Tensions run high in Rio favelas amid 'pacification'

Altercations like this week's fight in Alemão between the army and the local population are expected again as the country adjusts to the irreversible trend of integration.

Felipe Dana/AP
Residents stand at a bar as soldiers stand guard at the Alemao slum complex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday Sept. 7, 2011. About 100 marines deployed to help patrol the Alemao slum complex a day after soldiers were fired on by gang members in a neighboring slum that has not yet been taken over by police. More than 1,500 men and several armored vehicles from different police and military units were patrolling the area on Rio de Janeiro's north side.

Rio de Janeiro has been busily repaving its streets as part of the revitalization in the run-up to all (its upcoming) mega events. Manhole covers (exploding or not) are a challenge for any city. They end up lower than the newly paved street (photo here).

Rough edges such as these are rife in Rio, where violence and unrest have returned after a yearlong hiatus. September 2010 saw a wave of motorist robberies (arrastões) that were followed by a crescendo of car and bus torchings, culminating with the Army’s November occupation of Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro. Then all was relatively calm – until now.

Yet what’s surprising isn’t this week’s three-night altercation between Complexo do Alemão residents and the Brazilian Army, or the post-baile-funk attack on the local pacification unit in Cidade de Deus – but that it took so long for violence to resurface. Cariocas are famous for their irreverence and noncompliance but many Brazilians bend easily to authority, or at least hide their misdemeanors. Such is the legacy of slavery.

And what’s not surprising are the comparisons being made by some cariocas between the forces of public order and the forces of criminal dominion. ”At least when the drug traffickers ran things, we knew the rules,” favela residents have been heard saying.

This, in a society as authoritarian as Brazil’s, is but a variation of “Things were so much better when the military were in power," often repeated after 1985 by those fearing the forces unleashed by democracy.

And unleashed forces – not the evils of repression – are what this story is all about.

For what pacification – with its many faults – is doing is to integrate the formal and informal territories of Rio de Janeiro. Integration is part of a longterm irreversible trend in Brazil. The country’s poor are bursting through the doors of a party heretofore restricted to those with connections, blessed with a silver spoon knack for the jeitinho, the hallowed improvised solution to the conundrums posed by a bureaucracy meant insidiously to function as a socioeconomic barrier.

Lula’s 2002 election was a clear sign of the trend, and he helped the process along.

Those who think that pacification is just another zig in a long public policy history of zigzags of ignoring favelas and then cracking down on them, or that drug traffickers and militia members will win out, could be practicing a perverse form of wishful thinking.

Census data show that almost 40 million people came into the middle class in the last eight years. This means fewer folks to boss around and more to compete with. It means doing your own laundry and studying hard.

New behavior is the order of the day for all: army, police, favela residents, traditional middle class members, the elite, politicians, business, and many more.

“We have to learn from [the recent conflicts in Complexo do Alemão and Cidade de Deus],” Colonel Robson Rodrigues, coordinator of the police pacification program, told O Globo newspaper on Tuesday. He added that a seminar would be held this week to evaluate the program, with police participating initially and community members later on.

The growing middle class (some of which can nowadays be found in favelas) is part of a global trend. Rio can certainly thank the Olympics and the World Cup for its makeover, but the writing was already on the wall: no more can a city or a country practice socioeconomic apartheid.

As indicated by a video of the first of three nights of violence in the Complexo do Alemão, uploaded to YouTube, millions of people now have the technological capability to expose their world to everyone else. Do a search on YouTube for “Complexo do Alemão” and you’ll find no fewer than 5,330 videos. Try ignoring those.

According to RioRadar blogger Andrew Fishman, the initial occupying force, comprised of Haitian shantytown patrol veterans, was recently replaced by less experienced troops. The video linked above shows initially uncertain and hesitant Army soldiers, who ended up shooting rubber bullets and lacing residents with spray. Four soldiers have been taken off duty and there will be an inquest.

“Two [drug traffickers] went into the bar and started all the confusion,” East Military Commander Adriano Pereira Júnior told O Globo. “This was the reason for the conflict filmed by the community, not the [earlier reported] story about asking [residents] to turn down the volume. What happened is that some soldiers didn’t realize it was a setup and they ended up taking the wrong action.”

It’s not clear what’s been happening in Alemão. O Globo gives credence to the Army’s and state Public Safety Secretariat’s view that drug traffickers are instigating locals to violence against the Army, as a reaction to a crackdown on illegal sales of bottled gas, supposedly a new business for former drug traffickers. Officials had also just announced that the Army will stay until June 2012, instead of leaving next month.

Others say Alemão residents are truly tired of being occupied, of being searched and suspected and ordered around.

Perhaps there is truth in both versions. Maybe both sides are adjusting as rules, behaviors, and expectations change. Democracy is, after all, a process of organizing, presenting, weighing, and meeting or denying demands and interests. It isn’t unblinking obedience to a higher authority, either drug trafficker or general.

Meanwhile, police shootings of civilians have dropped dramatically in pacified neighborhoods, narcotraffickers and militia members are being arrested, and many crimes are falling all over Rio, though there have been some frightening exceptions such as this and this and drug trafficking still exists (in what city doesn’t it?). Militias do, too.

Does anyone have a better idea than the current public safety policy, which beefed up the Army presence yesterday? ”I’ve said quite emphatically that after thirty or forty years of abandonment of some areas and total drug traffic dominion, no one is going to solve this in the short term,” State Public Safety Secretrary José Mariano Beltrame said in a press conference this week. “We opened a window so that public services and society itself would fill their roles in these communities.”

Though it’s possible to install a recycled rubber riser on a manhole cover to get a smooth street, the carioca crews seem to have taken a cue from local manicurists, who messily splash nail enamel all over your fingers and then clean up the excess with cotton wrapped on a stick, dipped in remover liquid. In contrast, Vietnamese manicurists do the painting as if walking a tightrope, saving on nail polish and remover, both.

The just-so Vietnamese may not have much to contribute to Rio’s public safety pacification policy, implemented in 2008 and up to eighteen favelas now, out of a planned total of at least forty by 2014. With only a few countries to serve as models and a plethora of actors and variables whose behavior can’t be fully predicted or planned for, the process is necessarily as bumpy as Rio’s long and troubled Avenida Brasil – which hasn’t yet been fully repaved.

Julia Michaels, a longtime 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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