In The Media

Violence flares in Rio’s slums just months before Summer Olympics

by Lulu Garcia-Navarro (feat. Robert Muggah)

May 31, 2016

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s just over two months until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

For the host country, Brazil, it’s been a troubled journey. The Zika virus, corruption scandals, and an economic and political meltdown have all had an impact. But for many residents, the most worrying development is a spike in crime across Rio and what happens after the athletes go home.

“NewsHour” producer Jon Gerberg teamed up with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro, and they report from the shantytowns, or favelas, of Rio de Janeiro.

And a warning: Some of the images are disturbing.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: The image of glamorous Rio de Janeiro most people know: world-famous beaches like Copacabana, a draw for tourists and residents alike.

But just behind the high-rises and hotels lies another world. These are two impoverished communities called Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira. They are at the heart of a bold policing experiment that started in 2008. It’s called pacification.

It introduced community-based police units to many favelas that are close to tourist areas, its aim, to push out the violent drug gangs that operated here in advance of Brazil’s debut on the world stage with the 2014 World Cup and, in two months’ time, the Olympics.

Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira together became the poster children of Rio’s transformation. Crime dropped. New businesses opened, catering to tourists. Police would walk around with their weapons holstered. Dignitaries like U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and media like me were taken here to show off the project’s success.

But that success is now under threat. Pacification is in crisis. The first time I came to this favela three years ago, it was safe. It was known as the Disneyland favela. This time, residents refusing to talk to us because they have been threatened by drug traffickers. And the only way we can come is with heavily armed police.

These pacification units, known as UPPs, now walk around ready for battle. Two rival gangs are violently fighting for control in this area, and police are struggling. At the crest of the favelas, Commander Paulo Berbat tells me the gangs use these jungle paths to ferry weapons and drugs in and out.

He told me that, in March, the battle for control over these routes turned deadly.

So, he’s saying that, just up here in this area, members of a rival gang from a different community used the cover of the forest to try and invade this community and take it over. There was an intense confrontation between the drug gang that controls this community, and three of the drug traffickers were killed.

Businesses that had flourished, attracting foreigners, are now reporting a 50 percent drop in revenue. Even though no visitors have been harmed in Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira, tourists are choosing to stay away. It’s a shocking turnaround for the residents here.

Among them is Rodrigo da Silva. He sells food to make a living on the beaches just near his home in Chapeu Mangueira. He had hoped that the Olympics and pacification would provide new opportunities, so he opened a hostel, advertised on Airbnb, but clients today are scarce

RODRIGO DA SILVA, Favela Resident (through interpreter): Our business has decreased. We had much higher expectations in terms of hosting people throughout the Olympics. If the situation had improved, maybe I wouldn’t still have to work here on the beach.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: Concerned about gang pressure, da Silva only agreed to meet us outside his favela.

RODRIGO DA SILVA (through interpreter): If you talk too much, it ends badly. Here’s the deal: You do not mess with their business. I don’t mess with their stuff and they don’t mess with mine. Everyone wins, in a way.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: But these violent confrontations have led to deep personal losses across Rio. In another part of the city, Dayse Napoleao told me about the last time she spoke to her daughter, Sofia.

DAYSE NAPOLEAO, Mother of Sofia Napoleao (through interpreter): We spoke the week of her birthday. She said she was going to rent a house to leave that area. She was planning to get back together with her ex-partner. She was making so many plans.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: A few days later, Sofia had been shot.

DAYSE NAPOLEAO (through interpreter): I went to see her at the hospital. The doctor asked me, are you prepared? I asked him, why, sir? The doctor said if her hemorrhaging doesn’t stop, she won’t survive. Later, they told me she hadn’t been able to hold on. She was dead.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sofia and her 1-year-old daughter had been living in another pacified favela, Vila Cruzeiro. To get there, we needed permission from the drug gangs who control the neighborhood. They didn’t want to be filmed.

Our guide was Sofia’s sister-in-law, Carol, who was with her the day she was shot. She says the police from the UPP, who were fighting with the drug traffickers, sprayed their apartment with bullets. Carol recorded the scene with her phone minutes after.

