RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – The Rio de Janeiro state government “pacified” one of the city’s largest and most undeveloped favelas, continuing a security policy that involves a hands-on approach to residents by police officers and other security agencies.
Located just to the west of the mangroves that line the coast of the Guanabara Bay, the labyrinthine Complexo da Maré, a group of some fifteen teen adjoining favelas that house over 130,000 people in the North Zone of the city, was ‘pacified.’
The operation was being planned for a significant time due to the size of the area and the large population, and also because the complex is considered one of the five worst in the city in terms of crime and level of development.
Another factor in the ‘pacification’ of the favela, or shanty town in Portuguese, was its important location in a city preparing to host the FIFA World Cup in three months and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
The Complexo da Maré is flanked by the Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport (Galeão) to the north, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro to the east, the Avenida Brasil, one of the city’s main arterial roads, to the west and the Linha Amarela (RJ-079), an important city expressway, to the south.
The fifteen neighborhoods that are to be occupied and pacified are: Praia de Ramos, Parque Roquete Pinto, Parque União, Parque Rubens Vaz, Nova Holanda, Parque Maré, Conjunto Nova Maré, Baixa do Sapateiro, Morro do Timbau, Bento Ribeiro Dantas, Vila dos Pinheiros, Conjunto Pinheiros, Conjunto Novo Pinheiros, Vila do João and Conjunto Esperança.
According to a release from the Rio De Janeiro State Department of Security, the operation was carried out peacefully without a single shot being fired, and was over in some fifteen minutes without resistance.
Over 1,500 security officials, mostly from the city and state police departments, along with BOPE (state military police), CORE (investigative state police) agents and Brazilian Marines, were escorted into Maré by over 20 armored police vehicles as army helicopters hovered overhead. Police sharpshooters were strategically placed around the area in case of gunfire and unrest.
According to the State Department of Security, at least 118 individuals were detained, almost all of them from either the Red Command or Friends of Friends crime syndicates.
As the police units, hundreds of them typically five to eight agents strong, spread out throughout the complex, they asked for identification from the favela residents, most of whom stayed inside their homes in hopes of avoiding any possible harassment or confrontation with the police agents.
Police scoured the area extensively looking for registered criminals, illegal weapons and illicit drugs. The State Department of Security said that many handguns, submachine guns, assault rifles and other weapons were found, along with large amounts of ammunition. Nearly 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of marijuana were confiscated and so were several cars and motorcycles that were registered as stolen.
As the initial part of the operation wound down, the officials hoisted the flags of Brazil and of the Rio de Janeiro state, the ceremony that has taken place after every single favela pacification.
The Governor of Rio de Janeiro state, Sérgio Cabral, described the pacification of Maré as “very significant,” and an important step in “establishing the ideal situation where society and the public powers can exist together in peace.”
José Mariano Beltrame, the Secretary of Public Security for the State of Rio de Janeiro, joined Cabral in hailing the operation and the potential it could have in transforming the area. “The pacification of Maré leaves a legacy for the city, and it is something that is for the population, not only for the sake of the World Cup or the Olympic Games.”
“We are going to return this territory to those who deserve the area and are its rightful residents, the population, and that is the way it should be,” added Beltrame.
Police officials claimed that they were welcomed warmly by the area’s residents, and that there were Civil Police and Military Police hotlines that individuals could call in order to report any abuse or wrongdoing on the part of the police officers.
The most recent pacification means that Rio de Janeiro state has 38 UPPs (Police Pacification Unit) in place, but it is undetermined yet as to how many will be implemented across the Complexo da Maré.
The operation is part of the state’s plan, in place since 2008, for reducing crime and increasing public safety in the favelas.
This entails an elite security unit entering a favela and clearing out the drug-dealing gangs that are in control, and staying approximately two weeks. Then, the favela residents are introduced to their Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), or the Police Pacification Unit, unique to their neighborhood. This group consists of armed officers who solely patrol their specific area and get to know the favela, its streets and its people.
Along with the state security presence that most residents say fosters a safe atmosphere, services in the favela like new electricty grids, city garbage collection, and more educational opportunities become available.
Indeed, in the case of the Complexo da Maré, it is set to receive almost 20 schools for different age levels by 2016, according to the Subsecretary of Education for the Rio de Janeiro City Municipality, Helena Bomeny.
“Parents can now expect that their children, as well as the professors, can go to school every day without worrying about their safety, and the parents will not have to constantly call the school to ask about the children’s safety when the entire complex periodically explodes with violence. This will have an enormously positive impact on student learning,” Bomeny said.
Other services have already been felt in Maré, with some 140 tons of trash removed from the favela’s streets by COMLURB, the municipal sanitation and public maintenance organization, who could not enter the complex before due to the security situation.
The State Department of Public Security also moved in with heavy machinery, removing large and unsightly barricades previously erected by drug traffickers to keep police forces out and they replaced public benches, repaired sidewalks and replaced hundreds of streetlight lamps.
Furthermore, the Municipal Department of Health is expected to make a significantly larger contribution to the health of the pacified complex. Before, the units sent in by the Department of Health to treat and help residents in low-income areas often could not enter if traffickers did not allow them inside. Additionally, the workers who were allowed in had to leave the complex early during the day to avoid any problems.
The Municipal Department of Health head, Daniel Soranz, remarked that high blood pressure and diabetes were the most common health problems in the Complexo da Maré.
“To treat these problems in particular, a changing of habits is fundamental. If one does not even have the freedom to leave their house to exercise, one can easily see how the improvement of health was impaired due to the social issues that plague this area,” Soranz said. “The high levels of worry and stress created by the constant danger and lack of safety certainly did not do much to help treat these conditions.”
Prior to the change in security in 2008, security officials that made incursions into favelas occasionally encountered armed resistance from criminal gangs that controlled the drug and weapon trades in their respective territories. The police would would aggressively enter, have violent shootouts with gangs that wrought collateral damage, and once the dust settled, they would leave. The criminal gangs would quickly return and regain control, starting the process all over again.
The areas where the UPPs have been introduced have seen a dramatic drop in crime, but the program has not been immune to criticism. Many criminals have moved their operations to other favelas or neighborhoods that do not have their own UPPs yet, and there have been allegations of police brutality and corruption.
Regardless, city, municipal and state officials have indicated that the change has been only positive overall, and that the pacifications will continue.