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Latin America

Rio de Janeiro's long struggle for peace

Just as the Olympics begin, crime is on the rise again. But the city's fight against crime is long, and isn't over yet.
4 Ago 2016 – 05:34 PM EDT
Rio has tried bringing in "pacification" police to reduce crime in favelas. Crédito: Getty Images

When Daiene Mendes leaves home in the morning, she leaves prepared: she brings a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and her cell phone charger. The 26-year-old university student and NGO intern lives in Complexo do Alemão, one of Rio's largest favelas, and lately frequent outbursts of violence mean she has to crash with friends across town instead of coming home at night. She uses Whatsapp to find out if it's safe or if there's a shootout.

Shootings and police operations have been happening more frequently, at any time, she said. "Police see favela residents as the enemy," she added. "Things are getting worse."

Despite security improvements over the last two decades, crime spiked in Rio during the first six months of this year, right before the Olympics. And while the city is safer than it used to be, authorities are at a crossroads in finding an effective solution to fight drug gangs.

This is the Rio that has struggled for decades to have peace, the Rio most Olympic visitors won't see. And it's the Rio that Cariocas, the city's residents, will face every day after the tourists go home.

As during the World Cup, the Pope's visit and the Rio+20 environmental summit, the government brought in reinforcements to impose order for a few weeks in this beautiful but chaotic city. About 85,000 police and soldiers are providing security during the Aug. 5-21 Olympic Games - approximately twice as large a force as London's for the 2012 games. And while terrorism is a particular concern in Brazil, this kind of security scheme is common in Rio during large-scale events, in part because of the city's struggle to contain crime.

In fact, some soldiers may stick around longer: the country's electoral court requested security forces stay in the city through municipal elections in October. "There's a lot of insecurity in Rio de Janeiro," said Gilmar Mendes, the court's president, in a July 27 statement.

But what's really happening with Rio's security situation? How much have things changed?

Crime in Rio: long-term improvement, short-term slump

When a Rio mother was stabbed to death in front of her seven-year-old daughter last month, one of the local papers put a photo of the girl's body shirt on the cover, with the headline: "Terrorism in Rio is every day."

In Rio state, crime has been rising. Murders are up 17 percent and street robberies 34 percent in the first half of the year, according to the state's Public Security Institute data. There were 13 robberies every hour in Rio during this period. In June, the number of killings by police doubled over the same month last year.

Rio has also been grappling with arrastões, or mass muggings, many of which take place on roadways and sometimes involve shootings. Street robberies rose 42 percent in May over the same period the previous year. During one highway mugging in late July, motorists abandoned their cars and fled on foot after hearing gunfire.

"The security narrative right now is one of crisis, and almost hysterical," said Robert Muggah, a security expert at Brazil's Iguarapé Institute. "The overall story is more complex."

That's because Rio has come a long way: over the last two decades, the murder rate in the state was more than halved, and the city's homicide rate hit a 24-year low last year. Rio used to be much more dangerous in the 1980s and 1990s, when it had one of the worst crime rates in Brazil.

Based on the murder rate, Rio's security situation is "infinitely better " than in the 1990s, said Silvia Ramos, head of Rio's Center for Security Studies and Citizenship at Candido Mendes University.

Beyond homicides, crimes like muggings and car thefts are hard to compare over a long period, since the police were late to effectively collect reliable data, said Ramos. She also pointed out that in the 1980s and 1990s, police stations were considered dangerous; middle- and upper-class Cariocas were unlikely to report crimes.

Plus, innovation is helping: technological improvements and better data collection aid crime-fighting, and new tools like predictive policing are in the works, said Muggah.

Who's who in Rio's criminal world

In Rio, there's a tangled web of criminal organizations that have evolved over the past several decades, competing for territory in the city's impoverished and working-class neighborhoods.

First, there are the main drug factions. The Red Command is the oldest, born of political prisoners and common criminals jailed during the military dictatorship and made powerful during the rise of cocaine. Then came Friends of Friends, formed in a Rio prison in the 1990s, and then the Third Pure Command, a newer splinter group. These groups found space and opportunity to operate in favelas, where there was little to no government presence.

