In the Violent Favelas of Brazil

My Brazilian friend Marina and I were picking up a visiting friend from New York, who heads an NGO, in her hotel lobby near Paulista, the most prestigious avenue in São Paulo. It was 7.30pm on a busy Friday night last October. We walked up to a taxi outside the hotel. I sat in the front to let the two women chat in the back. I saw a teenage boy run up to the taxi and gesticulate through my open window. I thought he was a beggar, asking for money. Then I saw the gun, going from my head to the cell phone.

‘Just give him the phone,’ Marina said from the back seat.
I gave him the phone. He didn’t go away.
‘Dinheiro, dinheiro!’
I didn’t want to give him my wallet. The boy was shouting obscenities. ‘Dinheiro, dinheiro!’

The boy’s body suddenly jerked back, as a man’s arm around his neck pulled him off his feet. The man, dressed in a black shirt, was shouting; he had jumped the boy from behind. He started hitting the boy. The taxi driver sitting next to me was stoic. He said that this had never happened to him before, but he couldn’t have been more blasé.

The next thing I saw was the boy and another teenager, probably his accomplice, running away fast up the street. The man in the black shirt chased them a bit, then came back panting to the taxi. ‘Did the bastard get anything?’ our saviour … asked. He wasn’t a plainclothes cop, as I’d originally thought; he was just an ordinary citizen who was tired of the criminals. The taxi driver drove us to the nearest police station. Two lethargic cops were the only people there. ‘We get ten of these a day, just in this precinct,’ said one of them. The other cop went over to check in his register. ‘Three before you today.’ There are 319 armed robberies a day in São Paulo.

Everyone in this country has a story. The cities of Brazil are some of the most violent places in the world today. More people are murdered in Brazil than in almost any other country. In 2010, there were 43,684 murders, 22 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), compared to the global rate of 6.9 or to London’s rate of 1.6 (in 2009). Between 5 to 8 per cent of Brazilian homicides are solved – compared to 65 per cent of murders in the US and 90 per cent of murders in the UK. Most of the victims are male and poor, between 15 and just shy of 30. The homicide rate has shaved seven years off the life expectancy in the Rio favelas.

The violence hasn’t prevented Brazil from emerging on the world stage as the preeminent country in Latin America. Next year, it will host the World Cup, two years after that the Olympics. Between 2003 and 2011, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – Lula – Brazil’s remarkable president, brought about one reform after another that improved the country’s economy. Rousseff, his successor, was until the protests of this June favoured to win a second term next year. Both she and Lula are from the centre-left Workers’ Party. Now, while not growing as fast as it did in the days before the crisis of 2008, the economy is still the world’s seventh largest.

Brazilians like to think of themselves as a multiracial society, but a walk around the favelas of the cities demolishes this myth. Most of the residents have a dark complexion, much darker than most of the rich who live by the water or in the suburbs, and darker than most of the young people who have recently been protesting in the streets. Over the last year and a half, I have been visiting São Paulo and, especially, Rio de Janeiro, observing the process of ‘pacification’, by which the government attempts to peacefully enter and re-establish state control over the most violent enclaves of the city; those dominated by drug gangs, called traficantes, or by syndicates of corrupt police called milícias. Until 2008, when the pacification programme started, the traficantes controlled roughly half of the favelas, and the milícias the other half. Both still hold power in most favelas. The ultimate aim of the state government of Rio’s plan, called the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), or Police Pacification Unit, is to drive both of these groups out and replace them by the state.

Today, of Rio’s 6.3 million people, 1.4 million live in the favelas. There are some 630 of them, containing more than a thousand ‘communities’. The state government aims to ‘pacify’ 40 of these favelas by the time of the World Cup next year – a kind of demonstration effect that will get attention from visitors. Since the programme started in 2008, 33 have been pacified – that is, they are under the control of the official police forces, not the drug dealers or the milícias. In the past, the police would raid individual favelas, capture or kill the biggest drug dealers, and leave. They would soon be replaced by other dealers, and the violence would continue. ‘The new strategy is not to target individual drug dealers. It is to take back territory,’ a high-ranking police official told me.

