From the vantage point of the beach, Rio de Janeiro’s slums (called favelas in Brazilian Portuguese) have an incredibly powerful psychological effect on even the most casual observer. Visually, I am used to prime urban real estate occupying areas of relatively high elevation; after all, the wealthy like to have a view. But in Rio, it is the opposite: the rich, the middle class and tourists inhabit the low-lying areas near beautiful beaches, such as Copacabana and Ipanema, so when they turn away from the ocean, they are presented with a panoramic of dense urban poverty climbing towards the sky.
Most major cities I have visited or lived in with slum, shantytown, ghetto or favela neighborhoods try carefully to conceal, if possible, the existence of their more impoverished inhabitants – out of sight, out of mind. I have observed this in Lima, Bangkok, Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires – and almost every major city in the United States. But due to Rio’s distinctive topography – a coastal plain interspersed with gorgeous bays, surrounded by towering mountains with clinging squatter settlements – ignoring or pretending is not possible.
Now this rapidly growing upper middle-income country has been chosen to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Unfortunately for Brazil, the international spotlight makes it impossible to hide from the world (as China failed to do with Beijing in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics) the terrible inequality and deprivation that characterize much of favela life.
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With the World Cup’s June 12 opening kickoff between Brazil and Croatia less than two weeks away, favela “pacification” efforts are being kicked into overdrive. Most international media outlets are framing this campaign as a necessary, albeit somewhat controversial, measure to establish order and security in favelas run by violent drug gangs. However, this simplistic narrative frequently overlooks the deeply entrenched and far more complex socio-economic problems that cause favelas and their resident underclass to exist in the first place.
“Pacification” and the UPPs
This is how “pacification” works: government officials give drug traffickers a few days notice to vacate before military police units specializing in urban warfare are sent in. Next, these security forces reclaim the territory, street-by-street, searching houses, cars and suspicious individuals for drugs and weapons. After the drug gangs “leave” and order is established, the police are joined by urban planers, social workers and other officials to begin implementing social and economic development programs.
Since the “pacification” campaign was started in 2008, around 174 of Rio’s 600 favelas are now being monitored by Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) under a policy of “community policing.” This new program focuses on the UPPs establishing a continuous and visual presence within the favelas. This contrasts greatly with the previous strategy of invading and retreating, which often led to violent shootouts with the drug gangs.
According to a recent survey, Brazil’s 1.1 million murders over the last 30 years make it the world’s seventh most violent country. The pacification program is meant to restore order in a city where 6,000 people are killed each year, a virtual war zone. That is roughly 12 times the number of homicides in Chicago (500 in 2012), the current murder capital of the United States.
This is how “pacification” works: government officials give drug traffickers a few days notice to vacate before military police units specializing in urban warfare are sent in.
Both murders and violent crime are down since the UPPs began operating in 2008. However, this improvement comes at a price. There are widespread reports of police abuse, including profiling favela residents as de facto criminals, endemic corruption, excessively violent tactics, torture and suppressing the lawful communication of protestors and journalists. Too often civilians are killed after being caught in the crossfire between UPP forces and drug traffickers. Amnesty International describes the aggressive and violent policing approach in Rio’s Maré complex of favelas as a “military occupation.”
In the face of abuse, favela communities have not remained complacent. Over the past few months, there have been frequent and increasing protests in reaction to UPP tactics, and economic inequality more generally. In April, riots broke out after police beat to death a well-known TV show dancer who was mistaken for a drug dealer. The hospitals, schools and transportation systems that were promised as part of “pacification” have not materialized. In this atmosphere, government propaganda that drug traffickers are inciting the protests and riots to benefit from the chaos is becoming harder to take seriously.
Feelings of distrust and fear of security forces are not shared universally – some favela residents report feeling safer and are happy to be finally getting attention from the government. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the pacified favelas that are peaceful are usually located in close proximity to wealthier neighborhoods near major tourist locations. The vast majority of favelas remain ignored.
This raises important questions: Is drug trafficking and its accompanying violence just being redirected toward the poorer, outlying favelas that see even less public investment? And is “pacification” not so much a security campaign as it is a smoke screen designed to conceal something more insidious taking place beneath the surface?
A Short History of the Favelas: A Love-Hate Relationship
Brazil now boasts the world’s sixth biggest economy with a poverty rate that has declined by half over the past two decades. Despite these gains and one of the world’s fastest growing economies, Brazil is still the 17th worst country according to the CIA published Gini index, typically viewed as the international measure of inequality. While some commentators tout Brazil’s approach as an example of how to alleviate poverty, a large section of the population has been unable to share the fruits of economic growth.
The history of the favelas is similar to that of slums in many other places: as a country becomes more urban, the rural poor, unable to find work in the countryside, migrate to the cities in search of employment. A wealthier urban population, wishing to benefit from a cheap labor supply while unwilling to share resources, relegates the migrants to the outskirts of the city. Lacking an alternative, these squatters informally occupy vacant (and usually the worst) land where shelter is constructed with whatever materials can be salvaged or stolen. The resulting economic and social inequality is strongly tied to race – more than two-thirds of favela inhabitants are “jovens negros,”or black youth.
The resulting economic and social inequality is strongly tied to race – more than two-thirds of favela inhabitants are “jovens negros,” or black youth.
