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Rio liberates favelas one by one

A braces-wearing police officer well supplied with candy is helping try to take back Rio's slums.

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.”