Business

Rio's bid to wrest 'favelas' from gangs loses steam

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AFP) — Known as the setting of a Michael Jackson video clip in the late 1990s, Santa Marta is Rio's best known favela, a hillside community perched between Sugarloaf and a colossal Christ the Redeemer.

With doors open even to foreign tourists, its been a showcase since 2008 when Rio began embedding police pacification units in poor communities to wrest them from drug lords and armed gangs.

But a decade later, things are changing.

Last month, a bronze statue of the “king of pop,” the pride of Santa Marta, appeared with a rifle slung around its neck.

The ominous image showed who was back in charge.

Since then, there have been at least six shootings and one policeman wounded.

Once a model of pacification, Santa Marta has now become a symbol of decline and the uncertainties facing the 1.5 million people — a quarter of Rio's population — who live in favelas.

The strategy for restoring order in Rio's most impoverished neighbourhoods was born a decade ago with a view to the 2014 World Cub and the 2016 Olympics.

The state government decided the way to go was to install so-called Police Pacification Units inside the favelas.

Some 9,500 police have been deployed in 38 communities under the programme. Accusations of abuses have accumulated since 2013, but the programme nevertheless allowed Santa Maria to go six years without a shot being fired.

It was visited by the likes of Madonna and former US vice president Joe Biden.

And it had all the ingredients for success: only 5,000 inhabitants, a border on Rio's wealthy Botafogo district, and the support of strong community leaders.

Once the mega sporting events were over, however, Rio was left mired in budget woes and with police pay in arrears, causing security to deteriorate.

“Santa Marta is no longer pacified. They say it is a pacified favela, but we no longer have peace. At any moment there could be a shooting,” says 'Ze' Mario Hilario, the embattled 57-year-old president of the neighbourhood association.

SEE NOTHING, SAY NOTHING

Though the violence in the favelas on Rio's outer periphery is far worse — with daily gun battles and a rising toll of casualties from stray bullets — the tension in Santa Maria is palpable.

Hardly anyone dares to speak out, for fear of reprisals. “Here it's better to say 'I don't know, I did not see,'” says a woman waiting in line at a beauty salon.

The official figures are hair-raising: in the first three months of this year there were 623 shooting incidents in the “pacified” favelas, or seven a day.

With more than 100 police officers assassinated this year, eight of them in the police pacification units, Rio's public security department no longer allows journalists to visit the units or interview the agents, not even in Santa Maria.

One way to visit them is by taking the “Rio Top Tour,” an initiative launched in 2010 by local residents.

A cable car takes visitors up the hillside, past a living postcard of colourful hand-built houses with million-dollar views of Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf.

The last stop is at the summit, where a police pacification unit is stationed. Agents go in and out of the station, past what appears to be an abandoned guard house.

Lower down the hill, at the Michael Jackson plaza, five police officers in bullet-proof vests and rifles guard the statue. Just before sundown, only one Brazilian visitor takes the cable car up the hill.

“With everything that is going down in the favelas, I imagine that the tourists are wary,” says Andrea Miranda, who sells souvenirs in the plaza.

Minutes later, the statistics come exploding to life: three or four shots ring out — loud, and very close.

ABANDON THE FAVELAS

Drug traffickers have been trying to reassert control over the favelas since 2013, taking advantage of police scandals, like the disappearance of a bricklayer, Amarild Dias, who was arrested by police in Rocinha – another favela.

In August, Rio's public security department announced it was withdrawing 3,000 police from the pacification units to reinforce patrols in metropolitan areas where 86 per cent of the crime is concentrated.

Security Secretary Roberto Sa pledged, however, not to dismantle the police pacification units “as long as I am secretary”.

Sixty per cent of favelas with a police pacification unit want them to stay, even though most believe they have failed, according to a study by the Center for Studies on Security and Citizenship.

Silvia Ramos, a coordinator of the study, regrets that the police pacification units weren't accompanied by social programmes.

“I don't want to say that the pacification project is a failure, because it might then be abandoned. And if it is abandoned, the message we would be sending is: turn the favelas over to the armed gangs and let's keep Rio for the rich. That would be a dark moment,” she said.

Ze Mario still has hopes and refuses to accept that the song Michael Jackson recorded in 1996 is still valid today: “They don't care about us.”

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