WOMAN (through interpreter): There was blood everywhere, blood marks on the wall, in the washing machine where she tried to hold on, blood marks in the pipes. The police said it was a stray bullet, and that she was on the street.

It is a lie. She was indoors and we have proof of that. She was hit by two bullets that opened these holes in the door.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: Innocent bystanders are being killed almost every day in Rio. But police too are dying in large numbers, as the battle over territory continues.

On our way to film with Carol that morning, we heard of another casualty. We drove to the funeral later that day.

Police officer Eduardo Dias had been killed the day before, shot by gang members as he was leaving his UPP post. According to the police, he was killed on this street in front of the Mangueira favela, and in plain view of the Maracana Stadium, site of the Olympics opening ceremony in August. A police pastor at the funeral addressed the crowd.

“Until when, dear lord, will we have to bury our good cops? Until when will we bury our children, our parents with young kids? Do not forget the military police in your prayers. Pray for us all,” he said.

So far this year, 41 police have been killed in Rio state. Murders generally are up 15 percent in the city, robberies up 30 percent. There is a sense here that things are spiraling out of control.

Just last week, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped in a Rio favela by as many as 30 men. Two boys, 14 and 16, were tortured and murdered by gang members in another city over the bay. Both were documented on social media and spread widely around Brazil.

Those who study pacification say it’s too early to conclude whether it has failed. But many mistakes have been made.

IGNACIO CANO, Rio State University: For many of us, the hope was that UPPs would help transform the public security paradigm and the police. And, unfortunately, this is the area in which the advance has been more modest, to say it gently.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ignacio Cano is a professor from Rio State University’s Laboratory on Violence. He says police in Rio are still some of the most brutal in the world, responsible for 20 percent of the homicides in the city, according to Amnesty International.

Police officials have continued to defend pacification. They blame drastic budget cuts for many of the problems. Colonel Ibis Pereira is a former police commander in Rio. He says the economic crisis in Brazil has severely crippled the policing program. He also believes the spike in violence is partly tied to the imminent arrival of the Olympics.

IBIS PEREIRA, Former Police Commander (through interpreter): Drug trafficking is a business that follows the same logic of trade around the world, supply and demand. So, there is an expectation of profit, with the presence of millions of visitors to Rio, and there is a moment of weakness in the UPP program.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now many are asking themselves if there is a future for pacification.

ROBERT MUGGAH, Igarape Institute: There is a sense in the police force and within the public at large in Rio generally that pacification has hit a wall.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robert Muggah studies security and development at the Igarape Institute in Rio. He says there will be tens of thousands of security forces protecting tourists and infrastructure during these Olympics, twice the size of those used in the last Summer Games. But that was London, and this is Brazil, one of the most unequal countries on Earth.

And these Games, says Muggah, will move resources away from marginal communities.

ROBERT MUGGAH: Now, if you are a white tourist coming in from Europe or North America, you’re going to be absolutely safe. However, if you are a low-income black resident from a favela in the lead-up to the Olympics, and just afterward, you are actually going to be experience probably a heightened sense of insecurity.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brazil has promised the Rio games will be safe. But Olympic officials acknowledge it’s not enough to just secure the games.

MARIO ANDRADA, Communications Director, Rio 2016: What we need to push, and we will do so, is to have more security before the Games, and more security after the games. We don’t want the Games to be an island of success and perfection. We want the Games to transform Rio, and to make Rio a safer city in the years to come.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: What part pacification will play in that is unclear. And that worries Rodrigo da Silva, who supports the program. If the police pull out of the favelas after the Olympics, he predicts the worst.

RODRIGO DA SILVA (through interpreter): There will be more violence, more violence in all the communities because of the fights between the drug gangs, fights against the police. In the end, the ones who will pay for this will be the residents, as always.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO: As Rio de Janeiro gets ready for the Summer Games, da Silva says his Olympic dreams of a new life shared by many others are already out of reach.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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