Under the UPP program, elite police units – and in some cases troops from the army and even the navy – invade the favelas and stay for up to three months. Then they are replaced by the regular police and squads of UPP civil servants. The UPP establishes schools and rubbish collection, brings in public and private companies to provide utilities such as electricity and television, and hands out legal documents such as employment and residency certificates. In the areas under its control, the UPP has set up community security councils, which attempt to mediate conflicts between local hotheads before they spread. The message is: the State is here to stay. So far, the programme has generally been seen as a success, and was a major factor in the re-election of Sérgio Cabral in 2010 as the state governor backed by the Workers’ Party.

One night in Rio, Walter Mesquita, a street photographer, took me to a baile funk, a street party organised by the drug dealers, in the unpacified favela of Arará. It was an extraordinary scene: at midnight, the traficantes had cordoned off many blocks, turning the favela into a giant open-air nightclub. One end of the street was a giant wall of dozens of loudspeakers, booming songs and stories about cop-killing and underage sex. Teenagers walked around carrying AK-47s; prepubescent girls inhaled drugs and danced. On some corners, cocaine was being sold out of large plastic bags. Everybody danced: grandmothers danced, children danced, I danced. It went on until eight in the morning.

Although such parties are officially prohibited in the pacified favelas because of their multiple breaches of the law, ranging from noise violations to exhortations to murder – even the music played there is called baile funk proibidão – the State and its forces were nowhere to be seen. The rival gangs were a bigger threat than the police. The three gangs that control much of Rio have remained more or less stable for the last couple of decades: the Red Command, the [Pure] Third Command, and Friends of Friends. According to a top police official I spoke to, in a city of just over 6 million there are some 30 to 40 thousand people in the gangs.

The day after the baile funk, I was flying in a police helicopter over Rio. It took us over Ipanema and the newly pacified favela of Rocinha. I asked if we could fly over Arará. The pilot pointed it out in the distance, and said he could not fly directly over it. He was concerned about getting shot down. A couple of years ago, the traficantes had brought down a police helicopter with anti-aircraft guns. So the police cannot safely enter a large part of Rio by land or by air. This, too, is the future of many megacities in the developing world, from Nairobi to Caracas. There is a de facto sharing of power between the legitimate organs of the state and the gangs, the milícias. Many people will die as the exact contours of this power sharing are negotiated.

Mário Sérgio Duarte is the high-raking police official who led the invasion of Alemão, one of the largest and most dangerous favelas in Rio. In an eight-day operation in 2010, the police found more than 500 guns: 106 carbines, rocket launchers, bazookas, 39 Browning anti-aircraft guns. ‘Pacification started with me,’ he tells me in the bar at the top of my hotel. Duarte’s mother was a seamstress, his father was murdered in 1972 over a ‘personal dispute’. Duarte studied philosophy in college, but chose to join the police force. His T-shirt says, ‘Listen as your day unfolds’.

In the 1980s, cocaine from Colombia and Bolivia started coming into the favelas, accompanied by Eastern European AK-47s from Paraguay. A carbine, such as an AK-47 or M-15, now costs around R$15-20,000 (US$6,800-9,000). The traficantes have rocket launchers now, says Duarte, ‘better weapons than the police,’ who have .38s and 9-millimetre revolvers. Each year, some 50 cops and around 1,500 traffickers are killed. Last year, over a hundred police in São Paulo were murdered by the drug dealers, and police promised to kill five ‘bad guys’ for every cop killed.

The drug trade in just one favela, Rocinha, Duarte tells me, runs to around a million R$ (US$450,000) per week. But it’s not just drugs. The dealers run a parallel economy in pirated cable TV, phones, and moto taxis, and have their own systems of justice. ‘We don’t expect drugs to be stopped, just the violence with the drugs,’ Duarte says. The drugs these days are ecstasy, PCP, and crystal meth, coming in from Europe. He points to Santa Marta as an example of a pacified favela where drugs are still traded, but there are no visible weapons, ‘no king of the hill.’

