What are Rio's security crackdowns accomplishing?

How effective is Rio's 2008 public safety policy, if it pushes crime out of one neighborhood and into another, asks guest blogger Julia Michaels.

By , Guest blogger

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    Police from the Special Operations Battalion patrol as a resident looks on during a security operation in the Manguinhos slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 11. City officials launched a 'pacification' program in 2009, in which security forces clear heavily armed gangs from slums and establish a police presence with the aim of reducing violence in Rio before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

How much can a city change? This is the question underlying doubts arising in the last two weeks regarding Rio’s public safety policy.

You may believe that the values, habits, and assumptions of a city and its inhabitants, developed over the course of generations, are static; immutable. In this case, the police and politicians are forever corrupt and criminals are constantly crooked, while innocent citizens are always at the mercy of both. Rio’s 2008 public safety policy is for show, a temporary lockdown until the Olympics are done.

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Or you may think that change occurs when systems no longer provide what they were created to do; when new demands crop up that they can’t meet. In this case, police and politicians become enlightened, criminals have fewer options, and innocent citizens find themselves called on to adapt their own values, habits and assumptions. Rio’s 2008 public safety policy is part of a larger socioeconomic turn of the tide and the fabrics of the city’s favelas, or slums, and its formal neighborhoods are turning from patchwork to a single weave.

When the new public safety policy was conceived, officials knew that drug traffickers would flee to other favelas. Police occupation is announced beforehand, after all. Over the last three years we’ve seen criminals run to Complexo do Alemão and Rocinha, among other [favelas]. Now that these have been occupied, the fallout is occurring within a wider radius.

State Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame admitted yesterday for the first time that increased crime in the city of Niterói, across the bay from Rio, is due to police pacification and occupation in the state capital (all links in Portuguese unless noted). Military and civil police have also turned their sights on the mountain towns in the state of Rio de Janeiro, on Manguinhos and Jacarezinho favelas, and on allied activities of Rio and São Paulo traffickers, to transport drugs and weapons.

Manpower has always been an issue for public safety officials, and it’s gotten  more serious as the geography involved widens. Rocinha is now partly policed by new pacification police recruits, though it’s under BOPE (elite squad) command, still in the occupation phase.

“Is it possible to institute new police practices with police who are accustomed to the old ways?” asks Cecília Oliveira, communications coordinator for Redes de Desenvolvimento da Maré, a highly successful NGO in the Maré complex of favelas and housing projects, next on Beltrame’s list. “The new officers have sixty days of training, and the old ones, old practices,” she adds.

Corruption came to the fore in Rocinha, where it became clear that the police hadn’t occupied the authority vacuum left by trafficker Nem because they were on the take. It’s probably everywhere, to some extent. The fact that this week Mangueira favela shopkeepers followed an order (given by a cruising motorcyclist) to close as a sign of mourning for a deceased drug trafficker indicates similar troubles there.

Beltrame is grappling with both issues; today he was expected to announce a series of measures to deal with crime in and around Niterói.

Rio’s public safety policy is clearly messing with long-entrenched markets, attitudes and relationships, and many of the stacked dominoes aren’t in plain view. Drugs aren’t in the purview of favelas only, as a fellow combatant reminds us:

“When I was minister of defense, we were very successful. We took down all the members [on] the list of high-value targets in the drug trafficking, all of them. They are either in jail or dead. We confiscated unprecedented amounts of cocaine. We eradicated unprecedented amounts of hectares of coca, and the DEA director came here and congratulated me and congratulated our people, saying we are doing very well, ” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos told the Washington Post this week (in English).  ”And you know how success was defined? By the price of cocaine in Los Angeles or in New York or in Washington. And so, because the price went up, we were being successful. But at the same time, if the price goes up, the incentive goes up. So there is a structured sort of contradiction in the whole setup.”

It’s probably exactly that incentive which has led competing drug gangs to pay off the cops and engage in warfare in Rocinha. Quite likely the success of   occupation and pacification rest on the state government’s ability to clamp down on this – a place so much at the heart of Rio de Janeiro.

Of course the two lines of thinking described above aren’t mutually exclusive. The picture is muddy, and the way we see it is colored by our experience and preconceived notions. Some of the actors are diehards, some are chameleons, and maybe a few are Brazilian Galileos.

For now, Beltrame has the last word.

“I see that things may not be very good, but they’re better than they were,” he told O Globo newspaper yesterday.

– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

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The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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