Proposal for a safer Rio: technology — or flight from human contact?

Can this work?

Boys from one of the Complexo do Alemão favelas listen to Mothers’ Day testimonies about the loss of sons to police bullets

Governor-elect Wilson Witzel declared in an interview published Sunday in O Globo that he’s never been to Rocinha favela. “I passed nearby, never went up. But you don’t need to go up to know it’s really bad there,” he said.

Para português

Witzel did nothing to soften the message; didn’t say if he has personal knowledge of any other favela. Neither did he state what exactly is bad about Rocinha. He also promised to open streets in Rio’s ten biggest favelas.

In the 2010 census we learned that more than two million people out of the state’s then-total population of 16 milllion lived in “subnormal agglomerations”, i.e., favelas. That’s 12.5% of the population. With the recession, this number may be higher today.

It’s hard to say if the new governor has ever set foot in an alley of one of the hundreds of informal areas of the state he’ll rule over (bumping into him at a restaurant last week, where he was dining at a male-only table, this blogger asked for an interview; Witzel swore half his secretaries will be women and said he was prioritizing the transition). Not that alleyways serve to fully understand favelas nor the lives of their residents, as the blog discovered in 2014.

As many UPP police must have learned, setting foot in a favela isn’t enough to bring about a definitive drop in crime and violence levels. Pacification, as implemented in some Rio favelas, never was actual proximity policing, as originally planned back in 2008.

Yes, there were soccer games and débutante balls. There were friendships and happy exchanges between residents and police. Yet we saw no protocols or lasting structures for working towards peaceful problem solving — to prevent violence and institute just and democratic behaviors for both police and residents. There were no exchanges nor collaborative projects to build trust. Residents ended up avoiding contact with UPP police.

This blogger watched and heard enough over the last eight years to conclude that “pacified” favelas lacked orientation on how to fill the power vacuum left by drug traffickers. In general, commanders and those under them improvised to fill this regulatory space. Frequently, instead of involving communities to create new, democratic problem-solving methods, they reproduced the traffickers’ prior pattern  — of maximum, unquestionable authority. Weapons topped all else.

Proximity policing implies a loss of control, some might think. Not true, if there are suitable protocols, training, and monitoring. If we’d had the chance to experience true proximity policing (as seen in many of the world’s cities), pacification would not have failed. It would have innovated, reducing crime in sustainable fashion, opening the way to other public policies that bring people together, with a range of positive results for all of society. Low-income folks suffer crime the most.

Proximity policing doesn’t solve everything. Witzel is right to say we need a stronger hand against crime. But the Rio police are ill-equipped, as this post describes. Actually, the recipe for making Rio safer is no secret. Specialists recommend sophisticated measures such as better training, equipping, paying, controlling and managing police forces; effectively using intelligence and information; integrating the judiciary and penitentiaries as actors in public safety policy and increasing the role of federal government in controlling and funding this key area of national life. One hopes the Federal Intervention has progressed in some of these areas (despite an increase in deaths). We don’t know if this is the case nor if the future governor has spoken with the generals here.

If Witzel has never been to Rocinha, intermittent locus for decades of battles among trafficking gangs and between these and police, who’s advising him on favelas and public safety? Sílvia Ramos, a key specialist in this area, doesn’t know. The  Igarapé Institute, normally part of any such conversation, isn’t involved, according to co-founder Rob Muggah. Ignacio Cano, a scholar who’s carried out important consulting projects for the state Military Police isn’t in the picture, either: “I think he has ideas of his own and a group of police likeminded officers,” he adds.

A Rio public safety specialist who preferred anonymity explains that some judges in fact are often surrounded by police officers. Police assigned to the judiciary, this person adds, sometimes build close relationships with the judges they protect. They solve problems, exchange ideas, honor them with medals, invite them to shooting ranges and to take courses with elite squad members. “At best, we’re talking about a lobby,” the person said.

Witzel’s technological approach — sharpshooters and drones flying over favelas, targeting anyone carrying a rifle — suggests advisers with limited vision. As they did during pacification, won’t traffickers adapt to the new reality of being walking targets? Back then, they went low-profile with their businesses or fled to other cities in the state, spreading violence to the West Zone and the Itaguaí-Angra dos Reis-Paraty coastal area. Nor will police bring all of them down. What happens if traffickers use residents as human shields to move around their territories?

The decision to implement such high-tech proposals, if taken, puts the responsibility on favela residents for the risks they live with daily. It will be as if the rest of Brazilian society has nothing to do with the poverty that led two million people (in Rio state) to live in informal areas, supplying cheap labor to large cities. Residents as wartime civilians, collateral damage, will have such status made formal.

Authoritarianism limits and blocks relations among people. It reinforces bubbles, minimizing the need to get one’s hands dirty, to connect with people and places that are different from one’s norm. Witzel risks, with his territorial ignorance, yet another failure for Rio de Janeiro’s public safety. He may encourage, as seen in Los Angeles and Paris, more violence, more rage and more deaths.

What about repressing the drug trade? The focus has to be on intelligence: illegal acquisition and transportation of weapons and drugs. In other words, corruption within the state’s own institutions. There, drones and sharpshooters will be of little use.

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.

1 Response to Proposal for a safer Rio: technology — or flight from human contact?

  1. shotw2arrows says:

    Bravo, Julia! One of your best efforts. You focused on what the new administration takes to be its #1 mandate – reducing violent crime – and posed some key questions. You took a stand, as I hope you will continue to do.

    It seems that at long last, the thinking public has come to realize that the question of violent crime can’t be separated from living conditions in the favelas. If the working class of a nation is satisfied with their lives, we may still see white collar crime. We will not see the rich, say, assaulting patrons at restaurants. Happy, satisfied poor people don’t do such things either.
    It follows that if our political leaders want a SUSTAINED decrease in crime, they must be as concerned about the well-being of two million favelados as they are about any other two million citizens.

