The prospect of the FIFA World Cup in 2014 followed by the Olympic Games in 2016 has reignited the debate about public security in Brazil, a country where there is an undeclared war taking place in the favelas between the military police, paramilitary groups, and drug traffickers, but where the principal victims are the poor.
“The day to day reality that Rio police confront in the favelas is very similar to that which NATO troops face in Afghanistan,” says Kaiser Konrad, director of Defesanet, a magazine specializing in military issues.(1)
He goes on to say that Rio is one of the most complex theaters of war in the world, in part due to its diverse geographical terrains such as jungle and mountain ranges. “The danger encountered by a Western soldier patrolling certain parts of Kabul is the same as that encountered by a soldier or policeman called into one of Rio’s hot spots,” he concludes.
In the favelas, the drug traffickers have dug out ditches and built barricades with large cement blocks or boulders in order to prevent the progress of the “caveirão,” an armored vehicle the size of a bus which is used by the military police when they enter the favelas.
The same tactics are reproduced in the poor areas in Haiti, where the Brazilian military is in charge of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). There, as in Rio, the military police have to use diggers to first clear the streets, a form of “combat engineering” to overcome a logistical problem pioneered in Brazil.
In comparing what happens in the favelas of Rio with the reality of Kabul and Port-au-Prince, the conservative right wing is deliberately attempting to criminalize the poverty concentrated in Rio’s 750 favelas inhabited by 1.5 million people. The feeling of an escalation in the war was reinforced when, on October 17, 2009, two weeks after Rio was awarded the Olympic Games, a police helicopter was shot down over the favela known as Morro dos Macacos (the Hill of Monkeys).
The mountain sides around Rio have been home to poor migrant workers for over 50 years. They live in precarious conditions without water, electricity, sanitation, healthcare, or education. Statistics show that 20 people per day are assassinated in Rio, turning the city into what the sociologist Vera Malaguti terms “a laboratory of genocidal techniques.”(2)
The police in Rio have the dubious reputation of being the police force with the highest kill rate in the world. This is not to say that they are out of control and kill on a whim. Brazil is a paradise of wild capitalism, with the largest gap of economic inequality in the world. Rio is its star, with frantic real estate speculation intensifying as the big events approach.
Violence in Brazil is not only very high but also continues to grow alarmingly. In 2006 there were almost 50,000 homicides (49,145 to be exact, or 26.3 per 100,000 inhabitants). In the state of Rio de Janeiro 2008 statistics show 5,717 homicides, or 35.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. There were also, however, 5,095 disappeared people, many of them victims of intentional violence and buried in clandestine graves.(3)
Figures relating to police brutality in Rio are jaw-dropping: in 2003, 1,195 people were killed in police actions. Of these, 65% had clear signs of having been executed, i.e. they had at least one bullet in the back. “In 2004, the police killed 983 people, in 2005 there were 1,098, in 2006, 1063. In 2007, this number rose to 1,330, in 2008 1,137. This adds up to 6,806 people killed by police in six years.” (4)
The vast majority are poor and black inhabitants of the favelas aged between 15 and 29. The majority were assassinated by BOPE, the Special Police Operations Battalion, or the elite special forces of the military police in Rio de Janeiro.
The book, Elite Force, published in 2005, was the first book that portrayed the actions of BOPE from the inside. It was co-authored by two former members of BOPE who had worked in special operations for five years and by an ex-secretary of national public security. The book, which was a best-seller and inspired the Golden Bear winning film of 2008, claimed that BOPE is “the best urban warfare force in the world, being the most technical, the most prepared, and the most powerful.”(5)
The authors state that both North American and Israeli defense forces come to Rio to train with BOPE because “there is no other place in the world where one can train every single day.” Even though BOPE is often accused of disproportionate brutality, the force’s honesty is recognized and trusted, in contrast with the military police, who most people consider corrupt and in collusion with the drug traffickers.