As some drug leaders took on the role of the state, such as providing assistance to residents and imposing an informal rule of law, their power grew absolute in these communities. With drug profits, they were able to import even more powerful weapons than the police.

Then there are the militias, paramilitary groups made up of current and former police officers, prison guards, firemen, and politicians. First formed in 1980s to fight back against drug traffickers, militias gained power in the early 2000s and evolved into their own criminal enterprises, extorting residents and charging locals for services like gas and illegal TV connections, particularly in the city's West Zone. Not only do they impose control over locals, they even reportedly made demands of National Guard soldiers in town for the Olympics.

And then there's the police. On the national level, there are the federal police, the equivalent of the FBI, as well as federal highway and railway police. On the state level, there are civil police, who investigate crimes, and the military police, who enforce public safety. Rio's Battalion of Special Operations SWAT team, made famous by the "Elite Squad" films, is part of the military police. Military police also include those deployed as part of so-called "pacification" units in many of Rio's favelas. And at the local level, there are municipal police, responsible for functions ranging from traffic patrol to protecting public property.

One problem is that the military police, which are part of the armed forces, are inherently militaristic. In the 1990s, the military police began using semi-automatic weapons, and one governor gave raises to police who showed bravery - though authorities usually measured courage through number of people killed. This so-called "Wild West bonus" was revoked, but the mentality persisted, especially as police were often sent on operations into favelas to face off against heavily armed traffickers.

It was during the 1990s that a shift really occurred in the military police. "We stopped being peacekeeping police and turned into troops of war," long-time cop Mario Sergio Duarte told Juliana Barbassa in her 2015 book "Dancing with the Devil in the City of God."

Rio is a "patchwork of fiefdoms," said Julia Michaels, a Rio-based blogger and author of a forthcoming nonfiction book on how Rio works.

"You need to have people work together toward a common goal and the common good rather than their fiefdoms' demands." In practice, though, police "are unwilling or unable to work together to effectively meet citizen needs... Trust between residents and government is constantly undermined," she wrote in Brasilianas, a journal for Brazilian studies.

Good cops and bad cops

Rio police have long had a troubled reputation.

"In the '80s and '90s there was a lot of collusion between the police and the drug traffickers," said Elizabeth Leeds, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and the co-founder of the Brazilian Forum on Public Security. Police invaded favelas as part of regular operations and frequently killed residents. They were also behind several mass killings, including a massacre in the Vigario Geral favela and the mass murder of homeless children in downtown Rio.

That doesn't mean there are only bad apples. "A lot of police want to do the right thing and they don't necessarily have the political space to do because there is such a pervasive culture of corruption and militaristic mentality," said Leeds. Ramos agrees that the problems are systemic. "I don't think police corruption explains everything. It's indifference," she said.

But even as Rio law enforcement has evolved, police still struggle to gain the trust of the public, especially in poor communities.

A May Promundo Institute survey found that more Rio favela residents fear the police than drug traffickers. Tatiana Moura, the institute's executive director, told UOL: "We attribute this to the violent presence of police over the course of decades in these communities. The truth is sad, because historically the state's presence has been more violent than peaceful."

Rio police are known for being trigger-happy. In Rio state, police killed almost 650 people last year, up 52 percent since 2013, according to Amnesty International. There have been cases in which police covered up killings or even planted evidence, the organization reported.

Plus, some Rio cops are still accused of working with criminals - or committing crimes themselves. In 2011, a group of military police shot and killed a Rio judge outside her home, and four were later convicted. In 2012, more than 60 military police were arrested for working with the Red Command drug faction, extorting traffickers as well as negotiating weapons and drug sales. Some were also charged with kidnapping, torture and murder. And just this month, a New Zealander jiu jitsu fighter was reportedly kidnapped and robbed by armed police officers.

Another challenge is impunity: police solve only about 17 percent of homicides, and one study found Rio state had the country's largest backlog of unsolved murders.

