How Police Have Turned Rio de Janeiro's Maré Favela Into a Battlefield

Community of Maré, Rio de Janeiro. Image by the Agência Pública for the documentary "I died in Maré" under Creative Commons licence BY-ND.

Community of Maré, Rio de Janeiro. Image by the Agência Pública for the documentary “I died in Maré” under Creative Commons licence BY-ND.

[All links lead to Portuguese-language pages unless otherwise noted.]

It was the night of June 24, 2013. The world was following the wave of protests [en] which had begun at the beginning of the month and were spreading across several cities in Brazil. That night in Rio de Janeiro, following a group armed robbery in the Bonsucesso district after a protest, agents from the military police's Battalion of Special Operations (BOPE) invaded the Maré favela complex.

The police officers claimed to have entered the community to chase the thieves, but at around 7 p.m. tear gas bombs began to be thrown at residents. One of them struck the premises of the Favela Observatory, a community news organization. Nobody knew what was happening in the midst of the confusion, and the gunfire continued on into the early hours of the morning. Come morning, 13 were dead. The favela awoke to find itself occupied by the BOPE, the Riot Police and the National Security Force. 

The incident led to protests against the violence committed by the state and drew attention to the lives of those who live in the Maré slum. A mini-documentary “I Died in Maré” was launched by investigative journalism platform Agência Pública on March 11, 2014 to look at the consequences of the battle waged between drug traffickers and police there as seen through the eyes of those most affected: children. Marie Naudascher and Patrick Vanier, two French journalists living in Rio, were behind the project, made possible thanks to a crowdfunding campaign which reached 808 collaborators.

In the documentary, the coordinator of the Favela Observatory, Jailson de Souza, criticised the actions of the police: 

É uma ação irresponsável que trata a favela como arena de guerra. Não tem nenhum sentido a polícia agir como agiu hoje pela madrugada, hoje pela manhã e está agindo durante o dia. Não tem nenhum sentido a polícia permanecer aqui com essa força bélica e monstruosa. 

It is an irresponsible action which treats the favela like a battlefield. It makes no sense for the police to act as they did in the early hours of that morning, throughout the morning and throughout the whole day. It makes no sense for the police to stay here with this horrendous, warlike force.

The Pacifying Police Unit

The Maré favela complex is one of the largest in Rio de Janeiro. With more than 130,000 residents, it is split between three of the city's main drug trafficking factions – Friends of Friends [en], Red Command [en] and Third Command [en] – as well as militia groups. And it doesn't have a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) [en], the special police force dedicated to retaking neighborhoods from drug dealers. For the government, the presence of the UPPs and the pacification of the favelas has been one of the main achievements in the preparations for this year's World Cup, for communities and police, they are far from unanimously welcomed.

In mid-March 2014, following a wave of violence sparked by the police occupation of the Vila Kennedy favela – where the 38th UPP will be established – international newspapers began to report on the contradictions inherent in the pacification plan. An article in Spanish daily newspaper El País [es] said that Rio now found itself “at a worrying crossroads”: it has to choose between maintaining the security policy “which is beginning to display black holes, or readopt the old (and failed) strategy of pursuing and destroying armed drug traffickers”. 

The project is even questioned from within police. This year alone, four agents were murdered in UPP areas. Danillo Ferreira, a collaborator with Global Voices, explained in a text published on the blog Police Approach that “neither the police nor the communities can see a precise alignment between what the government's propaganda says and what they experience in practice”. He added:

Sob a pressão para a realização ordeira da Copa do Mundo e das Olímpiadas é bem possível que o governo do Rio de Janeiro mantenha os esforços de financiamento da política das UPPs, que até 2016 pode servir de medida emergencial de contenção das favelas.

Under pressure to ensure that the World Cup and the Olympics take place in an orderly fashion, it is very possible that the Rio de Janeiro government will maintain efforts to finance the UPP policy, which could serve as an emergency measure for containing the favelas until 2016.

Networks of resistance 

The organisations Maré Development Networks and Favela Observatory teamed up with Amnesty International to record daily experiences of state violence within the favela. The work carried out by journalists and professional photographers, in collaboration with residents, “aims to show the facts from the perspective of those who live, work and bring up their children in the largest favela complex in Rio de Janeiro”.

In an article titled “Why must the police be so violent?” published as part of the project, Eliana Sousa Silva, director of the Networks, called for the action used until now by the public security forces to be reconsidered:

Nos primeiros 55 dias de 2014, tivemos pelo menos 45 mortos em operações policiais em favelas do Rio de Janeiro, sem contar feridos. São números que propõem a toda sociedade, com urgência, o desafio de refletir e questionar as ações de segurança pública no Rio, especialmente nas favelas.

Como alguém que se constituiu no mundo a partir da Maré, busco compreender as práticas das forças policiais na favela a partir do olhar dos agentes diretamente envolvidos nessa problemática: policiais, integrantes dos grupos criminosos armados e moradores. Meu esforço é pensar caminhos para ampliar o diálogo com as autoridades, que muitas vezes não conseguem envolver no debate a população diretamente atingida pela falta de políticas abrangentes de segurança pública.

In the first 55 days of 2014, we had at least 45 deaths during police operations in favelas in Rio de Janeiro, without counting those who were wounded. These are numbers which challenge the whole of society to urgently reflect upon and question the actions of the public security forces in Rio, especially in the favelas.

As someone who grew up in Maré, I seek to understand the practices employed by the police forces in the favela through the eyes of those directly involved in this issue: police officers, members of armed criminal groups and residents. I endeavour to think of ways to increase dialogue with the authorities, who do not often succeed in including in the debate those people who are directly affected by the lack of comprehensive public security policies.


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