Taking Back the Favelas Rio Relying on Dubious Methods to Pacify its Slums

Brazil is hoping that hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games will firmly establish the country as a global economic power. First, though, it must win back control of Rio de Janeiro's vast ghettos. Not all of their methods have been well received.

By Cathrin Gilbert


The men came under the cover of darkness. Armed with assault rifles, they grabbed Jonathan and whisked him away. He can't remember what happened next. He was, after all, once again high on crack.

Jonathan, who looks 10, or maybe 12 years old, is a crack kid, one of hundreds of homeless drug addicted children living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. His father, a dealer, was killed by a shot in the face when Jonathan was a small child. "Mom was also gone a short time later," he recalls. His voice sounds raw and dry, and he's missing his front teeth.

Jonathan's territory used to include the Complexo do Borel, one of the sprawling city's most notorious slums, located just 20 minutes by bus from the world-famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Until that summer night, at least, when he was whisked away by state security.

Now the boy sits in the garden of a dilapidated countryside villa located two-hours by car from Rio. The tiles on the roof are full of holes, the plaster is crumbling off the walls and there are no doctors or therapists on site. Instead, there are bull-necked guards with walkie-talkies on their belts whose job is to prevent Jonathan and some 20 other young people from leaving the premises.

The place is one of numerous homes to which Rio's government has shipped off those minors it considers to be a security hazard -- children who not only steal to survive but who perhaps wouldn't shy away from killing either.

In the summer of 2014 Brazil will host soccer's premier international competition, the World Cup. Two years later Rio is staging the Olympic Games. Both events are seen as offering the country an historic opportunity to prove to the world that it has successfully managed the transition from a developing country to a major industrialized nation.

Out of Sight

Brazil is eager to ensure that nothing interferes with the image it is trying to convey. This spring, municipal authorities in Rio de Janeiro enacted a law that permitted the forcible removal of drug-addicted street children. How long crack kids such as Jonathan will be locked away remains unclear, as does the question as to who will care for them. All that matters is that they are out of sight.

Although there are no reliable figures, about a third of Rio's 6 million inhabitants are believed to be living in its favelas, or slums. In the early 1980s, the city gave up trying to solve the misery in their poverty-stricken districts. As a result the ghettos became islands of violence in the heart of the city, ruled over by powerful drug gangs that shaped the lives -- and deaths -- of slum residents.

But since Rio was chosen to host two of the decade's most important sporting events, it has been battling to win back control of its long-abandoned "problem zones" -- particularly those in the south and southeast of the city, where favelas border on areas where hundreds of thousands of tourists will gather for the World Cup and Summer Olympics.

A new police task force has been created, the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), which since November 2008 has gradually begun moving into the most important slums with the aid of special forces and the military. They confiscate weapons, arrest drug bosses and set up a tightly-knit network of permanent checkpoints. The presence of the heavily-armed and omnipresent UPP officers is intended to send a clear message that the state is once again in control.

So far Rio's authorities have taken back 19 of the city's largest slums. Most recently, 3,000 police officers and soldiers stormed into the Rocinha favela just over a week ago -- one of the most lawless of the shanty towns, in which as many as a quarter of a million people are believed to live.

Gun Battles and 40 Deaths

"Operation Peace Shock" began at 4 a.m. Armored vehicles were positioned at strategically important locations, heavily-armed special forces combed the steep alleyways, and the air was filled with the intimidating sound of the helicopters that were coordinating the operation from above. Rocinha was taken in a matter of hours -- allegedly without a single shot being fired.

Not all raids have passed off this peacefully. When special forces attempted to wrest back control of the Complexo de Alemão last year, gun battles raged throughout the slum for days, killing more than 40 people. And when security forces stormed the Complexo do Borel in June last year, they met stiff armed resistance from a drug gang calling itself Comando Vermelho: the red commandos.

The occupied favelas are now under the jurisdiction of Colonel Robson, the head of the UPP. Robson, 48, has been a policeman for the last 26 years. Operation Peace Shock was Robson's project and the entire country is now looking to him. Many think that the success of his mission will determine how the world judges the Brazilian society's ability to integrate and progress.

On the other hand, though, the colonel's plans also strike at the very foundation of football in Brazil. After all, the "jogo bonito," -- the "beautiful game" -- has its roots in the favelas, and many of the country's best players grew up in the anarchic cosmos of Brazil's mega-cities. The question now his how much of that world will remain.

"Powerlessness is the last thing Rio de Janeiro can afford two-and-a-half years before the World Cup," Robson says. It is 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, rain is falling and Colonel Robson is making his rounds. He's sitting in the passenger seat of a black limousine. The jacket of his uniform has three shiny stars on the shoulders. His cap is tilted carefully to one side.