The state government has increased the armed police force in Rio from 36,000 to 42,000, towards a target of 50,000, with another 10,000 ‘civilian police’… Their salaries start at R$1,500 reais (US$680) per month, and in six years go up to R$1,900 (US$860). A policeman stationed in a pacified area gets another R$500 a month to help him fight the temptation to take bribes or join one of the violent syndicates – the milícias – run by corrupt police.

What is happening in the favelas of Rio is not so much pacification as legalisation. The dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985 was brought down after many years and great sacrifices. Everyone who was not connected to the junta was its victim. People rushed to spend their pay as soon as they got it in their hands, because by the afternoon it would be worth much less. When democracy came, everybody – the rich in Leblon and the poor in Rocinha – felt they should benefit from it, and in Brazil, for a time, most people did.

But in the favelas there was no democracy. The traffickers continued with their own dictatorship; the people of the favela still had great trouble getting access to the courts or casting a vote. Pacification is an attempt to interrupt a despotic process. It is, for the construction workers and ladies who sell feijoada – a black bean stew – in the slum, the final fall of the dictatorship.

During the last twenty years, the drug dealers took informal control of much of life in the favelas, including, most importantly, music, the cultural lifeblood of Brazil. ‘Our challenge is what will happen after the pacification,’ I was told by Ricardo Henriques, who was until last year the head of the Instituto Pereira Passos, the government’s urban think tank that formulates policy for the UPP. As Henriques rather optimistically sees it, the takeover of the favelas will happen in three phases. The first consists of the police moving in and denying the drug dealers the ability to do what they want, legally and culturally. The second: ‘It’s a little bit boring, the police are here.’ The third phase consists of the state replacing the prohibited culture by an officially sanctioned culture, or at least culture that doesn’t continue to glorify rape and murder. ‘You do it in a creative manner,’ explained Henriques. ‘No guns. Less erotic, but really creative. The music is not proibidão.’

For decades, the favelas have existed in a parallel system to the rest of Brazil. ‘The idea of the state is to stay there for the long, long term,’ Henriques said. He wants to reduce the inequality between the favela and the rest of the city. ‘Our challenge is to integrate those areas into the city.’

If this schematic-sounding vision of pacification works – and the ongoing protests throughout the country are putting it in doubt – what would come after it? One night I went to a jazz club in the favela of Tavares Bastos, which had been pacified for a year, right below the headquarters of the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE). The rooms of the club were packed with sweaty bodies and heavy with marijuana smoke. If the BOPE wanted to find drugs it wouldn’t have to go far. But it will never come here, because these are people from the rich, white areas of Ipanema and Leblon. The only black people I could see were the saxophonist and my guide, the street photographer, who lived here. ‘The people from the favelas can’t imagine themselves here,’ said the photographer. The music was bebop and bossa nova, an American idea of the jazz that Brazilians listen to. No samba here, much less funk.

The club was opened five years ago. A beautiful white economist who works for a bank, wearing an expensive dress, told me she was already bored. ‘Two years ago there used to be more interesting people. Now I only see all the people I would see near the beaches.’ It costs R$50 (US$23) to get in; a beer is R$15 (US$7). On the way to the club, I passed a number of small cafés. In some, neighbours were enjoying beers that cost a third as much. In one, pleasantly overweight couples were dancing close together to samba. All the lights in the houses of the favela were out; it was after midnight. But the white patrons on their way to the jazz club were raucous, laughing, energised by the thrill of the expedition to this clandestine destination.

In Tavares Bastos, and in favelas like Cantagalo, with its easy access to the rich southern zone of Rio and increased security after the pacification, the residents are being forced out, not by violence, which they can live with, but by high rents, which will make living there impossible. Their right to live there was protected as long as it was illegal. After pacification, the biggest threat to long-time residents of the Rio favelas will come not from drug dealers, but from property dealers.

(c) 2013 The New York Review of Books/Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

Suketu Mehta is author of Maximum City, and Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University.