Cops are often targets themselves. Not only are they often poorly paid, poorly equipped and poorly trained, but they are killed both on and off duty. This year alone, 63 police officers were killed in Rio.

Some even avoid public transportation or carrying police ID while out of uniform, according to a Human Rights Watch report. In late July, one police officer leapt off a moving bus to escape a mugger, breaking his arm, leg and foot. One federal police officer arriving in Rio to provide Olympics security this month was mugged, and thieves even nabbed his service weapon.

A change in approach: the pacification program

A state-run program launched eight years ago sought to find a new generation of cops and change how police approach law enforcement.

Started in 2008, Rio's so-called pacification program sought to install a permanent police presence in the city's favelas. Launched by State Public Security Jose Mariano Beltrame starting in a single favela, the program grew to 40 units across the city. This time, police would work on patrol in favelas, get involved in the local community and be paid to reduce crime - not produce bodies, as was the case before.

At first, it seemed like it was working, as murders fell in these communities, including killings by police. In the city as a whole, the homicide rate fell by almost half since pacification began. Real estate prices went up in middle-class areas close to favelas. A 2012 Brazilian Forum on Public Safety study found that pacification hypothetically saved about 177 lives a year in the favelas at that time.

But recently, observers say the program is unraveling.

The program began to lose public support, particularly in the wake of high-profile police abuses, like the 2013 case in which police tortured and murdered Amarildo de Souza, a bricklayer in the Rocinha community.

It was something of a turning point for losing trust from the population and backing from security forces themselves, says Muggah. "Police got more aggressive and morale began to collapse," he said. Ramos said police are eager to get out of the favelas, and don't want to be "babysitters for criminals."

Shoot-outs have once again become part of daily life in some favelas. Homicides jumped 60 percent in pacified favelas during the first half of last year over the same period in 2014, according to the most recent state data available.

While some traffickers initially fled or were arrested when police moved in, some have come back and are more brazen than ever. At the end of last year, traffickers reportedly even expelled pacification police from two favelas. In some pacified favelas, it's business as usual for the drug industry; the pacification unit commander in Rocinha, Rio's largest favela, told the local press in 2013 that traffickers were making more than $3 million a month.

And as Brazil's economy began to crumble, so did pacification funding, which saw its budget slashed by more than 30 percent this year. It also lost some of its private funding - including from fallen billionaire Eike Batista, who lost much of his fortune in 2014. "The political and economic crisis that we're facing has had and will have a very damaging effect on public security," said Muggah.

Plus, promised social improvements such as housing, education, and sanitation never fully materialized.

Part of the problem is cultural, experts say. "You don't need mega-events, you need to tackle the actual problems here," said Michaels. "The problem is inequality." Ramos agrees. "Rio missed the opportunity to make favelas part of the city," she said. "My explanation is that probably it's because favelas are favelas."

What's now?

With the security budget on the decline and the state security secretary expected to leave in the near future, the fate of pacification and a long-term security policy remains an open question.

"For me it's really hard to understand why Rio keeps losing this 'war' every day to such unsophisticated, disorganized groups,” said Ramos. “The sensation we have is that we're going back to square one."

Longer-term, deeper changes could be a ways off. "We don't have the leadership at the federal nor state or city level to take the types of [police] reforms that are absolutely required," said Muggah, noting the Olympics are actually part of the problem. "We've become distracted again of what the real challenges are. It's not about periodically bolstering forces and filling streets with men in camouflage. We need a much more comprehensive approach."

Mendes is just hoping to be able to walk in her neighborhood in peace.

Last Saturday night, as she was getting ready to out, police launched a surprise operation. In the plaza near her house in Complexo do Alemão, a typical Rio scene played out: kids playing soccer, adults drinking and listening to music. But then a police tank rolled in, with cops shooting and throwing stun grenades. The residents scattered, terrified. Mendes decided to stay home.

"Pacification didn't pacify. People are dying - this situation we're dealing with is absurd," said Mendes. "This isn't our war."

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