Opinion, by Samantha Barthelemy
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – In less then a week Brazilians will flaunt into voting stations to choose their next leader. Whether Mr. Serra, of the Social Democratic Party or Mrs. Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, is elected, a tough challenge will remain. On top of endless priorities, the new president will have one major responsibility: transforming Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.
Breathtaking landscapes, coveted carnival celebrations, paradisiacal beaches and beautiful women popularly characterize Brazil’s Marvelous City. But exoticness is not all Rio is known for around the world.
Fifteen days after landing the bid for hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics on October 2, 2009, Rio was placed under a harsh international spotlight.
On October 17, 2009, drug traffickers shot down a police helicopter, killed at least a dozen people and set eight buses on fire, in the favela Morro dos Macacos, just one mile from Maracanã Stadium – the venue chosen for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the 2014 Soccer World Cup final. At the very least, the episode underlined the challenges faced as authorities attempt to improve security and the city’s image abroad.
Maybe this was a blessing. The government’s defensive denial is now impossible, and dealing with rampant crime and violence through investment in comprehensive social programs has become inescapable. If not to better the lives of the city’s six million residents, then at least to honor the country’s commitment to bring the first – successful and trouble-free – Olympics to South America.
According to government figures, Rio has one of the world’s highest murder rates, with 4,631 homicides in the metropolitan area in 2008. That is nearly thirteen people a day.
The alarming violence is mainly restricted to Rio’s 1,000-odd favelas, where vicious drug factions govern freely, terrifying millions of residents – held hostage between neglectful authorities and iron-fisted gangs – and luring young boys into a short-lived life of crime.
Occasionally, violence reaches the wealthiest doorsteps.
A gun battle between drug gang members – armed with high-caliber rifles, pistols and hand grenades – and the police, on August 20, 2010, led to the taking of 30 hostages in Rio’s luxury Intercontinental Hotel, a favorite amongst tourists. One woman was killed, and four bystanders and three policemen were wounded. Again, Rio scored front-page headlines around the world.
Scenes evocative of civil war repeatedly tarnish the city’s image. Let’s be honest, one more episode could seriously raise the chances of revoking the International Olympics Committee’s decision. What a shame that would be.
The state government’s decade long response has been to meet violence with sporadic and deadly police raids, often targeting entire favela communities. A Human Rights Watch report, launched on December of 2009, found that the number of police killings in Rio state reached a record high of 1,330 in 2007 – including alleged self-defense and extrajudicial killings.
There is something fundamentally wrong with our society.
By and large, Rio is a safe place. I can attest to that, having lived there for 19 peaceful years. But what makes the city’s situation worrying is not just alarming murder rates, but the decades of neglect of the city’s most vulnerable, the unrivaled power gangs exert over these communities and the impunity under which they operate. And this will no longer be tolerated.
Even if belatedly, the state has been investing in Police Pacifying Units (UPPs), a program launched in 2008 to liberate Rio’s slum dwellers, replacing drug gangs with a permanent, hearts and minds-style police presence. That is a nice start, but so far UPPs have been little more than show. Drug gangs have reportedly fled from one occupied territory to another “unpacified” one, carrying with them fear and violence.
By the end of 2010, authorities expect to “liberate” 40 favelas – at present an overly ambitious target. What about the other 960?
True, you have to start somewhere. But let’s not pretend the solution is to “end violence”. The problem lies in failed approaches to drug trafficking and consumption, lax gun laws, ineffective and neglectful authorities and a pervasively destructive culture of permissiveness.
How about we take this opportunity – and moment of necessity – to engage in transformative programs, offering an alternative to crime, misery and violence for millions of Cariocas. If we do not invest heavily in parallel social projects, education and job creation, the pacification ideal is doomed to fail.
Give us back our right to live in security and peace, whether today, tomorrow or in 2016.
A Belgian-Brazilian native of Rio de Janeiro and former United Nations journalist, Samantha Barthelemy is a dual degree Masters of International Affairs student with Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, specializing in International Security Policy, Brazilian Studies and Communications. http://samanthabarthelemy.blogspot.com/