Brazil: The ‘Security Threat’ of Rio’s Favelas

From November 24 through 28, police and military staged Rio de Janeiro’s largest armed offensive against drug traffickers in decades. The operation has been hailed as a turning point in Rio’s efforts to improve security before it hosts the 2016 Olympic games. However, the perception of greater public safety in Rio is credible only to those willing to look past both the human rights abuses carried out in its midst and the systematic corruption among Rio police that is linked to much of the major crime in the city.

Sean Power

From November 24 through 28, 2,700 Rio de Janeiro state police, together with over 2,000 Brazilian marine and army troops, staged Rio’s largest armed offensive against drug traffickers in decades. These joint forces took control of the neighboring Rio favelas (shantytowns) of Complexo de Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro, home to more than 400,000 residents, following small skirmishes with traffickers.

The police/military operation in these favelas was a media sensation in Brazil, with millions of Brazilians accompanying the fighting through live aerial and on-the-ground coverage. Security forces seized on this spotlight by raising the Brazilian and Rio state flags on a hill at the conclusion of the fighting, a scene printed in papers worldwide. The operation has been hailed as a turning point in Rio’s efforts to improve security before it hosts the 2016 Olympic games.

However, the perception of greater public safety in Rio is credible only to those willing to look past both the human rights abuses carried out in its midst and the systematic corruption among Rio police that is linked to much of the major crime in the city.

In the November operation, official police reports indicate 50 persons were killed by security forces, all of whom the police claim were traffickers. Favela residents cite even higher numbers of persons killed, including the claim that 60 men were killed fleeing Vila Cruzeiro to the hill of Complexo de Alemão. Police have prevented families from searching for bodies and say that only three were killed in this part of the operation. Favela residents also complained that the joint forces stole and destroyed personal property and abusively questioned residents.

Speaking about this and other police attacks on favelas, sociologist and Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro professor José Cláudio Souza Alves states, “The most drastic [thing] is that those who will die in this confrontation [are members of] the innocent civilian population, that doesn’t have access to communication, health care, and electricity . . . This population will be presented in an unfair, . . . ignorant way purely oriented towards the media interests, for the sale of [media] images and for the interests of a political public safety policy . . .”

Echoing this sentiment, attorney Beatriz Vargas Ramos notes that “[a] massacre does not mean public safety.”

In preparing for this operation, Rio police were well aware that many innocent human lives could be lost. Contradicting Rio police statements that their incursion was in response to an intimidation campaign by drug traffickers, documents made available by WikiLeaks show that Rio security forces had been planning such an operation for years. Rio Public Safety Secretary José Mariano Beltrame told U.S. Consul Dennis W. Hearne in September 2009 that Rio security forces would attempt to seize Complexo de Alemão, which he called the “epicenter of crime in Rio,” sometime in 2010. He foresaw that such an action “could be more similar to [U.S.] battles in Fallujah than to conventional urban police operations.” Beltrame also predicted “traumatic violence” in carrying out this operation.

Former Rio state and federal public safety officials have also criticized the police/military operation for ignoring the fact that many major crime operations in Rio involve police complicity. Former National Secretary of Public Safety (2003) and Coordinator of Safety, Justice and Citizenship for Rio State (1999-2000) Luiz Eduardo Soares observed to Folha de São Paulo that “the trafficking of drugs only exists in Rio because of a partnership with the police. Its extreme form is the militia, but there are others, and all serious crime in Rio de Janeiro involves segments of the police.”

According to the Violence Research Nucleus at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, until this recent action in Complexo de Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro, 41.5 percent of the more than 1,000 favelas in Rio were controlled by police-run militias, 55.9 percent by drug traffickers, and 2.6 percent by Police Pacification Units (UPPs). The latter are police stations built inside favelas that were once trafficker- or militia-controlled, which attempt to enable permanent state control of these areas.

Now that Rio Governor Sergio Cabral has reached an agreement with Brazil’s federal government to maintain federal troops in Rio state until at least October 2011, there is also concern that these troops may become involved in the same type of corruption and human rights abuse as the Rio police. The military will be used to patrol the outlying streets of the Complexo de Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro favelas until UPPs are opened in these areas. Though they will not be allowed to enter residents’ homes, the military will be used to conduct open-air searches of residents, with the aim of confiscating more drugs and weapons.

Former President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ de Silva pledged his support for the continued presence of the military in Rio, stating that the armed forces would stay “as long as needed to guarantee the peace” and more troops will be sent if needed. Incoming President Dilma Rousseff has echoed this position.

During her campaign, Rousseff pledged to institute the UPP model nationwide. More than $1.6 billion Brazilian Reais ($940 million) will be invested from 2011 to 2014 to create 2,883 UPPs throughout Brazil.

Some academics argue that there are other motives beyond the level of crime and violence for presence of the UPPs in Rio’s favelas. Rio State University Professor Luiz Ricardo Leitão argues that the state’s retaking of these favelas creates a “safety zone” around the main Olympic venues. He writes, “With an eye on the fancy business of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the government and the militias butchered that marvelous city [Rio] into zones of operation. [In] the belt around the sports complexes . . . there appeared the UPP . . .”

From a different standpoint, Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro professor José Cláudio Souza Alves contends that the designation of favelas to receive UPPs is largely due to a coordinated effort among the police, the militias, and one of the main militia-aligned trafficking groups, the Third Command, to evict the other major trafficking organization, the Red Command, from the territories it controls. In an interview with Instituto Humanitas Unisinos he argues that the police have not attempted to establish a UPP in a favela near equal in size to that of Complexo de Alemão, “because the Third Command [which controls this favela] already has agreements with the militias and [those behind] the security policy.”

While some such as Rio governor Cabral are talking about reform such as the legalization of soft drugs and the creation of greater accountability of the Rio police, it seems clear that the main strategy for convincing Brazilians and the world that Rio is secure by the time the Olympic torch is lit will be more violence against the poor.


Sean Power is a NACLA Research Associate.

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