As Rio’s population grew, so did the need for land. The 20th century is replete with examples of helpful “community upgrade” and “cheap public housing” programs created to disguise the government’s true intent: forced eviction. From the 1960s to mid-1970s, removal programs masked as public housing initiatives flourished, relocating favela residents farther and farther from Rio’s center. However, because cheap labor was essential to the operation of the local economy, the favelas had to be kept in relatively close proximity.
As dozens of new favelas sprouted during the early 1980s, Rio began to feel the effects of changes in the international drug trade. Due to the newly created US war on drugs, Colombian and other South American traffickers began seeking new supply routes and markets to peddle cocaine. Brazil became a major transit point for drugs eventually trafficked to Europe and the United States. Because of government neglect and unwillingness to provide basic services or economic opportunity for the poor, drug gangs easily filled the power vacuum in the favelas.
Today, favela residents are caught between drug traffickers on one side and corrupt politicians and security forces on the other. Victims of this power struggle view the UPPs as the latest reincarnation of a strategy on the part of the government to forcibly evict hundreds of thousands of people. The only difference is the pretext: space is needed for stadiums, the roads that lead to them and other construction projects, while the wealth generated from this development will trickle down to help those at the bottom, at least so the argument goes.
Are the 170,000 security troops there primarily to protect tourists or to suppress dissent on the part of an underclass that is once again rising up in indignation after generations of neglect and exploitation?
Currently, anywhere from 20 percent to one-third of Rio’s 6 million residents live in favelas. The demographic reality is that these communities are growing at a faster rate than the city as a whole and space is at a premium. Gentrification subsequent to pacification has even led some favelas to be seen as “hot real estate investments” that are “so hot, in fact, that two Europeans recently locked horns in a legal battle over a battered favela house.”
More than 1.5 million tourists already visit Rio each year, and a massive tide of additional foreigners is expected to attend the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. This begs the question: are the 170,000 security troops there primarily to protect tourists or to suppress dissent on the part of an underclass that is once again rising up in indignation after generations of neglect and exploitation?
Slumploitation and the World Cup
Five years ago while in Rio, I met a Brazilian who ran an orphanage in Rocinha, South America’s most populous favela. Rocinha has an estimated population of somewhere between 76,000 and 250,000 residents (it’s almost impossible to get an accurate count) inhabiting 0.8 square miles. To help fund the orphanage, my acquaintance ran a “favela tour” of Rocinha with most of the proceeds going toward basic needs for children, such as food, medicine and school supplies.
Most media accounts of Rocinha simplistically depict it as a violent and poverty stricken slum. Of course, I observed poverty: bundled bootleg extension cords running from electric poles, sewage flowing downhill through narrow alleys, and the ubiquitous unemployed idling on street curbs, stoops and window sills. And I observed (the possibility of) violence: we bypassed sentries of the Amigos dos Amigos (“Friends of Friends”), one of Rio’s three major drug gangs, armed with assault rifles. But what many media accounts fail to notice, my tour guide told me, is that these gangs are, ironically, the only ones providing social services, ensuring order and funding half the orphanage’s operating costs. There are reports that Amigos dos Amigos extorts and kidnaps favela residents – but I share this example to show that reality is more complex than police equal good and drug dealers equal bad.
Using the newly constructed gondola system, essentially tropical ski lifts, you can view the habitat of the poor from a safe distance.
Things have changed since I was last in Rocinha. Created by American expat Elliot Rosenberg, favelaexperience.com emphatically advertises: “The best way to understand the one-of-a-kind culture, history, and challenges of favelas is by exploring them.” And for you more adventurous travelers, it is possible to “immerse yourself in the real Rio de Janeiro by staying [emphasis added] in a favela, one of the city’s most fascinating and vibrant communities.” Don’t worry though; they “only work in communities that now have 24/7 police protection.” If you are still unsure, you can always bypass Rocinha entirely using the newly constructed gondola system, essentially tropical ski lifts, where you can view the habitat of the poor from a safe distance.
Declared pacified in 2011, Rocinha is now experiencing rising real estate prices and is host to “many middle class households.” However, there have been a substantial number of recent protests by favela residents demanding “basic sanitation, health and education.” This new sense of safety comes at a cost: rising rent prices and gentrification. Rocinha’s traditional residents are moving out of some neighborhoods as middle (and soon, maybe upper) class Brazilians and foreigners move in.
The catalyst for these changes has been the World Cup. Of the $11 billion in revenue Brazil is expecting from the World Cup alone, over 20 times what South Africa received in 2010, how much will Rocinha residents or for that matter any Brazilian civilians see? Spending obscene amounts of money on 12 new World Cup stadiums when the trickle-down effect will be negligible is a tragedy. There is little evidence that hosting these major sports events leads to growth, while “[a]lmost every academic economist agrees that . . . [it] hampers rather than benefits your economy.”
This wastefulness has catalyzed protests and strikes all over Brazil that represent a broad spectrum of society from teachers to construction workers to the favela poor. In the age of social media that fact cannot be hidden from the world. When millions live in abject poverty, public services are non-existent and corruption is rampant, sports just aren’t that important. You can love the game and hate the spectacle, even if you are Brazilian, even if it is football.