BOPE was created in 1978, during the military dictatorship, but only received its public security mandate in 1991. Originally BOPE was conceived as a war machine: “It does not receive training in how to interact with civilians or how to control those who break the law: its sole purpose is to invade enemy territory.”(6)
The hymn chanted in training states that the mission is to “invade the favela and crush everybody.” The emblem of the force is a knife embedded in a skull; its color is black. For many years the force was comprised of 150 members; recently it was increased to 400.
Entrance to the force is similar to all military recruitment: extreme hardship, with excessive physical tests that put the applicant very close to death and thereby ferment his insensitivity. Participants recount that training consisted of “marching 100 kilometers, on foot and without rest, almost dying of hunger and thirst, completely wiped out by physical exhaustion, legs and rear ends on fire … but the worst by far was the ritual of humiliation during the wind down: they had to dig their own graves and simulate their own death, symbolizing that they had reached the bottom of the abyss.”(7)
Once inside the favela, BOPE behaves exactly like an occupying army. “At night we don’t take prisoners,” say the authors, acknowledging that BOPE is a lethal force that shows no respect for life or for the dubious rule of law that prevails in Rio. They concede that the actions of BOPE have had dreadful and far-reaching consequences: “The shoot to kill policy pursued that didn’t allow for the surrender of the offender provoked a paradoxical effect: it increased their resistance, as well as the rate of violence directed against the police.”(8)
The justice system, in effect, collaborates with these actions by issuing “decrees of resistance” which, according to Tim Cargill of Amnesty International, protect the police by ensuring that the deaths resulting from these elite force actions are exempt from investigation.(9)
In addition to BOPE, there is also evidence of illegal militias comprised of both former and active police members, as well as firemen, ex-military, and other state agents. While the northern zone of Rio is engulfed in a feud between drug gangs, the western zone is increasingly dominated by these paramilitary groups who now control 88 favelas while the drug gangs’ control has been reduced to 71.
“The current mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, campaigned on a platform which defended the power of the paramilitaries.”(10) As soon as the paramilitaries expel the drug gangs, they impose on the favelas a form of feudal system which strictly controls the population, and which is similar to that which Colombian paramilitaries inflict on areas they control. “They charge for security. Also for healthcare. Pirated cable TV costs 20 reais (US$ 12 ). At night there is a curfew,” recounts a young woman from the Vila Sapé favela.
For the sociologist Ignacio Cano the privatization of security is unsustainable, given that to date there are over 300 allegations that the militias participate in drug trafficking. Recently they threatened to kill the State Representative Marcelo Freixo, of the Socialist Party, who had headed an investigation of the militias. Between 2002 and 2008, 1,245 military police were expelled from the force for having been implicated in drug and/or arms trafficking and in the creation of militias for profit.(11)
The Militarization of the Poor
Shortly before the Pan American Games of 2007 in Rio, the military police invaded the Complexo do Alemão, one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city, with 1,300 agents who killed 30 people. Many of these deaths were “summary executions” according to the Ministry of Human Rights. Currently, a wall is being built around 13 favelas under the guise of “protecting the natural environment.”
This is but a small foreshadowing of what will happen in Rio in the coming years to provide security for the World Cup and the Olympic Games. The production of a national armored vehicle modeled on those used in Israel and South Africa is under development to substitute the objectionable caveirão, and BOPE is upgrading its weaponry to include more efficient machine guns, technology to detect explosives, and for use in special tactical missions.(12)
In the favela Santa Marta, however, an experiment is taking place to provide the favela with a permanent police force, which, if successful, could be extended into other areas. It is known as the UPP (Union of Peacekeeping Police) and it was installed following the expulsion of the drug gangs. The UPP represents the first state-run policy dedicated to winning and holding the traumatic and fragile peace between the favelas and the military police.
Alongside and in conjunction with the UPP, the promise of increased social programs in health, education, and sports ostensibly serve to ameliorate the relationship between the state and the favelas, but likewise ensure that the state security forces have a permanent presence in those communities.(13)
The program of the “pacification” of Santa Marta is the brainchild of Rio’s governor Sergio Cabral of the PMDB (the Party of the Democratic Movement of Brazil), ally of President Lula’s national government. In addition to promising to eliminate drug trafficking, he states that the “main aim of the pacifying force is to ensure that the communities which have endured living with criminals now learn to coexist with the presence of the state.”(14)
Nevertheless, the population of Santa Marta complain that the promises of social reform are unfulfilled or proceed extremely slowly, that the provision of cable TV, until then the domain of the gangs, has not been replaced, and, most objectionably, that the popular public dances like the funk have been prohibited because the police link it to drug trafficking, but an alternative for the entertainment of the youth has not been proposed.
