Brazil: the shadow of urban war

Rodrigo de Almeida
18 July 2007

At this moment, millions of people across the American hemisphere are enthralled by the spectacle of the fifteenth Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. The festival of sport on 13-29 July 2007 involves 5,000 athletes from forty-two countries - the biggest such event Brazil has hosted since the epic 1950 world cup football finals. But at the same time, the host country (and indeed the host city) finds itself once again absorbed by the serious domestic issue of endemic urban conflict in its poor, overcrowded favelas (shanty-towns).

What is the best strategy to win the war against drug traffickers - the criminals that have threatened the security, confronted the governments and frightened the people (residents and non-residents alike) from thousands of favelas in Rio? To be sure, nobody knows well what to do. Neither officials nor experts, neither the police nor Brazilian citizens know the answer to this question. Yet positive proposals for a way out are being made. This is a big problem, but it is not a blind alley.

The latest clash between the police and drug traffickers in a huge shanty-town known as Complexo do Alemão, in Rio de Janeiro began with a "mega-operation" by the police on 27 June 2007, the latest phase of a strategy launched on 2 May. It has exposed again one of the most serious weaknesses facing this country: the lack of a legitimate authority that can guarantee the welfare of people, particularly in Rio and São Paulo, the two biggest Brazilian cities. This is an old story for Brazilians: the country seems to exist in a never-ending conflict between criminal gangs and the state. The major innovation is the action of the government, which some observers even consider a turning-point in the crime issue. For the first time in many years, the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro (in this case, Sérgio Cabral) has had popular support and won praise for his approach.

In a seven-page article entitled "The necessary war", Veja, the biggest Brazilian magazine, states that "Rio starts to reverse the present state of affairs by carrying out the biggest operation of combat against traffickers in the country". Época, another magazine, summarised it as "an innovative attack".
Rodrigo de Almeida is a Brazilian political journalist, and a researcher at Núcleo de Estudos do Empresariado, Instituições e Capitalismo (Center of Studies of Entrepreneurial, Institutions and Capitalism / NEIC-Iuperj) in Rio de Janeiro. He was a visiting scholar at the New School for Social Research in New York. He co-edited (with Arthur Ituassu) the book O Brasil tem jeito? (Jorge Zahar, 2006)

Also by Rodrigo de Almeida in openDemocracy:

"Brazil in the world: principle and practice"
(19 January 2007)

"Brazil, the United States and ethanol" (30 March 2007)

"Benedict XVI in Brazil: raising the Catholic flag"
(9 May 2007)
A route from reaction?

The numbers tell a melancholy story: thirty-six people have been killed and seventy-two wounded since the beginning of the security operation on 2 May. On the "big day" of the mega-operation, 27 June, 1,350 policemen invaded the Complexo do Alemão and fought traffickers. The result was tragic: in one day, nineteen people were killed and nine injured from stray bullets, and yet there was no break in the resistance put up by the criminal organisation that has control of that favela. And, most importantly, Brazil is divided. Some people say: "It is the beginning of victory over the crime". Other people think we are on the limit of exhaustion in terms of insecurity and crisis. Above all, as always, human-rights organisations critique the strategy of extreme force.

Despite such criticisms, the majority of the population has voiced almost total support. A survey conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (Ibope) finds that 83% agree with the police action, and 87% of interviewers think that it should be repeated in other favelas. But leaderships in the shanty-towns themselves reveal that residents are traumatised. For instance, people can no longer go out to work and children cannot go to school. In sum, there is both satisfaction and deep frustration.

Everybody knows there are high costs in this type of operation. Nevertheless, I agree with Silvia Ramos, the area coordinator for the Centre for Studies on Public Security and Citizenship at University Candido Mendes, in Rio de Janeiro. She confesses that the current situation in the city perplexes her: how is it possible that one of the best public-security teams available is still engaged in a reactive style of policing that is "almost insupportably wasteful"?

The point is that the government must supplement this type of response to the crisis - reactive operations at times of emergency - with the search for long-term solutions. The governor of Rio and the state public-security team, in office for just six months, are just responding to the crisis and not producing forward-looking solutions based on the social fundamentals of the situation. Every day there is a new crisis and the responses are all ineffective, often dangerous and risky, with lives lost on both sides. Usually the police arrest a few drug-traffickers and seize a small quantity of drugs, weapons and ammunition.

The main effect is to invite trouble not from the drug traffickers, but from the population as a whole. As many as 97,000 people (or even 200,000, according to community leaderships) are prevented from attending schools and blocked from access to health centres in favelas as a result of clashes between the police and criminals; basic social amenities such as sanitation and rubbish collection are suspended.

It is a major concern for the governor of Rio, Sèrgio Cabral, as well as for Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In the wake of the mega-operation, on 2 July, Lula announced a programme of investment intended to "urbanise" some of the city's favelas - Complexo do Alemão itself, as well as Cantagalo, Pavão-Pavãozinho, Manguinhos and Rocinha. It is good news, of course, but unfortunately still very far from the ideal. The problem (as my colleague Arthur Ituassu has written in openDemocracy) is partly that the state governments - which are responsible for spending on public security - do not distribute funds properly, and even fail to spend money previously allocated to them (see "Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty", 17 May 2006). The Brazilian experience shows that a mere guarantee of funding without being aimed at precise social targets or tied to a detailed implementation of programmes only makes it easier to spend money badly.

Also in openDemocracy on crime and social policy in Brazil:

Arthur Ituassu, "Brazil's gun law: another brick in the wall"
(24 October 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, "Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty"
(17 May 2006)

Arthur Ituassu, "Brazil: the mortal challenge"
(19 April 200Brazil at the crossroads

This moment is a political crossroad for both Sérgio Cabral and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The investments announced are very important. For instance, the project to urbanise favelas, if carried through, could lead to the creation of a peaceful new landscape in Complexo do Alemão. That would be a good beginning - but only a beginning. The state will still need to do much more: to become, as it were, the "owner" (in the sense of the custodian for the people) of the territory. The state, that is, needs to perform its core duties inside and around the favelas. At present there are great obstacles in its way, starting with a basic deficiency of policemen (only 1,350 policemen cover the territory of Complexo do Alemão). The result is that traffickers replace the state in some fields, even offering services (such as sports, culture, and leisure) that can offer some hope and positive meaning to life. Thus they catch the support of the people who live in the favelas.

While this article is being written, Brazilians - like their neighbours to north and south - are absorbed by the Pan American Games in Rio. This is an authentic celebration of healthy sporting contest, and thus of life itself. At the same time, the entire country is seeing the contrast between the summer party and the raw violence in the favelas. No one would want to damage the enjoyable national and internal party, but it is necessary to face openly what is happening in its shadow.

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