As the Rio de Janeiro security forces continue moving community policing units into slums long controlled by criminal gangs, InSight brings an on-the-ground view about what the “pacification” process looks like for some ‘favela’ residents.
Favela Livre, a blog by Brazilian newspaper O Globo, reports on life in the city’s favelas after Rio began implementing its ambitious security program in 2008. As part of the strategy, Pacification Police Units (Unidade de Policia Pacificadora – UPP) are meant to act as the city’s new community police force, winning “hearts and minds” in shantytowns formerly controlled by local street gangs.
There are an estimated 17 UPP units already deployed in Rio de Janeiro. The most recent neighborhoods to see the deployment of security forces is São Carlos and Santa Theresa, population approximately 26,000. Over 800 members of the army and the police moved into these favelas on 6 February, and the deployment of another UPP unit is expected to follow this military surge.
The following is InSight’s translation of Favela Livre’s 23 February blog post, which looks at life in São Carlos and Santa Theresa:
With a rifle pointed at his head, retired driver Felipe (the names in this story have all been changed to protect those involved) was forced by traffickers to transport [dead] bodies and wounded gang members to the hospital, or to other places they wanted to go. Until last June, the 63-year old made a living driving residents of Minas Gerais and São Carlos and the neighboring slums where he lived for most of his life. He lost count of how many passengers he carried, but he remembered each time that the order to continue the trip was accompanied by the barrel of a gun.
“I was tired of explaining to police that I was forced, with a gun barrel against my head, to leave guys bleeding against the door of (hospital) Souza Aguiar. Sometimes, I would take a bunch of them to the beach. And I would have time to kill. I would lose days of work that I couldn’t reclaim. If I wrote a book, it would be a horror story,” he said in a low voice, asking for anonymity.
Felipe is one of the 26,000 residents of nine communities newly occupied by the police at Estacia and Santa Teresa – San Carlos, Minas Gerais, Zinco e Querosene, Fallet, Prazeres, Fogueteiro and Escondidinho, where three Police Pacification Units are to be installed, two of them on Friday. One will benefit Fogueteiro, Fallet, Coroa and Mineira. The other, Prazeres and Escondidinho.
The security surge in these communities is due to their proximity to the carnival: Fogueteiro, Fallet, Coroa and Mineira are close to Sapucaí [a street that serves as an important parade area during Rio de Janeiro carnival], and the hills of Prazeres and Escondidinho are located in Santa Teresa, covering several blocks.
After these two inaugurations, only one UPP unit will be missing – among the three announced during the pacification process of the favelas – which will be headquartered in Morro de São Carlos Favela and will benefit the Querosene slum.
O Globo visited parts of these communities and talked with residents. Besides the permanent company of policemen, most of these locals have at least two other things in common: fear and memories of atrocities commited by traffickers. Since the expulsion of the gangs, business as usual is the wary stare and silence of those afraid of the transition between two distinct models of power.
At one time, the slums of São Carlos and Mineira, just 200 meters from each other, were ruled by rival factions. Felipe lived in Mineira and spent years without visiting friends or taking passengers to the neighboring hill, “Afraid of not coming back.” Those who lived on one hill did not go to the other one. Gang orders. Around this time, in 2005, the son of another resident, Adriano, was killed in the house while he slept. A solider of the drug trade, he was murdered at age 20. Adriano, who admits to being a cocaine user, an addiction which led him to jail, has a tattoo on his chest of the boy’s face as a child.
“He was my only son. He was on duty and took three shots from the police. Imagine you receive notice of such a thing. I had permission to go to the funeral. There is the possibility of one day not losing more of our children to more gang wars, just like the state wants. Let’s see how this story goes with the UPP…”
As in San Carlos, the implementation of the UPP is still viewed with caution in Morro dos Prazeres in Santa Teresa. Residents back away and avoid the camera. Most just talk about what they want to believe. In the the alleys, there is graffiti with the initials of the ruling gang from the last six days, when the slum was occupied, and phrases cursing the UPP.
Store owner and resident of Prazeres for 15 years, Luiz (not his real name) says he was beaten in an altercation with the gangs before the UPP arrived.
“They came up the hill around 1 a.m., broke into my shop, broke and stole everything and dragged me up to Pedreira. I took pistol butts to the face for two hours.”
He said the number of gangs in the shantytown grew as other communities were occupied. Luiz says that on Saturday, 5 June, right before Prazeres was taken, about 200 gang members gathered at the gymnasium, near the entrance to the hill.
Gang violence also spilled over to the streets. A teacher [who we’ll call] Joachim, 73, had his house raided twice in two years. Most recently, in January last year, the robbers assaulted him with a blow to the face and kept the whole family – him, wife and daughter – hostage for two hours. On another occasion, in 2008, there was a gun battle and a gang member died in the doorway of his house.
“The arrival of the police brings relief, but for that policy to become consolidated, it’s necesarry to bring classes and opportunities into the favelas, where people need jobs besides selling drugs,” said the teacher.
The chronicle of violence in the community also includes lost friendships. In São Carlos, the friendship between two boys, friends since childhood, ended when one joined a gang, and the other, the police. A retiree Carolina, 72, lives on the hill and followed the boys’ story:
“The one who became a cop lives in the same house next door. The other one, who became a drug dealer, died when he was 20 years old. After that, his family left and the house is empty,” she said.
The cruelty of the gangs forces residents to take precautions. This was the case for a member of the navy, age 28, living in São Carlos for eight years now. He never went to work in uniform. It remained hidden in a backpack, tucked into the trunk of a car.