    I predict that if the hardline, Bolsonaro approach to crime is followed, we will witness a SHORT-TERM drop in violent crime. The traffickers, like many people, don’t want to die. They will retreat, they will lie low. But over time, they will find their way back. You can kill the mosquitoes in a trash dump, but they will return so long as the trash dump conditions remain the same. (I hasten to add that we should not treat traffickers like mosquitoes. If proven guilty in court, they must go to jail, but their right to trial is the same as any citizen’s.)

    Governor-elect Witzel has never visited Rocinha but says you don’t need to visit to know conditions are bad. You don’t need to experience an earthquake to know that earthquake conditions are bad. But a government leader needs to know MORE than the fact that conditions are bad. If you are a leader, and therefore represent the people of a favela, you need to know WHAT the conditions of a favela are and what can be done to better them.

    Once long, long ago, when the staggering extent of criminality of the political class began to be revealed, I suggested that convicted politicians be given the option of a reduction in sentence if they agreed to actually live in a favela, work there, eat there, and get to know the favelados, their frustrations and their dreams.

    This was when it appeared that 40% of the political class was headed to jail, leaving the country denuded of political leaders. 40% have not gone to jail. That was just an impossible dream. I don’t hear of anyone demanding that President Temer be tried when he steps down. But I think President Temer would grow as a human being if he had to live like a favelado for a few months.

    Maybe that’s impractical. Proximity policing may be an alternative and it has worked elsewhere. For those who have not heard of the concept, community police essentially become part of the favela. They form friendships with individuals and their families and come to sympathize with their hopes and fears.

    It sounds like a great idea, but I see one big difficulty. As I understand it, drug gangs and militias are engaged in a perpetual war with informers. For a gang member to be seen talking to a cop can be a death sentence. That’s why the anonymous informant system is in place. The assassination of Marielle Franco gives evidence of the degree of violence those in power are willing to exercise when that power is threatened. Little wonder that favelados refuse to talk with the press.

    Yet at this moment, NGO’s such as Viva Rio and Catalytic Communities are successfully linking with favelas. These organizations must somehow coexist with the local criminal element. They would not be successful if they were a threat to this element. They can’t, then, play the same role as the UPP’s.

    Perhaps as you suggest, Julia, proximity policing will work,” if there are suitable protocols, training, and monitoring. “. But first, perhaps a form of “soft” interaction with the community might be in order, in which the immediate goal is to link the local community with the center of power in Rio. This would not result in any arrests. Rather, city hall will learn how a favela really functions. Favelados will know the same about city hall. Each must learn to trust the other.

    Certainly, there are good people on both sides – and people who are not so good. The good people one each side must work within the conventions and realities and limitations of their respective environments. The favela needs city hall, but city hall also needs the favela.

    In the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the Pharaoh and the fellah (peasant) needed one another. The fellah, working with an organized team, was able to produce far more food than he and his wife and children needed to survive. He turned the surplus food over to the Pharaoh. The latter did his part by ruling over everyone – peasantry, overseers, clerks, nobility, soldiers, and priests, keeping all in line, obedient to his will and the will of the gods. Order was preserved in the state and all were happy and content. How do we know? The construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza, possibly the greatest of all human artifacts, would have been impossible otherwise.

    Today, Witzel and the favelado need one another. The latter produces enough commodities not only for Witzel and his minions, but for the criminal element in the community and the criminal element in Congress. Witzel may be content with the deal, but it looks like the favelado may not be. Some favelados are joining the criminal element.

    Today’s Rio is a bit more complicated than the Old Kingdom. As technology progresses, the man who works with his hands is needed less and less. The technician, engineer, and manager become more important. The favelado needs training if he is to be productive. He doesn’t earn enough to educate himself and so Witzel, with the taxes he collects, would be wise to provide it.

    Caught in the strife to survive, the average favelado thinks little about the Old Kingdom. It is possible that Witzel – and even perhaps the hyper-intellectual Bolsonaro – also give it little thought. The soft intervention I suggest would give a chance for both sides to back off and look at the big picture; to consider their rights and responsibilities.

    Thank you, Julia, for all your pertinent remarks on the approaches Witzel is taking or may take, and the groups that may or may not be influencing his policies, such as CESeC, the Igarapé group, the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety etc. I will be watching what happens and I ought to research more.

    The link going back to the blog of 2014: “The Favela alley: asset or liability?” is interesting. There is no adequate English translation of “beco”. “Alley” conjures up the image of a poorly lit backstreet behind large buildings, that is not generally used by the public, but through which you can drive a vehicle. A beco is a narrow passageway you can walk through and possibly drive a two-wheeled vehicle though, constantly used by pedestrians. As such, they are an intelligent adaption to the limited space of most favelas. But they may not be healthy. They shut out cleansing winds and sunlight and invite germs.

    Those who what to “bring up” favelas would like to eliminate becos as far as possible. But the NGO Catalytic Communities doesn’t want to change the essential character of favelas. They see the favela and its becos as “traditional urban structures associated with a deep-rooted sense of community”. (See on the destruction of the Casbah in Algiers – this is part of a world-wide controversy.) So even given the sincere humanitarian concerns of the Witzel and his group, there is no consensus about the best way forward. Even people of good will can disagree!

    The other video in this link, “Lançamento do PAC 2 Rocinha”, is well worth viewing. But I believe it was made in 2014, a world away from today, before the Brazilian Great Recession. I don’t know how much has been realized. I would be interested if anyone has information.

    OK, Julia, again thank you for your efforts, keep staggering forward, I guess.

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