Brazilian troops' occupation of Rio de Janeiro slum: a media circus?

The peaceful rollout of some 3,000 Brazilian troops and cops into Rio's Rocinha slum was a PR success for the Rio government, writes guest blogger Rachel Glickhouse, but it left many wondering why such a massive operation with such intensive media coverage was necessary.

Silvia Izquierdo/AP
Brazil's soldiers guard the streets of the Rocinha slum in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. Elite police units backed by armored military vehicles and helicopters invaded the largest slum in this seaside Olympic city before dawn Sunday. It's the most ambitious attempt yet to bring security to a town long known for its violence.

Early Sunday morning, 3,000 police and soldiers arrived in Rocinha, the biggest slum in Rio, all of Brazil, and even Latin America, to begin the process of pacification. They arrived heavily armed, some in armored tanks. By the afternoon, troops hoisted the state and national flags, declaring the favela under state control. The massive operation met no resistance, and not a single shot was fired.

As some predicted, the occupation was peaceful. Rocinha, after all, does suffer from violence, but less in comparison to other favelas, notably Complexo do Alemão, which is known as Rio's "Gaza Strip." Rocinha is also a place constantly frequented by outsiders: Cariocas from around the city for funk parties, foreigners and Cariocas working for local NGOs, and tourists. Since the initial occupation was mostly uneventful, it left many wondering why such a massive operation with such intensive media coverage was necessary.

The name of the operation itself seemed an oxymoron: Operação Choque de Paz, or Operation Shock of Peace. It was hardly a shock, given that the occupation was announced well in advance and everyone knew it was coming, and wasn't so much of a military "shock" given the lack of violence. While the capture of Rocinha's top drug trafficker helped avoid a clash during the occupation, other traffickers had time to flee. Since several police officers and traffickers were arrested "escorting" some of the traffickers during Nem's failed escape, it's likely other drug traffickers had ample time to leave Rocinha before the occupation. (In the past, though, some of the traffickers simply moved out of newly pacified favelas into other favelas.) Conspiracy theorists even speculated if the state government made a deal with traffickers to leave before the operation.

A PR success for the Rio government

Security forces encountered no resistance from traffickers, except for trash left blocking some streets and oil poured on the roads in Rocinha and Vidigal (a nearby favela that was also occupied) intended to make the streets slippery. By announcing the massive operation ahead of time and raising the possibility of clashes between traffickers and police, the state government guaranteed its success with the eventual absence of violence by exceeding expectations. Also, by demonstrating a show of force, the state government also gave Rio's middle and upper classes, as well as the foreign community de olho before the World Cup and Olympics, a sign that it's serious about combating crime and imposing order.

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Those responsible for the operation made sure to not only overprepare, but also to publicize preparations. In doing so, the occupation would already be more successful than the bloody Alemão occupation. The government set up a temporary hospital right outside the favela (based on the MINUSTAH model from Haiti), with other hospitals and ambulances on standby, and shut down traffic near the favela. They also published the transportation and medical parts of the plan on a map prior to the operation.

Government planners also made sure to publicize the "show of force." BOPE, Rio's special ops team, published a photo on Twitter of Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame speaking to troops before the operation, in what seemed like a scene from Tropa de Elite. BOPE also posted photos on Twitter from the operation itself. The operation brought armored tanks, trucks, and helicopters to the favela. The tanks arrived by coming through Leblon, one of Rio's wealthiest neighborhoods (photos here and video here), creating quite a spectacle. It's as if army tanks rolled down Park Avenue on the Upper East Side on the way to the South Bronx. It was surreal.

During the operation, police found drugs, weapons, and ammunition left by traffickers, as well as the abandoned luxury homes of head traffickers Nem and Peixe (see photos here, and more here). Police arrested at least four people, including a trafficker who'd escaped from prison and one of Nem's accountants.

A media circus?

Some speculated that the operation was created to feed a media circus. Indeed, there was tons of international coverage, as well as live blogging from Globo (here and here) with live news, videos, and photos. Many reporters had on bulletproof vests. Live TV coverage from Al Jazeera showed its Brazil correspondent in full protective gear, with a helmet and bulletproof vest. Globo also did extensive live TV coverage as the operation was underway, though it was in the early hours of the morning.

But the media's presence was better than no media coverage at all, even if it went a bit overboard. The fact that so many journalists and cameras were present for the occupation may have prevented abuses that took place during previous occupations, or even violence. In the end, there was a great deal of transparency.

Also, it wasn't just the media covering the operation. Local activists, NGOs, and residents were reporting on the events on Twitter, and continued vigilance from these groups will hopefully ensure against abuses from the police and military (or at least expose those abuses).

What now for the community?

Now that Rocinha has been "pacified," the government will officially install UPP units in Rocinha in the coming months. But until then, residents are still waiting for Rocinha to be integrated into the rest of the city. The first service being offered even prior to the occupation was cheap cable TV, but formal electric lines, water, sanitation, and internet remain to be seen. Also, improved roads, sidewalks, and transportation will be a continuing challenge. In addition, residents also hope for better public services, including schools, hospitals, and sanitation.

Al Jazeera released an interesting report today on the UPP program worth watching that sums up both the good and the bad of the program, and what to expect as more UPPs are created.

--- Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

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