They are an ubiquitous sight in Rio de Janeiro, and can be imposing, intimidating and beguiling in equal measure.
Clinging to every hillside of this vast city, occupying real estate with arguably the best views in Rio, are favelas (shanty town/slum in Portuguese), the often substandard housing so besmirched by Brazil’s middle and upper classes.
The perception of the favelas is one of violence, poverty and grim human existence. Those perceptions may now be changing.
Many favelas have been made safe, the drug gangs pushed out, law and order restored. Where the sound of gunfire once reverberated around the maze of stairs and alleyways, now the sound is baile funk music and children playing football. Life has returned to these once troubled areas.
This new found safety is a symptom of an operation by the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (Police Pacification Unit, abbreviated UPP), a major drive designed by the state government of Rio de Janeiro to break an impasse that sees a perpetuating cycle of violence, police raids, shootouts then police withdrawal.
As of May 2013, the operation had ‘pacified’ 231 favelas.
While the UPP now occupy a favela after an operation, rather than withdrawing as before, BOPE do the initial clearing of the drug gangs and their related paraphernalia.
BOPE – Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (Special Police Operations Battalion) – are a special forces military police unit that specialise in urban warfare, and has at its disposal equipment more powerful than traditional law enforcement. They, and their knife and skull logo, and feared by the drug gangs of Rio. Heavy weaponry and drug caches are rounded up after expelling the gangs, paving the way for pacification of a favela.
The operation is necessitated by this summer’s World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics, which will see thousands of extra foreign tourists descend on the city.
As of September last year, 34 UPP’s have been established within favelas in Rio de Janeiro, including Rocinha – Latin America’s largest slum – Dona Marta – the first favela pacified – and Complexo do Alemão. The state government’s target is 40 by the end of this year.
A former stronghold of the powerful drug gang Comando Vermelho (Red Command), Complexo do Alemão is an agglomeration of 13 favelas which was captured in 2010. Violent crime has decreased, and a $128 million cable car now connects the peaks of the favela with the city – and opportunity – below.
Major changes are taking place in Complexo do Alemão. New clinics, schools, housing and cultural centres have been built in the past two years. The government began investing more than $270 million to restore the favela, and Visa and the Inter-American Development Bank have partnered with the Brazilian government and local community leaders to expand financial inclusion and literacy to the residents of the area. A R$200 bottle of Belgian beer can be bought in the favela, at Bistrô Estação R & R; testament to its residents’ new spending power.
The estimated 100,000 residents, and the pacifying forces, though, have had to pay a price for their new freedom, and subsequent investment.
On July 23, 2012, the first police officer to die in a favela under UPP administration was killed in Complexo do Alemão. Fabiana Aparecida de Souza, 30, was shot by criminals while guarding a UPP station.
In November 2010, the UPP forces engaged in their most intense battle. 3,000 heavily armed troops battled traffickers in Complexo do Alemão for five days and, according to Insight Crime, 37 people were killed and 200 arrested. Several police officers have been killed in clashes in the favela in recent years.
Murder rates soared 40% in Rio last year, with both petty street theft and clashes in favelas rising exponentially. Over 5,000 people are murdered every year in the city.
There has reportedly been a decrease of close to 50% in police killings in the pacified favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
Many travel agents now offer tours of pacified favelas, such as Rocinha and Complexo do Alemão. Many tourists want to see what life is really like in a favela. So much so, that one Rio company – Favela Experience – offers affordable accommodations and tours in various favelas. The pacification drive has pushed up prices in many favelas, so families rent out their spare room – often to tourists – to make ends meet. This is emblematic of the change taking place in Rio de Janeiro.
Many favelas, however, are still operated by the three main rival gangs in the city: Comando Vermelho; Terceiro Comando (Third Command); and Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends). The gangs often dispense their own arbitrary justice in a favela, and rule by initmidation and fear. Only time will tell whether the pacification operation as a whole is deemed a success.