Rio liberates favelas one by one

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The police have taken aim at this tropical city’s most intractable problem: hundreds of highly visible slums controlled not by government authorities but by violent drug gangs.

The goal is to liberate the favelas one by one from their heavily-armed de facto rulers using fierce special operations battalions to sweep out the gangs and weapons and then turn over permanent control to pacification units staffed by rookie officers. For many of the favelas targeted, it would be the first consistent police presence since drug gangs took over in the 1980s.

That includes the adjacent Cantagalo and Pavao-Pavaozinho favelas, labyrinthine communities of alleys and narrow streets on the steeply inclined hills above the upscale beachfront neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema. They received the city’s fifth Police Pacification Unit (UPP) in December, in the form of 203 officers led by a personable, braces-wearing young captain named Leonardo Nogueira.

“They lived for many years under the domination of drug traffickers. Today, it’s another reality,” said Nogueira. The UPPs utilize first-year officers to avoid the corruption endemic in the more experienced echelons of the force. Nogueira, who has nine years of experience, said that wasn’t the only advantage. “When you use younger officers,” he said, “the result is always better. They are fresher. They are more rested. They are more disposed to work.”

GlobalPost toured the communities with the captain, and then returned the next day, unaccompanied. During both visits, residents agreed with his assessment, though many noted that the new reality is not perfect.

Among the police boosters is Raimunda Marques de Melo, a middle-aged woman who lives in the first house up the hill from a favela entrance on Saint Roman Street in Copacabana. That area was long a “boca de fumo,” a point-of-sale for drug users, but Marques de Melo noted it was not just drugs and guns that bothered her — prostitutes would conduct business under a towering tree that bursts from the patch of hill between her home and Saint Roman. “For me, it’s marvelous,” she said, as she sat barefoot in a zebra-striped tank-top shirt on the steps leading up into the favela. “It’s peace and harmony. We’ve suffered a lot here.”

But the change most commonly noted by residents is the peace that comes at night. “We’re actually sleeping. Before there was noise: fireworks, gunshots, motorcycles coming through, all night long,” said 70-year-old Paulo Cardoso, a four-decade resident of Cantagalo who shares a small house with his long-time companion and five others.

Many younger residents in their teens and early 20s have mixed feelings — or resent the tight police control over parties and late-night carousing, such a staple of life under the drug gangs. Cantagalo was one of the favelas that became a destination for upper class youth attending all-night “bailes funk,” dances that spawned the now mainstream musical genre “funk carioca” — or Rio-style funk.

Anderson Craldino de Souza, 16, was one of a group of unhappy teenagers hanging out in Pavao-Pavaozinho. “You know what I don’t like?” he said. “They’re stopping us all the time. They’re not respecting us. They act arrogantly.”

“When the drug-dealers were here, there were parties and barbecues,” said his friend Paulo Cesar, also 16. “The police ended that. Even on weekends.”

A group of women in their early 20s in Cantagalo complained that when their local samba school won the Carnaval competition, police shut down the ensuing party at about 1:30 a.m. “They kicked out the residents,” said Miriam Sales, 20. “They didn’t even let us celebrate.”

Unlike the teenagers, however, they did recognize the improvements. Fabiele Carvalho, also 20, noted that children could now play in the streets without fear and there were no more tragedies caused by stray bullets from firefights, a common occurrence in many favelas.

The captain is greeted by residents as he walks through streets and alleys, many lined with low poles holding up precarious-looking spaghetti-like jumbles of electrical wires. Along one narrow passageway, a middle-aged woman pulls him aside and asked in a hushed tone, “Are you Captain Nogueira?” and then introduces herself. She is a sort of informant, he explained, and they spoken on the phone many times but had never met.

The officers need such informants, because of course, all is not perfect: There is still drug dealing, although on a much smaller scale, and some of the former dealers have tried to smuggle out weapons that they buried when the special forces took control. UPP officers caught one 15-year-old girl smuggling out a dismounted rifle in her school backpack.

But things are much improved, said Nogueira. “The children who live here without the presence of drug traffickers will turn out differently from the way their parents did,” he said. They may also have more cavities. Back at his temporary headquarters after the tour, the captain grabbed handfuls of chewy bite-sized candies and showered a group of kids with them, with predictable results.

The police plan to add 10 additional UPPs in 2010. But there are questions about whether the program can expand fast enough: The drug gangs that flee one neighborhood often set up shop in another, like the much-feared Complexo do Alemao, a vast set of favelas on the city’s north side. And nobody knows if the program would work on a broad scale, or even if there will be long-lasting political will to try.

Then there is the issue of much-needed services the police cannot provide. “Things are better, the shootouts are over,” said Alex Carlos, a 30-year-old newspaper deliveryman and lifelong resident of Pavao-Pavaozinho. But then he launched into a laundry list of other urgent needs: sewers, day care centers, public health services, reliable electricity, running water and trash collection.

“It’s not enough,” he concluded. “The police can’t simply enter the community and resolve all the problems.”