“If they see someone with baggy pants they detain him, but if someone is dressed in a suit and tie they don’t,” says a young man from Santa Marta.(15) Members of the residents’ committee complain that they have never been invited to meetings in which the different projects of the community were to be discussed. Freixo criticizes the Santa Marta experiment as being an isolated case which assuages the middle classes rather than a social reform program which can be rolled out to include all favelas in Rio.
Even though it is recognized that it is better for the police to work with communities rather than occupy them as though it were a theater of war, as is the case with BOPE, Freixo believes that the community police plan is another form of control and not the “construction of liberty” if it is “not accomplished through prioritizing social reform with the participation of the society that is being reformed.”(16)
The majority of social observers all agree that there won’t be successes in the favelas without major structural changes. The Human Development Index (HDI) of the favela Maré is 0.722 while that of Ipanema, one of the most prosperous neighborhoods of Rio, is 0.962. In Maré life expectancy is 66 years, in Ipanema it is 80.(17)
The localization of the social differences largely explains the violence in the city. “When inhabitants are prevented from having access to a significant part of their rights as citizens, one cannot expect them to recognize or respect the legitimacy and authority of the administrations that offer them little or nothing,”(18) explains Bruno Lima Rocha, a political scientist.
In other words, the state is incapable of comprehending that the problem lies in the fact that one in three citizens do not have basic minimum rights and it cannot resolve this problem through repression. Consequently it follows that chaos is the result of inequality coupled with injustice.
Containing the Poor or Eliminating Them
The representative Freixo, who dedicates himself to the issue of security in Rio, believes that “a safe society is one which develops a culture of rights.” In his opinion, the main source of the problem evolved in the neo-liberal 1990s when “a section of the Brazilian population did not serve the system, not even as reservists to the army. The decade of the 90s presented us with a Brazil that was not for all.”(19)
“This is why there is genocide in the poor areas of the city,” says Freixo, trying to explain the 16,000 homicides and 12,000 disappearances of the last few years. Brazil has the fourth-largest prison population in the world after the United States, China, and Russia. Half a million are in jail. In the 90s, the imprisoned population increased by 170%, and every year it still increases by 10%.
One can see how this genocide is carried out in the way the judicial powers approach their task in relation to the favelas. It is the only area where a “generic search warrant” is issued – a judicial instrument which allows for permission for the police to operate across a community-wide area, rather than restricting it to a specific personalized warrant.
This allows the police to enter into any home and detain any inhabitant, without limitation. The text of one of these warrants issued in 2002, analyzed by a committee, which included Representative Freixo, referred to the population of the favela as “genetic trash.”(20)
Vera Malaguti, professor of criminology and general secretary of the Rio Institute of Criminology and author of Fear in the city of Rio de Janeiro, claims that the trajectory of fear to chaos and unrest has been the modus operandi to discipline the impoverished masses. The sense of fear is fed by the urban elite in order to safeguard their privileges.
This reading of the social reality in Rio throws light on some facts that the average “carioca” is prone to distort. Malaguti says that the “left is afraid of the underclass,” referring to juvenile delinquents of which the Rio police kills about 1,300 per year to “the applause of the general public, the elite, certain parts of the academic world, and some of the left.”(21) She goes on to say that the leaders of the drug gangs were convicted on small offenses, but were then barbarized in jail.
