has stopped all night baile funk parties, but nobody that I spoke to wanted to go back to the way things were.

Christ lights up Santa Marta.

A paint company recently announced plans to touch up every building in Santa Marta. The deal is a publicity stunt and the change cosmetic, but private investment on the heels of pacification is real. Although I often heard the UPPs dismissed as a “maquiada” – Rio putting on make-up, for the outside world and for itself – they are opening up previously inaccessible areas of the city.

Fiell questioned whether the price of routine militarisation is worth paying. “Why is this the only part of town that needs to be controlled by armed men? In the public imagination, it’s as if the whole favela is dealing drugs,” he said. “When actually they’re working in the kitchens of the rich, in the street, in restaurants, driving buses, making the city work.”

He gestured at the poverty of his surroundings, the alleys with no numbers or names, the filth collecting everywhere. “These days Santa Marta is presented as a neighbourhood. How is this a neighbourhood? What solves problems is culture, work, dignity, giving people access to health care and education. The police will not make lives better.” At the entrance to the favela, where the asphalt meets the hill, the pigeons disagreed.