Last week it was reported that 10 police officers (members of the UPP*) in Rio de Janeiro were found guilty of torturing and killing Amarildo de Souza, a 42 year old man who had disappeared from the Rochina shanty town in July.
This interested me for two reasons. First, because I am fascinated to see how Rio prepares itself for the World Cup and Olympics. Secondly (and mindful of my first point), because the distribution of wealth in Brazil, intensified in the microcosm of Rio, is something I learnt about at school. In fact, when I think of Rio I immediately think Favela. I don't at first think carnival or beech, my mind goes to Favelas and therefore to poverty, gangs and violence.
This might be because I have never travelled there and may well be naivety, exacerbated by what's reported by the media. Friends who have travelled to Rio remember the other things first and those who've visited Favelas there didn't encounter any trouble.
The real story is, as usual, probably somewhere in between. Travellers will relish in the flamboyant culture and see the Favelas through the eyes of a tourist on their 'Favela Tour'. The media will emphasise the drama of the situation and the magnitude of the gap between rich and poor.
In light of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics and the resultant worldwide attention on Rio what will visitors to, and viewers of, these events will come away thinking?
Will they come away with an impression that reflects the reality of life in Rio, or will they come away with a false impression crafted by a facade created especially for theses events? If the former, what will the reality be - a lessening gap between rich and poor or a situation yet to be solved?
I have summarised, and made comments on, two interesting articles below which look at the work of the UPP and how they are attempting to reform the Favelas ahead of the World Cup and Olympics.
The Guardian; Jonathan Watts (Monday 7th October, 2013)
Jonathan Watts writes of the efficiency of the pacification project in the Lins Favela, with armed troops clearing the streets to make way for the UPP to set up camp.
In hope of the hearts and minds of the residents it wasn't long after the military operation that the authorities moved [...] to demonstrate the benefits that come with a return to the bosom of the state. A team of street cleaners swept the roadsides and picked some of the rubbish from the filthy stream below.
The idea of whitewashing is interesting. Painting over a problem isn't going to solve it, but a fresh coat of paint renews and refreshes. Much like the removal of the world 'Favela' from Google maps earlier in the year, there's a question over whether the authorities are trying to encourage something better or are simply sweeping the dirt under the rug?
Watts continues by describing the symbolic taking of the land:
Next followed a switch of symbols. Red Command graffiti was whitewashed over and the Policia Militar insignia – a dagger through a skull – was draped over the walls. A brief propaganda display followed: local children were invited to ride on police horses, a PR team displayed the bags of cocaine, cellophane-wrapped blocks of hash and the gun clips they said had been found in the search operations, and a mobile sound van repeatedly broadcast an appeal for support: "People of Rio de Janeiro. As part of the ongoing pacification of our city, your community is being occupied. We rely on your co-operation to maintain stability. The new era begins now."
At this point it all starts to sound like a scene from 'Big Brother'. Watts goes on to note the lack of confidence in the UPP scheme, the suspicion that it is only for the benefit of the World Cup and Olympics and not for longer term change. However, he concedes that the results so far have been impressive. Official statistics show a sharp fall in murders, gun-related incidents and other crimes.
In some elaboration on the development the project has bought about he writes about the arrival of two Sky salesmen, who quickly set up plastic tables for their subscription leaflets on exactly the same spots as the drug dealers had previously used to market their wraps of cocaine and hash.
This is a fascinating substitution. Much better for people to be vending and buying Sky than drugs, but is this really something they need or that will improve their situation?
Spiegel Online; Jens Glüsing (Tuesday 8th October)
Jens Glüsing also reports on the clearing of the Lins Favela leading on to talk about the positive change bought about by the UPP:
Since the introduction of the UPPs, the murder rate has fallen drastically. The real estate market in the favelas is booming, especially in the slums of the South Zone that have become popular as a destination for tourists and locals. Enterprising residents rent out their verandas and roofs for parties and photo shoots.
However, he asks how long will the peace hold?and emphasises the mistrust of the police, particularly following the case of de Souza whose body is still missing even after the trial of his murderers.
The crime casts a shadow on the government's entire pacification strategy. "Where is Amarildo?" citizens have asked angrily on Facebook. Nearly every day, demonstrators have marched in front of the governor's palace demanding an explanation.
The wrongdoing is hardly unprecedented: Torture is routine in many police stations. Police, fire fighters and ex-military personnel have formed militias that drive traffickers out of many favelas and establish their own reigns of terror.
Glüsing also offers a further counter argument for the success of the UPP, because where peace is established this is only replaced with issues elsewhere:
[...] the drug mafia has repeatedly tried to retake UPP-occupied favelas. There have been shootings, especially in the Complexo do Alemão. And gangsters who have fled such favelas have taken refuge in other slums on the city outskirts, leading to an increase in suburban violence.
These articles indicate that the measures undertaken by the UPP are chiefly cosmetic and do not necessarily tackle the socio-economic problems at the root of the extreme poverty in Rio.
So, visitors might see clean, whitewashed slums with peaceful citizens watching Sky TV. Or they may see the dirt beneath, the drug mafia creeping back in and violence, ever present, displaced to other areas of the city.
*UPP - Police Pacification Units (founded 2008)
The UPP website describes their purpose as follows:
The strategy of the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro to promote urban integration, social and economic areas of the city benefited by police pacification units (UPPs).
The UPP Social has three main objectives:
• contribute to the consolidation of peace and the promotion of local citizens in the territories pacified;
• promote urban development, social and economic territories;
• accomplish the full integration of these areas to the whole city.
The UPP have proposed for 40 units to be set up in areas of need in Rio by 2014.
They only have funding until 2016 i.e. up to the Olympics. This indicates that they were instigated specifically for the Olympics. It may mean that the progress that they can make will only be short term solution with the same problems re-emerging once they have packed up and left.
Another interesting article about the Favelas can be found here: