Pacification success depends on favela residents and police behavior
The New York Times published this story Dec. 9, focusing on the complaints of Complexo do Alemão residents about the behavior of Rio de Janeiro’s military police special operations battalian (BOPE) as they invaded to wrest control of the area from drug traffickers, and then conducted house-to-house searches in late November, continuing this month. According to the Times, US$ 68,000 equivalent was found in the complex of favelas as army, federal and military police moved in– but none of this relatively small sum, given the dimensions of local drug trafficking, was discovered by Rio’s military police. “They have been showing you drugs and arms, but where is the money?” a resident is quoted as asking in the story, which goes on to state that “little is being done to reform Rio’s notoriously corrupt police officers”.
The Times describes a cool reception on the part of Complexo do Alemão residents, as public safety secretary José Mariano Beltrame walked through the area a week after the successful invasion, with one woman accosting him to complain of a police officer’s truculent behavior in her home. Beltrame is quoted as saying that “complaints must be carefully checked”, but the story doesn’t discuss what is being done to change Rio’s police force. A January 2010 NYT piece does mention police pay bonuses for officers in the freshly-trained pacification force.
As the Times has reported, the late-November invasion, which counted on help from Brazil’s army and navy, was an improvised response to a wave of vehicle torchings apparently ordered by imprisoned drug traffickers displeased with the two-year-old pacification program, the basis for governor Sérgio Cabral’s easy reelection in October.
Today’s O Globo presents the results of a favela survey showing widespread approval of the pacification program and its police. Unsurprisingly, favelas where pacification hasn’t yet taken place (as is the case in the Alemão complex) revealed greater distrust of the police. Pacification police are specially-trained recruits, a wholly different corps from Rio’s everyday military police and the BOPE. They’re working in 13 favelas with a total of 231,000 residents and are said to have an impact on a total of 500,000 cariocas when surrounding areas are taken into consideration, where crime has fallen and real estate values have risen.
It’s also a positive development that cariocas, many of them favela residents, are calling the police hotline in record numbers, aiding police to find and arrest drug traffickers who got away from Vila Cruzeiro or the Alemão complex, through sewage pipes or otherwise. From Nov. 28 to Dec. 10 in the Complexo do Alemão, police have apprehended 36.6 tons of drugs, 548 weapons and 59 explosives. Arrests total 133 and 440 stolen vehicles have been recovered.
The survey, which interviewed 800 favela residents, half in pacified communities and half in communities without pacification units, found 93% approval among the former for the state government’s “UPP” pacification program, and 89% among the latter. O Globo paid for the survey, which was carried out after the latest invasion by a research group, the Instituto Brasileiro de Pesquisa. Globo has taken a clear pro-pacification position in both its opinion pages and its coverage.
If the New York Times were to update its January 2010 report on Rio’s favela pacification program and its challenges, such as “one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere, at nearly 30 for every 100,000 residents”, it would find improvement– as well as acknowledgement of and serious attention to the city’s flawed police force (forces, really; one of the difficulties is that the Rio police are divided up by tasks and had turned into fiefdoms with almost no cooperation. Civil police do intelligence work, for example, while the military police do the street work. There is also a separate traffic police force).
Such improvement includes pay raises not only for the pacification police, but for the mainstream military police as well; and a proposal for federal action now being drafted by Rio governor Sérgio Cabral and Beltrame, to unify the civil and military police and undertake other reforms. Both before and since the Alemão invasion, corrupt military and civil police officers have been arrested. This Globo-owned source of police news in Rio covers arrests and shooting deaths of drug traffickers on the run, the arrest of a Complexo do Alemão cargo thief being harbored by the mom of a military policeman who worked directly with Rio’s military police commander (the subordinate has been indicted and the mom is under investigation), and also reports on a city councilwoman helping Vila Cruzeiro residents to get compensation for tank damage to their homes and cars during the invasion.
In the specific case of police behavior in the recent Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro invasions and occupations, officials reacted quickly to complaints by banning policemen from wearing backpacks and setting up a makeshift office where complaints are registered for later confirmation. According to this report, area residents had registered a total of invasion-related 37 complaints against police as of Dec. 3. There are an estimated 30,000 residences undergoing search procedures expected to take a month to complete.
Police corruption goes back as far as anyone can remember in Rio; the first samba, Pelo Telefone, composed in 1916, was about how the police used to call ahead to warn gamblers of raids. But in the current environment, where consensus is high that favela pacification must succeed and access to digital technology is becoming widespread, it would be public policy suicide to deny the problem or fail to act. Poor police conduct has been highlighted in the Brazilian media and favela residents have even videoed alleged police damage to their homes and posted this on YouTube.
As for the murder rate, an internet search found no number that could be compared with the one in the Jan. 2010 NYT story, but this report prepared by a state agency provides numbers showing a drop in murders in the first half of 2010, and reductions in most other crimes as well, compared to the same period in 2009 and earlier, too.
How to know what is really going on in Rio? Is it possible for any journalist to come to an objective evaluation of the evolving public safety policy in this city of over six million, with about a thousand favelas, a million favela residents, and 15,000 military police? A year ago, Human Rights Watch published a report on police violence and public security in Rio, but no followup is available so far. The NGO RioComoVamos tracks public safety and other indicators, but these are based on data provided by the state government.
The answer, of course, is information– ever more, ever better in quality, ever more read and analyzed by ever more people. A new source came into being today, with O Globo‘s launch of a blog, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), and an Orkut profile which make up Favela Livre (Free Favela), a project whereby favela residents can write anonymous contributions, that will run side by side with those of O Globo reporters and urban policy and violence specialists. Residents’ contributions will be selected by two editors.
Meanwhile, RioRealblog will continue to scout out news, reporting and information on the transformation of Rio de Janeiro.