“The objective of the left should be to pursue fewer incarcerations, to foster the familial relationships of those in jail, and to allow greater communication with the outside in order to end the perception that those on the outside are good citizens and those in jail are evil.”(22) The real problem, Malaguti continues, “is that the existence of the poor has become a hindrance to big business and property speculations and therefore they must be exterminated.”(23)
The walls currently under construction she categorizes as “a fascist fence around the poor,” part of a “project of urban cleansing under the guise of restoring order to the city, for the benefit of the World Cup, the Olympics, and all the capital investment that is flowing into Rio. These investments seem to be an obsession for state and municipal governments, who are constantly traveling around the world trying to attract them.”(24)
At the root of it all lies the problem of power. The elite is wary and fearful of those millions of black young heirs of the liberal traditions of the quilombo.(25) This is why Rede Globo, which seems to have a policy of criminalizing poverty, is relentless in criticizing Leonel Brizola, the only governor who has so far refused to repress the poor.
His death, according to Malaguti, “has allowed fascism to occupy the city.” It is no coincidence that the director of Defesanet blames Brizola for the present situation in the favelas because he prohibited the police from going into the hills to kill.(26)
This war against poverty, camouflaged as a war against drug trafficking, in the same way as in the past was defined as a war against communism, seeks to contain “rebellious poverty,” which is a tradition of Rio de Janeiro, having been at various times a city described as quimbola, then Janguista, then Brizolista.(27)
The elites are making the poor pay for their historically ingrained rebellion which aspires to liberty, which began by abolishing slavery and now threatens the lucrative business of 2014 and 2016.
1. Kasier Konrad, December 10, 2009.
2. Interview with Vera Malaguti, October 28, 2009.
3. Tropa de Elite, p.15.
5. Ibid., p30.
6. Ibid, p.8.
7. Ibid., p.22.
8. Ibid., p.30.
9. Bernardo Gutierrez.
12. Kaiser Konrad.
13. Fabiana Frayssinet.
17. Bernardo Gutierrez.
18. Bruno Lima Rocha.
19. Marcelo Freixo.
20. Justicia Global, p.34.
21. Interview with Vera Malaguti, October 28, 2009.
23. Interview with Vera Malaguti, April 18, 2009.
25. Hinterland settlements of escaped slaves that engaged in military
26. Kaiser Konrad, October 19, 2009.
27. Interview with Vera Malaguti, April 18, 2009. “Janguista” refers to João Goulart (Jango) president of Brazil deposed in the military coup of 1964. “Brizolista” refers to Leonel Brizola, twice governor of Rio (1983-1987 and 1991-1994).
Bernardo Gutiérrez, “Rio de Janeiro: Ciudad de Dios y del diablo,” El País, Madrid, 25 de octubre de 2009.
Bruno Lima Rocha, “El capitalismo salvaje y la guerra urbana en Rio de Janeiro,” 16 de noviembre de 2009, www.estrategiaeanalise.com.br.
Entrevista a Vera Malaguti, “Rio virou um laboratorio de técnicas genocidas,” 28 de octubre de 2009, www.correiodacidadania.com.br.
Entrevista a Vera Malaguti, “Pobres en Rio viven días de horror,” 18 de abril de 2009, www.correiodacidadania.com.br.
Fabiana Frayssinet, “Brasil: pacificación con gusto a control social,” IPS, 21 de mayo de 2009.
Justiça Global, “Relatório RIO: violencia policial e insegurança pública,” Rio de Janeiro, octubre de 2004, www.global.org.br.
Kaiser Konrad, “BOPE. Forças Especiales da Polícia Fluminense,” Defesanet, 10 de diciembre de 2009.
Kaiser Konrad, “Guerra no Rio: a outra fase da Cidade Maravillosa,” Defesanet, 19 de octubre de 2009.
Luiz Eduardo Soares, Rodrigo Pimentel y André Batista, “Tropa de elite,” Editorial Marea, Buenos Aires, 2009.
Marcelo Freixo, “A realidade e a lei,” 23 de diciembre de 2009 en www.marcelofreixo.com.br.
For More Information
Help the Poor or Learn From Them?
Buenos Aires: The Poorest Resist “Social Cleansing”
Pentecostalism and South America’s Social Movements
Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program (www.americasprogram.org).
Translated from: “Rio de Janeiro: control de los pobres para el negocio Olímpico” by Isabella Weibrecht.
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