Above: Residents carry on with their daily lives as soldiers patrol the streets of Maré favela complex in Rio de Janeiro
By Paula Daibert
Heavily armed uniformed men watch over as children ride a merry-go-round. On the other side of the street, families drink at a café. Some blocks away, the tiny head of another soldier pops out from inside a tank and stares at by-passers on a two-way road. “We are here to protect you,” says yet another, rifle in hand, as he carefully examines the backpack, pockets, clothes and ID card of a young guy.
This is the scenario in which residents of the Maré favela complex will watch the FIFA World Cup which starts in June. Maré, in Rio de Janeiro, is home to 130,000 people and is larger than 80% of towns in Brazil.
While the area has historically been controlled by Rio’s three main drug trafficking factions, a “Pacification Force” of over 2,400 army troops has occupied Maré since the beginning of April.
José Mariano Beltrame, Rio’s Secretary of Public Security, denied in an interview that the operation’s motives are connected to the World Cup but the army’s July 31 departure deadline – one month after the Cup ends – and Maré’s location, doesn’t leave much doubt.
“Maré is located between the international airport and the city center, and the two main highways connecting both (Avenida Brasil and Linha Vermelha) also give access to the community – this is a crucial region inside the safety belt for the mega-events in Rio,” says Juliana Farias, a public safety and institutional violence researcher at human rights NGO Global Justice.
A Pacifying Police Unit (UPP, a special policing force already acting in 37 favelas in Rio) is expected to replace the army soldiers a few months after the World Cup.
According to Ms. Farias, there had been several attempts to occupy Maré. In March, however, president Dilma Rousseff signed a Law and Order decree giving police power to the army and allowing for the Maré operation to start. The stated aim was to fight drug gangs.
But Jailson de Souza, founder of Observatório de Favelas, a public policy think tank inside Maré, claims that the state shouldn’t have the war on drugs as its main reference in the fight against criminality. He says doing so transforms favelas into nothing but war territories where military control is the primary objective while community members’ safety is secondary.
“We propose a Public Policy Unit,” he says, in a Portuguese wordplay on the UPP initials of the Pacifying Police Unit, “in which the security force is one of the main points but not the central one. The army and police forces are prepared to exterminate the enemy, and favela residents are seen as the civil population of the enemy army.”
According to Ms. Farias, rather than fighting drug trafficking, the militarized security presence inside the favelas is marked by systematic human rights violations, including common reports of verbal, psychological and physical harassment by the police and even torture, forced disappearance and summary killings.
In March, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a hearing on police violence in Brazil. Next month, Global Justice will send a report to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, in which the organization counts 20 assassinations by the police in pacified favelas since 2011 – three of which happened two weeks ago.
“Over 50,000 people are killed every year in Brazil, most because of the fight against drugs. Sixty-five percent of the Brazilian incarcerated population of over 500,000 people is related to drug involvement,” says de Souza of Observatório de Favelas. “There is a genocidal logic by the state against black favela youth that will continue until we face the challenge of marijuana decriminalization, for instance, as one of the possible solutions.”
According to a report release last week by the state Public Safety Institute, 153 people have been killed in Rio during confrontation between the police and drug gangs in the first trimester of 2014 – a hike of 59.3% compared to the same period last year.
Two civilians have have been killed since the April occupation began. Sixty-seven-year old Terezinha Justina da Silva was killed on April 15 on her way to the pharmacy, while 20-year-old Jefferson Rodrigues da Silva was shot dead by the soldiers three days before.
“Jefferson was shot right down the street from where I live, at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning. This is the same route and time I take my 5-month-old daughter for a sunbath,” says Josinaldo Medeiros, a 25-year old citizen journalist from a Maré media collective that often receives reports of abuse by the pacification forces.
Mr. Medeiros says Jefferson worked at the car wash nearby his house, but ran during a patrol and was mistaken for a trafficker. “Mainstream media portrayed him as a criminal to justify the killing,” he adds.
“Oppression isn’t over in the favela, the weapons only changed hands. But the state can’t act under criminals’ premises as it does. We don’t want tanks and snipers, but they never asked us what kind of pacification we want. We want safety together with culture, education, basic sanitation.”
Two other Maré dwellers chose to speak anonymously because they fear retaliation by criminals, who, according to them, sell drugs just as regularly under the eyes of the troops, though not displaying weapons anymore.
“This pacification is a farce. The government wants to impose power through weapons and show the outside world that everything is fine in here. But we have our freedom limited,” says a 25-year old teacher.
A 17-year old high school student says that people want social improvements that come with the UPP, but fears he will live under a police dictatorship.
“Why didn’t the government send qualified teachers and doctors before the army? Because they want to sweep the dust under the rug and show the world that Rio is a safe place during the Cup, but this is only make up.”
Read more about the use of police “pacification” in Rio’s favelas and forced evictions in Brazil in these blog posts by WITNESS’ Human Rights Channel:
Paula Daibert is a Rio de Janeiro-based journalist with a master’s degree in Arab and Islamic Studies by the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and a passion for global affairs, human rights issues and citizen participation in news coverage. Paula is a freelance writer for Al Jazeera English and has reported for local and international media from Brazil, Qatar, Spain, Tunisia and Venezuela.