Oppressive Calm

The car turns into a side street on the way to the only entrance into the Morro do Turano favela. The gate leading through the stone wall is known as a "boca," or mouth. Robson's men marched into the slum last year and now, an armored vehicle is parked at the corner by the gate. Inside are two uniformed police officers wearing bullet-proof vests. As they see their commanding officer's limousine with its tinted windows, they jump out of their car and salute.

The limousine then passes through the boca. Just over a year ago, the drug bosses that controlled the slum would have opened fire on the colonel as he entered. Today it is calm. A narrow cobbled street twists and turns upward past a sea of huts clinging to the hillside. These ramshackle homes are made of stone, wood from crates, tin canisters and palm fronds, all propped up by wooden stilts. They look like they could plunge into the valley at any moment.

The air is thick with the pungent smell of burning plastic; trash collection doesn't exist in the favelas. Few men are out on the streets, but a handful of women sit in front of their huts. The calm seems oppressive -- as if the people view the UP officers not as protectors but occupiers from whom they need to hide.

Colonel Robson, who is divorced, has one daughter and is currently together with a policewoman, commands some 300 military policemen stationed in Morro do Turano. They are positioned at roughly 150-yard internals, submachine guns at the ready, night sticks hanging from their belts. The aim is to both prevent violence and provide favela inhabitants a sense of security. In the past, Robson says, the sporadic sorties into the ghettos by the police and army often left behind a trail of death and destruction. Now he hopes for a kind of rapprochement with slum residents.

Tourists Lining Up for Crack

The UPP even turns a blind eye to the drug dealers who push their wares in the back alleys behind the boca. After dark every evening, dozens of tourists and residents of the wealthier quarters of Rio stand in line to buy cocaine or crack -- all of whom, the people that Robson and his men are supposed to be protecting.

The most successful dealers can earn the equivalent of €200,000 in a good month. Peterson is one of them. Just like every evening, he is standing in front of his stone hut, dancing from one leg to the other. Ever since Robson's UPP drove the former drug bosses out of the district, Peterson and a friend have controlled the market. A lookout is perched on the roof, where he can see the police officers "aimlessly standing around and staring at their cell phones."

Peterson is 19. He says he's never gone beyond the walls of his favela. His life history is not atypical for the children in the ghettos: His father shot his mother dead when Peterson was two months old. Shortly thereafter, his father was killed in a reprisal attack. As a result, the skinny boy with short-cropped hair was raised by his grandmother.

"We can't banish drugs from Rio," Robson says flatly. "Anyone who thinks we can is naive." His driver has reached the summit of the hill that the favela has gobbled up. At the top there is a blue-and-white painted container that may look like a Playmobil house, but is actually a UPP base. Robson takes off his cap and asks an officer for a cup of coffee.

Robson is a much sought-after man. A few weeks ago, he presented his concept at a meeting in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires. In Berlin he was the guest speaker at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. He has given talks in Barcelona, Spain and in the Colombian capital Bogota. Everyone wants to know how the colonel plans to bring peace to the favelas and overcome the seemingly boundless rifts in Brazilian society.

'Public Good'

In the Complexo do Borel favela there is a square called the Chácara do Céu: The villa facing the sky. Until a year-and-a-half ago, two rival gangs waged pitched battles at this spot. Nowhere else in the slum have more people lost their lives.

Recently, children have begun coming to the square to play soccer. The air smells of rubber; artificial grass was recently laid; boys and girls are running circles around a police officer. The officer is wearing just a T-shirt, having taken off his bullet-proof vest and gun. He has just finished handing out shoes and jerseys to the kids, most of whom played barefoot up to now. A name is printed in small on the sleeves of the jerseys: Zico. The former Brazilian international, one of the greatest soccer stars the country ever produced, is sponsoring the project.

"We want to reach the kids who aren't addicted to drugs yet," Robson explains. "Children who aren't a lost cause." However, there's no room in Robson's vision for crack kids like Jonathan. The UPP leader takes an unemotional view of Brazilian society, and has no problem defending the forced incarceration of minors "for the public good."

Increasingly, however, the brutal actions of the security forces are meeting with opposition. Raquel Rolnik is a nationally well-known professor who teaches urban planning at Sao Paolo University and is a UN special rapporteur on adequate housing. She accuses the government of abusing basic rights with its resettlement projects.

Former World Football Player of the Year Romario has also criticized the raids. In a recent speech in parliament, the soccer star-turned-politician, who joined the Brazilian Socialist Party two years ago, said, "We can't allow people to be driven away" and spoke of "conditions like in the occupied Palestinian areas."

Romario, a member of the World Cup-winning Brazilian national squad in 1994, was born in Rio's Jacarezinho favela.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt


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