Rio De Janeiro, Brazil – More than a month after “pacifying police units” seized control of Rio’s biggest slum or favela with the help of tanks and helicopters, life seems to be improving for residents of Rocinha. On a sunny afternoon in December, children dart through narrow hillside alleys, butchers hawk chicken meat from side-walk stalls and graffiti artists paint murals around the densely populated urban ghetto.
The crackdown in Rocinha, which saw 3,000 heavily armed police storm into the neighbourhood in November, is part of an ongoing campaign in Brazil to assert state authority in largely lawless favelas as the country prepares to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics two years later.
“Sometimes the bad rap our community gets is fair, it has been violent,” says Rogerio Roque, a former drug dealer who has become a youth worker and anti-violence activist. “Before the crackdown, lots of gunfire could be heard but it is getting better.”
Antonio Bonfim Lopes, the alleged drug lord known locally as “Nem”, who controlled organised crime in the favela, was arrested by police on November 10, as the crackdown’s opening salvo.
Security forces have occupied more than a dozen shanty towns in the last three years, but the operation in Rocinha – often described as the biggest slum in Latin America – is seen as a litmus test for the government’s ability to control the ghettos.
Most of the estimated 100,000 residents of the favela do not have formal title to their homes. Brazilians from the country’s poor northeast first established Rocinha as a squatter community in the 1940s. It is the largest of Rio’s 500 favelas; neighbourhoods where about 20 per cent of the city’s population resides.
Known as bastions of violence and lawlessness, where heavily armed drug dealers patrol the streets, Brazil’s favelas inspired the internationally acclaimed gangster film City of God, the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and a series of popular Brazilian movies, including Jose Padiha’s Elite Squad 2.
Outside of a public housing complex – one of the few areas in Rocinha where residents have formal deeds to their small homes – children scamper around, pretending to blast each other with pieces of scrap wood carried like machine guns.
“Do you know any English words?” my Brazilian friend asks one of them.
Police seize control over Brazil’s biggest slum
“Give me money,” the kid replies in perfect English.
Since the crackdown, the official narrative of violence and vice has started to change, with Brazilian and international media visiting Rocinha to do “positive” stories about honest people making a living in rough circumstances. Many residents commute into other parts of Rio, working in restaurants, retail or the service sector.
“I think life will get better here [now that the government is asserting authority],” Roque says, standing beside a new swimming pool and youth centre built by the state. “Now companies are coming here to open stores and the Bank of Brazil just opened a branch in the neighbourhood.”
As someone who left the drug life after doing time in jail, Roque’s transformation could be an example of what government policymakers hope will happen to the community itself: Once people have options aside from the criminal lifestyle, they will embrace them.
The Brazilian flag is now hoisted-up in the middle of the favela, for the first time, and it’s seen as a sign of state control in the previously lawless area.
Not everyone is happy with the state’s new presence. “About half the population supports the crackdown,” says Leandro Lima, a young reporter, born and raised in the neighbourhood, who writes for the local news website FavelaDaRocinha.com. “In some ways, Nem was a good administrator, and before [the crackdown] people didn’t have to pay for their electricity” as they siphoned it off from the grid.
Criminals used the lawless area as a base to sell cocaine and marijuana to rich kids from surrounding areas, residents say.
Nem, and various gangsters who preceded him, attempted – often ineffectively – to keep peace in the favela, so authorities wouldn’t come inside. “If you get robbed here, you would never call the cops,” Lima says.
“A few years ago, my friend had his watch stolen,” he says. “They [gangsters] found the guy who did it and brought him to my friend. They asked ‘Do you want us to cut off one of his fingers?” The friend declined, but harsh criminal ‘justice’ has been a feature of life in the area.
Nem banned the highly addictive drug crack cocaine from Rocinha, Lima says.
In 2008, the government started a new policing programme called “pacifying police units” (UPPs), with the declared aim of reducing shootouts in the slums, releasing communities from the control of gangs.
Military police, carrying automatic weapons and hanging-out in the back of a pick-up truck emblazoned with a skull stabbed with a sword, refused interview requests.
Iraq to Rocinha
WikiLeaks documents from the US consulate in Rio marked “confidential” in December 2009 conclude that the Favela Pacification Programme “shares some characteristics with US counter-insurgency doctrine and strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq”.
“The programme’s success will ultimately depend not only on effective and sustained coordination between the police and state/municipal governments, but also favela residents’ perception of the legitimacy of the state.”
Residents seem to welcome the new swimming pool, bank and other infrastructure projects, but some still do not trust local government officials.
Forced evictions in Rio de Janeiro
The president of the favela association in Rocinha, Leonardo Rodrigues Lima (no relation to Leandro Lima the journalist), refused Al Jazeera’s interview request. Sporting a yellow golf shirt and constantly yelling into a cellphone, Lima did explain that it was too early to tell if the crackdown was working.
While the government has hoisted the national flag, they have been less effective in cleaning massive piles of garbage stinking-up street corners in the densely packed area.
Without formal title to their homes, it is difficult for residents to get loans to start business, so they often have a hard time participating in the formal economy.
“One of the principal challenges in this project is to convince favela population that the benefits of submitting to state authority (security, legitimate land ownership, access to education) outweigh the costs (taxes, utility fees, civil obedience),” WikiLeaks cables note. “As with American counter-insurgency doctrine, we should not expect results overnight.”
Information gathering is arguably the key ingredient for a successful counter-insurgency campaign; and favela residents say security forces have used some unique strategies in Rocinha.
“One day, about six months ago, these two hot, hot blonde women moved into a house in the favela,” Lima says. “They would go and buy groceries, walk around and talk to people. All the guys were checking them out.”
After the operation which netted Nem, residents learned the “hotties” were undercover police officers, Lima, the young journalist, says.
‘Hearts and minds’
Some residents, who do not fully trust the authorities, worry the police crackdown was linked to broader economic interests, rather than their well-being.
“Things have become more expensive,” says Flavio Carvalho, 25, a student living in the area. “You see in the newspaper that the economy is growing, but I haven’t seen it for real. Most of the money goes to companies.”
Foreign tourists have descended upon Rocinha, drinking beer at canteens, taking pictures with high-end digital SLR cameras and, according to Lima, viewing poor communities like an exotic “urban safari”. Some even rent apartments in the favela, and housing costs have soared since the crackdown, residents say. Some worry they will be priced out of their own neighbourhood.
A December 12 report from the People’s World Cup Committees, a coalition of human rights groups, alleges that 150,000 people have had their housing rights violated around Brazil in order to “clear the ground to make way for big money-making real estate projects” related to sporting events.
“Everything about sports is important,” says a graffiti artist calling himself D Wark, as he paints a mural near Rocinha’s entrance. “But the money they used for the Olympics could be used for more important things such as sanitation, culture and job development.”
While Wark spray paints, two younger guys watch intently. He mentors disenfranchised kids, teaching them graffiti so they can get jobs painting signs for businesses.
According to the United Nations study, State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011, Brazil has reduced its favela shantytown population by 16 per cent in the last decade, implying “an improvement in the living standards of 10.5 million Brazilians between the years 2000 and 2010”. According to that UN study, the poor living in favelas dropped from 31.5 to 26.4 per cent of the population.
When discussing an earlier pacification action, US consular officials noted that the programme had “little chance of success” if it is just crafted around the Olympics. “If, however the programme wins over “hearts and minds” in the favelas… [it] could remake the social and economic fabric of Rio de Janeiro.”
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEchris