the favelas of brazil -- 2/8/17

Today's selection -- from Brazillionaires by Alex Cuadros. Rio de Janiero has an estimated thousand favelas, very poor neighborhoods where the gangs rule and the police rarely dare to come. In advance of the 2016 Olympics, the government (itself notoriously corrupted) tried to assert control over the favelas, with only short term success:

"[In preparation for hosting the Olympics, Brazil began a program] to install UPPs -- Police Pacification Units -- in Rio's one thousand fave­las. ... It was a big deal because favelas had become the semisovereign fiefdoms of drug gangs. The idea of the UPPs, hatched as Rio campaigned for the 2016 Olympics, was for police to sweep out the gangs with an overwhelming assault and then establish a per­manent force that would, for the first time ever, build a relationship with the community. Public services would follow: sewage lines, gar­bage pickup, public transport, proper housing. The program started with the favelas bordering nice, rich, touristy areas like Copacabana and Ipanema. Eventually it reached ... Complexo do Alemão, an infamous stronghold for a gang known as the Red Command. This isn't one of the favelas I'd seen on my first trip to Rio. It's in the city's working-class subúrbio, a long way north from the beach.

Panoramic view of the Complexo do Alemão.

"Complexo do Alemão ('The German's Compound') is so named because the land once belonged to a Pole, close enough. Migrant families filled its hills starting in the fifties, and in the eighties the drug gangs took over. Usually the only state presence residents ever saw was when police stormed the alleyways hunting down bandidos in gun battles whose stray bullets ended plenty of innocent lives. Pol­iticians cared about favelas only when elections came around. They would come and negotiate votes in return for the promise to build a daycare center or a first aid post. Favelas not under the control of drug traffickers might be ruled by cops who formed paramilitary gangs known as milícias.

"The pacification of Alemão came in response to a wave of attacks across Rio in November 2010. Hoping to disrupt the Red Com­mand's communication networks, the authorities had transferred imprisoned gang members to penitentiaries far from Rio, and the Red Command decided to show its power by coordinating high­-profile hit-and-run robberies. At one point half a dozen armed men -- apparently from Alemão -- carried out an arrastão, blocking the Washington Luis Freeway to rob drivers. They set two cars on fire, and when a military vehicle happened on the scene, they tossed a grenade at it. Brazil's drug gangs are alarmingly well armed. Over the next few days, gang members ambushed police posts and clashed with security forces. I remember everyone in the Bloomberg news­room watching the flaming carcasses of city buses on TV. The scale of the attacks frightened Brasília so much that the defense minister agreed to send in the military to take over Alemão. ...

"On the fourth and final day of the of­fensive, twenty-seven hundred men secured the perimeter in early morning darkness. Cannons thrusting forward, a line of tanks rolled up the street, their brown and green camouflage meant for jungle combat. Soldiers manning machine-gun turrets peered from under battle helmets while snipers claimed positions on rooftops.

"Sixty thousand people live in the complex of favelas that make up Alemão. As the invasion commenced, residents looked curiously from their windows. Others heaped furniture in front of their win­dows to shield against stray bullets. Gang members flushed out of an adjacent favela, Vila Cruzeiro, had taken refuge in Alemão and were also expected to put up their final resistance here.

Police entering the Complexo do Alemao during the

2010 Rio de Janeiro Security Crisis 

"At eight A.M., two military helicopters lifted into the sky. The gov­ernment forces began their advance up narrow, steep roads overhung by clusters of DIY electric lines. Embedded with them, reporters and cameramen in flak jackets relayed it all live. Bulldozers pushed make­shift barricades out of the way, and as the troops ascended the hill, taking cover behind armored assault vehicles, bandidos took pot­shots from the back of a fleeing motorcycle or a notch in an unfin­ished cinderblock wall. The Red Command was well armed but poorly trained, and despite their constant fire, they didn't cause a single casualty. They retreated, melting into the favela. By ten A.M., the troops had reached the top of a hill where a cable car station would soon go into operation. A soldier set off a green smoke flare to signal that official forces had secured the area. Everyone had expected bloodshed, but the mission was accomplished, just like that. The government had taken Alemão. Residents waved white flags from their windows, held up babies for the cameras. One group hoisted a banner that read PAZ -- peace -- with a backward z. ...

"Up on the hill, an army captain stabbed a flagpole into a parch of earth. The wind caught the flag, and the green and yellow and blue of Brazil flapped proudly in the wind. All that actually happened. In the Salve Jorge version, the captain thrusts his helmet into the air, whooping in triumph, smiling wide with his handsome strong jaw. And in the next scene, of the favela the next day, Tim Maia is in the background singing 'Rio de Janeiro is still beautiful. ... '

"After the government takeover, services really did arrive. The local utility came in and fixed up the power network. Lula's low­-income housing program funded new apartment complexes to re­place old, sloping shacks. 'These were the first public works I had ever seen here,' [A resident named] Daiene [Mendes] told me, pointing out a housing project with bright fresh-looking paint.

"Still, she said, the occupation didn't make all the problems go away. Other problems emerged. The soldiers occupying Alemão would kick down doors ostensibly looking for gang members, toss people's homes, and sometimes steal their valuables. In the favela, some say the military dictatorship never ended. During informal in­terrogations by police, torture is commonplace. Summary execu­tions are framed as 'resistance killings.' The victims are disproportionately black, young, and male -- though in Rio at least, the cops are often black young men too. Daiene, who's black herself, put it like this: 'It's poor black favelados killing poor black favela­dos, as usual.'

"The pacification program was supposed to turn a relationship of violence into one of trust. That's a tricky task. The police damped down on baile funk parties financed by drug gangs where kids dance to beats inherited from Miami Bass, melodies sampled from every­where, and homespun raps. Working families appreciated their newly peaceful Saturday nights, but to many residents it felt like an imposition from above. Favelados have a complex relationship with the gangs. When the state is absent, they can act like an informal government, subsidizing food for needy neighbors, charging for ac­cess to pilfered electricity and cable TV, preventing petty crime, and dispensing primitive justice. Daiene said, 'I've been stopped by the police, but I never had any problems with the tráfico' -- the drug gangs. 'They saw me grow up. They know my whole family. The police don't.' This dynamic goes way back. In the early twentieth century, a bandit known as Lampião became a kind of folk hero. In his mythified exploits, he plundered his armaments from the police and robbed the ranches of northeastern cattle barons.

"The government had sold a utopia, Daiene said -- something like Order and Progress. After soldiers planted the flag at the top of the hill, the national anthem blared from a sound truck. 'Lots of people cried from the emotion of it all,' she said. 'I cried.' As far as she could see, though, the government had failed to deliver its utopia. Money meant to integrate favelas with the rest of the city dried up while projects for the 2016 Olympics plowed ahead. [Soon the gangs returned]. Some residents preferred the old days with the Red Command in control. The drug trade brought in money that recirculated at bars and res­taurants and shops in the favela. This fatalism frustrated Daiene. ...

"And yet they do seem happy, despite everything. In one survey, ninety-four percent of favelados said they considered themselves happy. They embody a very Brazilian contradiction: pessimistic about the system that surrounds them, optimistic about their own lives."


Alex Cuadros


Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country


Spiegel & Grau


Copyright 2016 by Alex Cuadros


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