Favela Spring

After a long and brutal winter, Spring has finally arrived to New York (kind of).  During the past few days, beautiful snap shots of Gotham's gardens have been blossoming all over my Facebook and Instagram.  Friends and family in my hometown who were slammed with polar vortexes and below freezing temperatures seem to be happily embracing the late arrival of the new season. 

Here in Rio the buds of a different Spring are sprouting, born out of the weeds and thorns left by decades of abandonment and discrimination. Last week, a viral campaign spread on social media like wildfire. Portraits of people of all races and genders appeared holding up handwritten signs with a simple message: #eunãomereçomorrerassassinado.

The hashtag is portuguese for: "I don't deserve to be murdered."

It began shortly after TV Globo dancer "DG" was found dead in the southern zone ccomunidade of Pavão-Pavãozinho in late April. Neighbors claim he was killed by police (for more on this story read previous post: "A Tragedy Made in Brazil.")

In the Complexo de Alemão, in Rio's northern zone, 72-year-old Arlinda Bezerra das Chagas also died last month. According to O Globo newspaper, the retiree, known as "Dona Dalva," was killed by two stray bullets during a shootout between police and drug traffickers. Witnesses told the paper she was with her 10-year-old grandson and used her body as a shield.  

In addition to the online campaign, both deaths brought hundreds of people out into the streets. While most of the protests were peaceful, some escalated into violent outcries. In Pavão-Pavãozinho, residents destroyed a police post and threw bottles and rocks at nearby officers patrolling in Copacabana below the hillside shantytown. In Alemão, buses were torched and a government emergency care unit was damaged. Police responded by sending in riot patrols and elite forces with live ammo which left at least three more favela residents dead. 

Video posted on April 28th by videojournalist and Complexo do Alemão resident Betinho Casas Novas (Source: Voz Das Comunidades)

All of these recent events took place in areas known as "pacified communities." 

The term "pacification" comes from the government program that began in 2007. Rio de Janeiro state's security secretariat focused on favelas where the federal government was investing in major development projects, known as PAC (Portuguese initials for Growth Acceleration Program). Then Brazil won the World Cup bid and the 2016 Olympics and the program was adopted as the city's push to guarantee security before these mega events.

Violent deaths in favelas have dropped significantly. According to a study by PUC-Rio University economists Bruno Ottoni and Claudio Ferraz, murder rates have been reduced by 64%. The researchers found that in the 37 neighborhoods with active UPPs, lethal crimes went from 36.5 per 100,000 residents to 19 per 100,000 residents. in an article published by Folha de Sao Paulo the two academics said the data was gathered from 9-1-1 calls (known as "disque denuncia" in Rio) and police reports. 

The problem continues to be the relationship between some officers and some favela residents.

In an interview I conducted for a previous story, one of the architect's of the Police Pacification Units explained the roots of the program and some of its goals. When I asked him about the apparently young police fleets being sent into the favelas, Deputy Roberto Sa said: 

“We chose to use rookie police officers because they hadn’t acquired that notion that entering a favela automatically meant engaging in a shootout,” Sa said. “Many veteran officers were so tired of being involved in these confrontations that a natural antagonism had developed,” (excerpt from interview conducted for "Shot in The Favela" in December 2012).

Rio's UPP program is in its fifth year and has begun to show signs of possible deterioration. Officers that were rookies in 2008 have moved up in the ranks and BOPE police officers involved in the initial "clearing" stage of UPP installation, where drug traffickers are disarmed, arrested and/or chased out of the targeted neighborhoods, use some of the same war-style tactics applied to favela policing pre-pacification. 

Last year, massive protests demanding social change enveloped Rio de Janeiro and many other major Brazilian cities during the Confederations Cup. Many newspapers and analysts said the "giant had been awakened" and that the South American country's residents had grown tired of years of repression and corruption by officials in every level of government. Most of these rallies were contained by police using tear gas and rubber bullets. Although there were plenty of violent images and moments, there were very few (if any) incidents where police used lethal ammunition. 

When organized resistance comes from the favelas, there is often an assumption that jailed drug traffickers or criminals are behind them. This gives police the authority to use excessive force, under the blanket excuse of keeping the peace and self-defense. As community reporting and social media continue to expand and be used by more and more favela residents, impunity and injustice will be harder to hide. New seeds of inclusion and democracy will be planted and spread throughout Rio's 1000+ comunidades and allow these cariocas to finally have a voice.