Taking Boston's lead, police in Rio lighten up

A couple of months ago, Major Antnio Carlos Carballo would never have ventured alone into the back alleys of the Cantagalo slum. Too many men armed with semi-automatic weapons. Too many cocaine traffickers handing out packets to child couriers.

Today, however, the amiable police commander climbs up the mountain like a man who's always lived here. Armed with just a pistol, he slowly hikes into the bowels of the muddy favela, past open sewers and goats. He pats children on the head, inquires after a young man's caged birds and sings out "Good afternoon" to all.

Heading a revamped community police force, Mr. Carballo tries, with the simplest of gestures, to show locals that the police are not the enemy. The concept of community policing may seem like common sense in wealthy countries. But here in the Rio slums, the idea, modeled on a similar program in Boston, is simply revolutionary.

"Until now, police were trained to go into the hills not to protect the public or provide sanctuary but to repress," Carballo says. "We are trying to create a new way to protect society and act with and for the community to identify and solve problems. It's a very simple concept, but a very different one for police."

In Cantagalo, a community of about 12,000 people perched on a hill overlooking the world famous beach front neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, police have in effect admitted they are powerless to stop much of the drug running that goes on. So, instead of continuing to fight an inevitably losing battle with the powerful traffickers who control the area, the police are making a deal with them.

Through a series of intermediaries that included community leaders and local media, the police told gang leaders that if they keep the slum free of violence, make sure drug deals are done in private and prevent children from getting involved in serious crime, then the police will make sure their officers act within the letter of the law. In short, they said, "Don't bother us, and we won't bother you."

"It's a veiled pact," admits Carballo.

The pact with the area's criminals is based on an experiment that originated in Boston in 1992 after youths fired shots at rival gang members attending the funeral of a slain colleague. The incident galvanized church leaders who formed an outreach program aimed at connecting with gang members and drug dealers. Religious leaders convinced police and federal agencies to get involved and using the clergy as a bridge the authorities told gang leaders that unless violence decreased, the police would crack down hard.

The leaders responded and the homicide rate in Boston fell by more than 70 percent, says the man in charge of the program, Lt. Detective Gary French. Rio authorities found out about the program when Rubem Cesar Fernandes, the head of nongovernmental organization Viva Rio, met French at a World Council of Churches seminar that brought together faith groups from cities looking to overcome violence in their communities.

Mr. Fernandes, an anthropologist known and respected in Rio for his tireless campaigns against violence, introduced French to Rio's state governor and together they convinced him to try out the Boston project in Cantagalo and the adjoining favelas of Pavo and Pavozinho.

Today, less than two months into the experiment, the signs are encouraging. There has been no serious violence in the favela and no killings since the program began, and both police and residents say they no longer see weapons being carried conspicuously on the streets.

Police have almost tripled the number of cops patrolling the favela and are making more of an effort to get to know the area and its inhabitants. Carballo chairs a weekly meeting with residents, and is on first-name terms with local schoolteachers, shop owners and the president of the favela's samba school.

The heart and soul of the project, he walks the streets of the favela with an open smile and a friendly demeanor. As he climbs from the cobble street just a stone's throw from Copacabana's white sands, up the favela's back alleys towards the thick forest at the peak of the hill he stops to talk to youths sitting in a cafe and jokes with a man in a soccer shirt about that evening's big match. When he smells marijuana wafting out of a window he ignores it.

"I am not here for that," he says. "Why would I want to burst into people's homes? What they do in the privacy of their own house is not my business."

Carballo admits that he can do nothing to stop drug dealing or use, and both he and Fernandes acknowledge the new strategy has served only to shift trafficking from one place, the favela, to another, the streets below. But by ridding the favela of the violence and fear that accompanies it, life in an often unpleasant area becomes infinitely more livable. Moreover, opportunities arise.

Fernandes says a TV station has expressed an interest in funding a sports center in the area. A local university is studying building a technical school, and there are plans to provide computer-literacy classes. One of Brazil's best-known volleyball players is giving classes to 400 children. The favela's lone public school has started a theater group in the afternoons, and music and dance classes are also on the agenda. Mothers once reluctant to let their children go out alone are now allowing their youngsters to set foot on the not-so-mean streets.

"Young people could never do these things because the space was taken up by traffickers," says Henrique Cardoso, who runs the theater class. "Now the areas have been neutralized."

Although Cardoso was happy to see Carballo stick his head in while on an afternoon patrol, not all the residents feel the same way. They acknowledge that violence has diminished, but they are loath to give credit to a police force that has in the past brought only abuse and grief.

"The commanders have tried to correct faults in the police, and ... local people are more respectful," says Sebastio Filho, president of the local residents' association. "We don't have any confidence in the police ... we are simply seeing more of them on the streets, and that has inhibited (crime). There is more coexistence now."

Carballo admits the police are a long way from being a model corps and agrees with Mr. Filho when he says the operation will only be a real success if authorities and private companies take advantage of the new calm to develop an area that currently has no sewerage system, no hospitals or health centers and only one school.

But, he says, if they can build on the foundations laid down during the first few weeks then they will have developed a whole new paradigm for policing Rio's 600 favelas. And that could bring a new lease on life to millions of people.

"Only the middle class have security now," he says. "We are trying to bring that security to the hills. I can't say how long it'll take. [But] we have a new philosophy now."

And with that, he turns and sets off up the hill. There's a lot of work to be done.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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