Op-Ed: Taking Back Rio’s Favelas From a Siege of Narco Traffickers

Brazil has promised the world a safe Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics and World Cup. Hometown residents may come out ahead in the deal.

Favela street art from Inside the Favelas: Rio de Janeiro by Douglas Mayhew, copyright © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated.

Nov 13, 2012

Six weeks ago, in mid-September, in the favela community known informally as Jacarezinho, the narcotics and arms industry was in full-swing along the Rua Comandante de Sá, one of the pedestrian-only streets that run perpendicular to the community’s main commercial thoroughfare.

The open-air marketplace was composed of 40 or so card tables arranged gauntlet-like, each piled high with Ziploc bags of cocaine, crack cocaine, pills, and marijuana. Behind each table, a middle-echelon drug-traffic employee hollered at possible customers—each asserting that their product was superior in quality to that of their neighbors, and cheaper to boot.

The dealers were armed with pistols and revolvers. Above the market, the barrels of high-caliber assault rifles poked out of the half-curtained windows. Even though a squad of armed, narco-soldiers had given me permission to enter the favela, and my passport came with a laissez-faire grant of protection, guns are guns, and they go off unexpectedly.

MORE: Brazil Cracking Down in Crackland

The din of faux-anger and competition fazed no one. The residents all knew the routine. The air of competition was just theater. All the dealers, packagers, money-counters, runners, lookouts and guards worked for the same, omni-powerful narcotics faction—the Comando Vermelho.

The residents scooting down the street past the pushers were tight-lipped, and their eyes were downcast. The drug addicts lying in clumps on the roadside were either incomprehensibly loquacious or comatose. I managed to shoot a few photos of the scene without setting of any alarms, but I was on edge—in Jacarezinho, everyone seems to be an unwitting suspect in a crime waiting to happen.

In dealer-run communities, all services and programs, state supplied or otherwise, exist and operate or do not on the whim of the ruling trafficker; as do all judicial proceedings, decisions, and punishments.

One month later, the combined forces of Rio de Janeiro’s state security apparatus, supported by federal troops and firepower, entered Jacarezinho and in short time freed the desolated community from the decades-long domination of the drug trade.  Simultaneously, the armed forces invaded the Complexo de Manguinhos and two other neighboring favelas with the same objective and outcome. The CV (Comando Vermelho) had not suffered such a crushing and destabilizing defeat since the state retook its faction headquarters and principle fortress, the Complexo do Alemão, two years previously.

The four favelas and the smaller satellite communities under their control were immensely important to the state’s overall security and anti-crime objectives. Not only were these locations among the CV faction’s last strongholds—where previously dispossessed traffickers could hide—the four localities were also the faction’s chief packaging and distribution hub for the drugs Rio consumed and shipped abroad.

To date, the state has secured the freedom of roughly 280,000 people living in the city’s favelas. To maintain those freedoms, the administration began stationing permanent police forces in strategically located favelas four years ago. The program is known by its acronym—UPP (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora)—or Police Peace Units.  The program has toppled narcotics and arms trafficking in 29 favela regions.

The UPP mission and its discussion, in highly simplified terms, is to get the traffickers, guns and drugs out of the communities in order to allow social services, healthcare facilities, educational opportunities and job-training programs to enter the favelas and operate without interference.

Additionally, with the removal of the drug warfare, basic infrastructural improvements such as clean drinking water and waste-water management systems, reconfigured electrical grids, regularized trash collection, and new and resurfaced roads can be built to address the neglect that has pervaded the favela neighborhoods since the governorship of Leonel Brizola in the early 1980s. Brizola’s policy directives forbidding police intervention in the favelas authorized the unimpeded march of the drug industry into the favelas. As a result of this invasion, traffickers have imposed a “life without parole” sentence on favela residents.

Inside the Favelas: Rio de Janeiro by Douglas Mayhew, copyright © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated.

In dealer-run communities, all services and programs, state supplied or otherwise, exist and operate or do not on the whim of the ruling trafficker; as do all judicial proceedings, decisions, and punishments.

Internationally, the success of the UPP program directly affects the world-wide community’s judgment of whether or not Rio can meet it’s promise of being a safe city for visitors attending a fast-approaching Triple Crown of international events—the World Youth Conference (2013); the finals of the FIFA World Cup soccer championship (2014), and the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games (2016).

Making good on the global promise is one of the driving forces behind the program’s rapid expansion.

 I explored the UPP topic recently during my panel discussion “Favelas: A Global Challenge and Opportunity” at the 2012 Global Economic Symposium. The changing economic face of Rio’s most marginalized populations and the developmental problems encountered by an emerging, favela-based middleclass were also addressed.

The paucity of Brazilians taking part in the “what to do about it” discussions that followed the panel illustrated the Jekyll and Hyde behavior many people exhibit when attempting to confront the favela-solution conundrum.

Following the symposium’s last session, a number of guests, seeking to put aside the comfort statistics can provide, asked me to show them photographs I’d shot in the favelas. I chose an unedited group taken in Jacarezinho; the government occupation had begun the Sunday before.

The photos conveyed the pungent smell and infernal energy of the place—aspects of favela life the “percentages” weren’t able to describe. This time, the Brazilians crowded in, apparently better able to look at what they didn’t want to talk about.

The words written on adjacent walls in one photo were unvarnished and parenthetical: “You are going to die police and crime will not stop,” and “What do we want for our community?”

The group-hush laid bare what Rio’s residents practice so effortlessly: When the dialogue gets too painful for discussion, the empathetic heart will speak more clearly.

Do you think the favelas will remain free of drug lords once the 2016 Olympics are over? Tell why or why not in COMMENTS.

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