Who (or what) is doing the helping?

Brazilians are great networkers, but–

“A crack addict in the Turano favela where I work with the new police pacification force was lying on the ground near me and asked for help,” Corporal Evandro Frossard told RioRealblog as he patrolled just outside the mayor’s City Palace last Wednesday. “The druglord had once set her on fire and another time he broke both her legs. Now she wanted out. So I did a search on the Internet, found a rehab center, and took her there. She’s stayed four months, she’s much better. She had lost custody of her son, and now has him back. She’s gained weight, has her hair pulled back in a pony tail.”

He visits her every Wednesday. “I do it because I like to, it makes me feel good,” he says. “People think I’m going to run for political office, but I have no intention of this. I don’t even live in that area.”

The City Palace

Is this a good deed, work well done, or both? The pacification police are in 17 Rio favelas to keep them peaceful, to mediate conflict, and to help along the process of “social inclusion”. But will every member of the UPP (the Portuguese acronym for police pacification unit, the first of which was installed in the Dona Marta favela in December 2008 as part of the state’s occupy-and-pacify policy to increase public safety) force react to a crack addict the way corporal Frossard did? Did helping the addict take him away from other work, possibly more important?

“I can’t speak for my colleagues,” he says. “But we are there to serve and protect, not only to keep the peace, but to help out. Last week a 22-year-old man came up to me and said he wanted to learn how to read,” he adds. “He was embarrassed to tell anyone else.” Frossard was surprised that the presidents of the favela’s neighborhood associations hadn’t yet helped the crack addict, since everyone in the community knew her.  His training didn’t include outreach for drug rehab or literacy. But pacification police are increasingly learning and using mediation tactics and first aid–  and delivering babies.

Rio is changing, but the boundaries between individuals and entities– be they government agencies, businesses, or NGOs, are still fuzzy. The void of social, educational and physical needs that government failed to fill for five decades has been haphazardly occupied by all sorts of people and groups, formal and informal, including drug traffickers and paramilitary gangs. Now, roles are being sorted out.

A change of pace for Rio police

A need to feel part of something bigger– and better

As part of this process, a new study of the pacification police, undertaken by Silvia Ramos, Julita Lemgruber, Barbara Musumeci Soares and Leonarda Musumeci at the Universidade Cândido Mendes’ Center for  Safety and Citizenship Studies, CESeC, has found that many UPP cops feel they are left to their own resources as they carry out their work. “What is most evident in this first stage of our survey is how important it is that police training should highlight the principles of proximity policing, emphasizing elements that can reinforce agents’ identification with the project, underline the newness of the model and the importance of each person’s work,” the study points out. “Though the UPPs are racking up much more success than failure, there are several challenges to be faced such that they can become truly sustainable. One of these is to make sure that on-site police feel they also benefit from the project and are directly responsible for the change in relations between the people and the police.”

A sense of belonging is lacking, these researchers say; pacification police don’t feel identity, pride, commitment. They’re not even sure they’re here to stay. A full 70% of the 359 police interviewed late last year agreed with a statement that UPPs were created only to guarantee public safety for the World Cup and the Olympics.

Feeling part of something bigger than one’s social circle isn’t very common in Brazil, where weak institutions and an aristocratic society have for centuries thrown people back on their (limited) networking capabilities. Social science research shows that many Brazilians don’t feel close to — or trust–many more people than their blood relatives and a close circle of friends. “One especially negative result [of this] is that the inefficacy of public institutions such as the judiciary and the police to contain transgression eats away at an intangible asset such as trust, weakening the capacity of families, communities and religious organizations to identify a range of acceptable behaviors. At the same time, the loss of social capital debilitates institutions, moving them further away from people and feeding on their feelings of insecurity and alienation,” write political scientists Amaury de Souza and Bolivar Lamounier in their new book, A Classe Média Brasileira: ambições, valores e projetos de sociedade (The Brazilian Middle Class: ambitions, values and goals for society).

CESeC researcher Silvia Ramos, municipal housing secretary Jorge Bittar, UN Habitat Latin American and Caribbean director Alain Grimard, Instituto Pereira Passos president Ricardo Henriques, Morro dos Prazeres Neighborhood Association president Elisa Brandão, UPP program commander Colonel Robson Rodrigues

Who’s on first?

