Editorial, by Stone Korshak
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Since my first visit to Brazil in 2002 when I saw a police officer fire his gun in the air with one hand while simultaneously holding a suspect in a choke-hold – next to a crowded kiosk along Copacabana beach – it has been clear to me that public security is a different animal here to what it is back home. In the years that have followed I’ve seen Rio make a lot of progress in this area, but there is much more to be done.
First off I’d like to say that I have never been robbed or threatened with violence in Rio, and in general living in Ipanema I’ve felt as safe as walking any streets in New York. Of course this area of Zona Sul (South Zone) is a bubble in a large city full of hardships, desperation, crime and corruption.
Even in this bubble though, there are plenty of stories of crime, from the “arrastões” (big drags) – the last happening in late November, to street robberies that happen all the time (including parents visiting last year and getting their bag grabbed from their hand along the beach). It’s not just Rio either. So far, in this year alone, we have had three reporters robbed in three different cities across Brazil.
Rio has made major efforts though, and shortly after I moved here full-time in 2009, the ‘pacification’ process started gaining traction. This was the government’s effort to assert control of the favelas (where an estimated 22 percent of the city’s 6.3 million residents live).
Crime in Rio is not solely a favela issue of course. The word ‘favela’ is a general term that translates roughly to ‘shantytown’ or any area that was initially started as a squatter community – basically existing off the government grid (without taxation or representation) for decades. My point is that crime is equally prevalent among police, militias and politicians it seems.
Yet, no city hosting the World Cup or Olympics can have almost a quarter of their population living in areas devoid of government security, and so the pacification process started, ridding the favela streets of the heavily armed drug gangs, and replacing them with UPPs (Police Pacification Units) – 38 UPP stations to date.
Five years ago the UPP sounded like a far-fetched idea, and four years ago there was literally war on the streets of Complexo do Alemão when national military forces were called in for a major assault on the neighborhood. Three years ago the city (or at least Zona Sul) was on a self imposed curfew at the prospect of armed military forces occupying Rocinha, but fortunately that happened without any shots being fired. Now, the army is back in Complexo da Maré (Zona Norte).
For those that did not live here before then, those streets were literally patrolled by machine-gun wielding teenagers in shorts and Havaianas (flip flops). So a lot has changed, and there are positive indications of reduced violence in the pacified favelas; there is a lot to be optimistic about.
Yet the job is not done yet, and may never be. So when Rio asked the federal government to send in the Army to help control the streets of Complexo da Maré, a complex of favelas in Rio’s Zona Norte (North Zone), it is a sign of how much more there is to do, despite the apparent success in Complexo do Alemão and Rocinha.
All this aside, much of the crime in Rio has been displaced to outside the favelas now (as there are a lot of unemployed traficantes), and perhaps more significantly general frustration with the economy and slow progress of social improvements (i.e. healthcare, public transportation and education) sent millions to protest on the streets in discontent last June.
This happened to erupt before the FIFA Confederations Cup (the preamble to the World Cup), and at the time the federal government put about 10,000 troops on the ground in the host cities. With the World Cup just a couple months away, my guess is we can expect a lot more troops this year.