Opinion, By Michael D. Kerlin
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – August 5th begins the five year countdown to the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, the city’s most vulnerable people are following the same countdown, not for the sporting event, but for the return of violence to their neighborhoods.
The Olympic Games and the World Cup in 2014 offer the government an urgent incentive to “pacify” the favelas in the next five years, to avoid global embarrassment. But the key for Rio’s poor is to make peace sustain itself well beyond the big sporting events.
Ever since drug traffickers shot down a helicopter just a few weeks after Rio won the Olympic bid, a major crackdown on violent gangs has swept the city. That is good news for most. Police Pacifying Units (UPPs) have embedded themselves in a dozen favelas, and the army has occupied two of the most dangerous favela networks, the Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro.
In those areas, conversations with ordinary favela residents reveal a much more fragile sense of peace. To be sure, people walk the narrow, twisting alleys more freely now. Carnival participation swelled in the wake of the army occupation. Weekly forró dances have returned to the plazas where drug gangs once presided over funk dances with machine guns.
But, below the surface, many residents see the return of the drug gangs as inevitable. They speak of enjoying peace “for now.” Many avoid contact with the soldiers lest gangsters-in-hiding take revenge on local traitors some day when the drug traffickers are back in power. And even the residents who don’t avoid the army don’t offer it much respect either. During one Carnival confrontation, a soldier lamented that locals would never mouth off to drug traffickers the way they did to soldiers.
The favela residents have good reason for pessimism. Many saw their neighborhoods “cleaned up” in advance of the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio. The drug gangs some ground and murder rates in the city dropped. Rio de Janeiro cut its municipal homicides by per 100,000 people from 46.4 to 35.7 between 2006 and 2007, in advance of the games.
Peace takes hard work and persistence, though. After the sporting event, many drug gangs simply regained power. In 2010, Rio’s homicides were back up to 50 per 100,000 people. Where drug gangs didn’t surge, militias, with ties to the police, launched rings of violence and extortion often worse than those of the drug gangs.
Police killings of drug traffickers and innocents alike don’t help, even if they’re part of the peace effort. Police killed 1,330 people in 2007, 25 percent more than the 1,063 that they killed in 2006. To put those figures in context, the police were already killing about three times more people in Rio de Janeiro state alone per year than police killed in the entire U.S. per year.
The first test will come when the army pulls out of the Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro later this year. UPPs will take the place of the army occupations. Though the police units have built a good track record in other favelas, residents of the Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro told me they trust “men in green” more than they trust “men in black.” There’s too much history of corruption between the police and drug traffickers.
To be sure, Rio de Janeiro is taking a lot of the right steps. José Mariano Beltrame, Rio de Janeiro’s state Public Safety Secretary, has stripped more than 1,000 corrupt police officers of their badges and thrown dozens of the worst in jail. Thanks to all the security efforts, business and infrastructure are expanding and favelas with UPPs have even seen spikes in home prices for little brick shacks.
But the pacification costs a lot of money and manpower. The favelas with UPPs already have one police officer for every forty residents, and nearly five hundred favelas have yet to benefit from UPPs or army occupation.
Still, if Rio wants to remain the Cidade Maravilhosa, it needs to sustain and expand the security efforts well beyond the World Cup and Olympic Games. It must also further invest in education, health, infrastructure, and economic development. Peace, it turns out, is a matter not of five year countdowns but of relentless commitment across the decades.
Michael D. Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.