While Corporal Frossard was taking in the lush gardens of the City Palace, Social UPP coordinator Ricardo Henriques (who is also president of the Instituto Pereira Passos) was inside, presenting his work and announcing a new US$ 3 million equivalent partnership with the UN Habitat program. Giving examples of how the Social UPP works, he explained that once community needs are identified, they’re passed on to “Alex, or Osório, or  Hans”. This was Henriques’ way of naming some of Rio’s municipal agencies. The latter two men are easy to identify. Carlos Roberto Osório is  the municipal secretary of urban conservation and Hans Dohmann is the health secretary. But there are several Alexandres among Rio’s 23 municipal secretaries. For the uninitiated (and we are many), the who’s who of the carioca government is a big challenge. Again, an overlap of the personal with the institutional; one wonders if all this good work will continue once “Alex” has moved onto another job.

Rio de Janeiro is a place of leaps and lags, amid great transformation. CESeC’s survey findings will certainly be applied to the pacification police training process. And as institutions become more professional, responsible, transparent and accountable, people still need help from individual people. They always will.

Know anyone who can help find a building for his NGO?

Which is why the Move Rio association of young carioca professionals, got together last week with the Rio Eu Amo Eu Cuido (Rio I love it I take care of it) movement and invited a bunch of Facebook friends to hear the story of Tião, pictured above. Once a top drug trafficker in the Nova Holanda favela in the Maré complex of favelas, Tião stopped using and selling drugs “for my daughters”.

One person leads to another

One day, he was lolling at home unemployed, when his stepson came in from school complaining that a group of girls had beaten him up. Tião went to speak to the principal. “He said he couldn’t do anything. They were drug traffickers’ girlfriends”. So Tião went to the local drug boss. “He called the girls and their boyfriends to appear before him and gave the girls a punishment: for two years they could only go from home to school and from school back home, and nowhere else in the favela.”

Tião then went back to the school principal, to ask him to keep an eye out for his stepson. “To my surprise, he offered me a job, as school secretary.”

Tião soon got the school organized and humming. One day a documentary producer, Renée Castello Branco, showed up, asking him to find ten young boys who worked for the drug traffic, who could be interviewed. “After the film was shot, Renée called with an offer of 600 reais a month to distribute among the boys so they could get out of that kind of work. But I told her that it would do no good, that what they really needed was a place to go, and activities to occupy them.” The producer introduced him to her friend Pedro Werneck, and in 2005 his NGO Instituto da Criança helped to create Vida Real, for kids from ages 12-18. “We began with 50 hand-picked teens,” says Tião. “By now, a thousand young people have passed through Vida Real. Six of these have died. None are in the drug traffic.” By way of 12 paid employees, the youngsters receive help with schoolwork, and can take courses in computer use, graffitti, silk-screening, design and handicrafts, among other subjects. Vida Real has a waiting list of 90. Tião’s work is considered so effective that FIRJAN, the Rio de Janeiro state industrial federation, has partnered with Vida Real to educate and train 60 teen prostitutes, male and female, and in the process get them off the streets.

“We need more space,” Tião told his audience in Ipanema last week. Werneck, a businessman who’s been dedicated fulltime to NGO work since 2007, explained that Vida Real could be housed in one of the many empty building along Avenida Brasil, a depressed and under-utilized area of Rio. “But the building we looked at belongs to the state government, and we haven’t been able to work anything out,” he added. “So if you know anyone who could help….”

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Who (or what) is doing the helping?

  1. Excellent piece. It provides a unique insight into how a city is finding its way to a social justice system, which by its very nature is hard to institutionalize. Up to now it’s always been somebody else’s problem. Your voice will go a long way towards shedding light on an issue that never seems to go away.

  2. Rio real says:

    Thanks, Michael!!

  3. Adam Gonnerman says:

    I take from this that grassroots efforts are helping make a difference in Brazil. I certainly noticed while living there that much depended on networking and there wasn’t a great deal of trust beyond close friends and relatives, but at the same time it’s a creative and vibrant society. It always annoyed me that when the topic of social problems came up the discussion always turned to how the government lacked willpower, but it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that “regular people” could do anything about the issues.

  4. Rio real says:

    Adam, most Brazilians think that politics are dirty and thus don’t want to engage in that arena. But this is changing. The Move Rio event I attended was organized by a group of privileged young people who have decided to get involved in the life of their city. I think this is happening more often nowadays, as people gain hope that Rio can actually change– that their actions will be worth the effort.

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