Before the Olympics, gang violence surges in Rio's poor neighborhoods

A sniper aims his gun at Rio de Janeiro's Rocinha slum during the inauguration of its so-called peacekeeping unit program in September 2012.

Oberdan Basilio Chagas, known to everyone as “Obi,” plunges deeper into the warren of damp, smelly alleyways that crowns the mountainside community of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela.

We’re perhaps a few hundred yards uphill from the hostel Obi runs, but he seems a little jumpy. I ask him if this is a part of the favela he knows well. Does he come up here often? “No. Never,” he says, with a nervous laugh. Almost simultaneously, we enter an alley pocked with hundreds of bullet holes.

We’re ogling the perforated walls when the gangsters show up.

Two sour-faced men, their arms and hands a graffiti of tattoos, ask us who we are, and what we’re doing. Obi explains. The gangsters tell us to stand still. Then they walk over to a radio. They’re checking with the kingpin whether it’s OK for us to be here, Obi says quietly.

One of the men returns and instructs us that we can take photos of the walls and the street. It’s implicit we’re not to film or photograph the gang members themselves. The other guy slinks off and returns with a submachine gun. He sits on the sidewalk, scowling, holding the gun across his lap. I suggest to Obi that maybe it’s time to leave.

Rocinha, South America’s second-largest favela, or marginalized neighborhood, is supposed to be “pacified.” This community of 60,000-plus people, which divides two of Rio’s wealthiest communities, has long been touted as a success story of the city’s revolutionary “pacification” program, known by its Portuguese initials UPP.

The program is based on an invasion and occupation of the favelas by the city’s elite and military police. The idea is to wrest control of the communities from the drug lords. Heavily armed cops go door-to-door, seizing drugs, guns and ammunition and arresting and shooting suspected gang members. Having invaded, the officers set up a central UPP station and keep up a heavy presence throughout the favela.

The system has been lauded across the world. It’s credited with reducing crime across Rio and helping to make favelas legitimate city neighborhoods, instead of gangster-run ghettoes.

But as this city readies to host the Summer Olympic Games, Rio’s pacification effort is crumbling. Crime is rising across the city, and security experts agree that Rio’s drug dealers are gaining back some of the ground they have lost in the favelas in recent years. For residents of Rocinha like Obi, pacification has always been a façade. But now even the image of safety and calm is peeling away.

The walls of Rocinha alleyways are pockmarked with bullet holes.

The walls of Rocinha alleyways are pockmarked with bullet holes.


Will Carless

“I see drug traffickers in here, like, with the police,” Obi said. “I think the pacification is not working in this community. I don’t know about the other ones, because I don’t live in the other ones, but for this community here, the pacification doesn’t work.”

Silvia Ramos, a sociologist at the Center for Security and Citizenship Studies at Rio's Cândido Mendes University, said the time has come and gone to save Rio’s pacification project. A year ago, there was a chance to make the changes and investments needed to keep the project afloat. Now, she said, it’s a lost cause.

“Today, I’m very, very pessimistic. I would say we are now in a point where it’s very, very difficult to go back,” she said.

The reason she gave for the current crisis is simple: While state officials intricately planned their flashy invasions of the favelas, they seemingly failed to plan for the day when the heavily armed drug dealers would seek to reclaim their territory.

“They were zero prepared for when the drug groups would come back!” she said. “What these factions discovered was when they did come back, nothing happened. The police groups would watch them come.”

Read more: Residents in Brazil's notorious City of God are 'scared to death' of US shootings

Not everyone agrees. Coronel Robson Rodrigues retired from Rio’s Military Police force, which oversees the UPPs, earlier this year but still analyzes local security issues as a private consultant. He said he and other police leaders spent more than a year studying how to reform the program and keep it up to date.

But Rodrigues said the reforms he and others proposed were largely ignored by Rio’s state security secretary, José Mariano Beltrame. And he said many of the social programs the state promised to roll out along with the policing in the favelas just never materialized.

“The problem is that the UPP was never modernized. We never attacked the problem at its root — by getting rid of the situations in which the criminality starts in these places,” Rodrigues said. “The state didn’t bring quality to the pacification process. We proposed reorganizing the UPP but it never advanced, it stayed on paper.”

The current Military Police command did not respond to calls for comment.

Despite concerns about the failing security situation, Rodrigues, Ramos and others are confident the city will remain stable during the Summer Olympics, when 500,000 visitors are expected to descend on Rio. That’s thanks largely to a planned influx of police from other states and federal agents from the National Public Security Force, they said. Rio will be absolutely flooded with cops.

The police and gangs are also likely to strike an informal, temporary truce, which has happened during past events like the 2014 soccer World Cup.

But the real problems come later.

Rio state is essentially broke. The state security system was cut by $550 million this year and doesn’t have the cash to pay police officers what they’re owed now. State officials are currently in talks with the federal government for a bailout that would allow them to borrow money to pay for overtime during the Olympics, which kick off in early August.

All that money will have to be paid back eventually, compounding a woeful financial situation that Rodrigues said will make security worse for Rio residents than it has been in years. So once the games are over, he expects more problems for the UPPs.

“They invested in quantity, when they had the money. They didn’t invest in quality,” Rodrigues said. “The state of public security in Rio de Janeiro is really very fragile.”

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