For decades, Brazilian favelas (slums) have been under the control of highly organized, well armed gangs. Financed by the drug trade and armed with weapons often bought from the police the gangs rule their territory, rivaled only by other gangs trying to win turf. Up until a few years ago even law enforcement officers dared not enter. But spurred by the pleas of a large voting bloc and especially this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games a change in policy was deemed necessary.
In an effort to polish up Brazil’s image abroad a new policy of pacification of the favelas was adopted in 2008. Aimed at eliminating the gangs’ control the policy can be divided into three phases: (1) reclaim territory formerly lost to drug gangs, (2) expel them from those areas and (3) integrate resident communities with the rest of the city. This last phase theoretically includes long-term government initiatives to improve quality of life in pacified favelas, although this has been called into question by residents. Besides, when being a bureaucrat becomes as lucrative as it is in Brazil, one should not be surprised to hear would-be politicians make any and all campaign promises necessary to win political office.
As mentioned in a previous article Brazilian police is notoriously corrupt and consequently distrusted by many people, particularly in the states and cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps that is why two special police departments were set up to establish closer ties between them and local residents: the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE) and Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP). Although often referred to as “community police” these forces can call for military support – as they did most recently in 2010 and 2011.
In select slums gang members were successfully chased out and life has returned to a relative normal. But returning peace to once crime-ridden slums has also had other, unforeseen consequences. Built on the outskirts of Rio overlooking the world famous bay, the areas are attracting interest from the upper classes. As a result real estate prices have skyrocketed to where poor residents can no longer afford to live there, and now it is not only the drug gangs that are having to relocate to other favelas. Yet even the pacified slums did not necessarily turn into thriving communities.
While sending armed forces into an area to arrest or kill drug dealers is easy enough; actually solving the underlying problem is another issue. Given conservatives’ stance on drug legalization or decriminalization the war on drugs in Brazil is unlikely to end anytime soon. Never mind the fact that stray bullets wound and kill many non-gang members including children, or that many drug traffickers would likely take a much different career path by their own volition if given the opportunity. Though the arbitrary outlawing of certain substances is directly responsible for the death and misery suffered on a daily basis by those least able to defend themselves, proponents of the war on (some) drugs seem unfazed.
With only a few dozen out of some one thousand favelas pacified so far, it could be argued the jury is still out on whether the policy has been effective. So far it has become clear that so long as law enforcement includes prosecuting people for meeting the demand for certain “dangerous” substances many lives are lost or ruined in the process. Meanwhile, a study conducted by Amnesty International found Brazil to be the country where people feel most unsafe in the hands of authorities. Or in the words of one resident to Smithsonian Magazine, “It’s the same thing as before – a group of different gunmen is taking care of this place.”