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By Joe Leahy and Samantha Pearson in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro
Members of the special police unit Bope during a raid on a favela in Rio de Janeiro
The staff at Ricardo Eletro were pulling down the shutters on their electronics store after a frantic day serving pre-Christmas shoppers when the gunmen appeared.
Thiago Marinho, manager of the store, which is on the main road of Rocinha, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious favelas, or slums, stood by helplessly as the five bandits stole money, mobile phones and other electrical goods.
This kind of attack was not meant to happen any more. Paramilitary police invaded Rocinha in November, driving out the armed drug traffickers who had controlled the area for decades. “They weren’t even wearing hoods,” says Mr Marinho of his assailants. “Rocinha is huge. There just aren’t enough police now to look after the place. Two other little shops were robbed, too.”
Thanks partly to the UPP programme, murders have fallen from 35 per 100,000 inhabitants in metropolitan Rio in 2008 to an estimated 26.7 last year – close to the national average, according to the Sangari Institute, which tracks homicides in Brazil.
“This is a policy that society itself has adopted,” Rio’s state governor Sérgio Cabral recently told Brazil’s O Globo news network. “Once society has adopted a policy, no politician can roll it back.”
But even Mr Cabral knows that rooting out Rio’s entrenched “narco-dictatorships” is a gargantuan task.
The problem dates from the 1970s, when Brazil’s former military rulers jailed common criminals and leftwing guerrillas alongside each other. On their release, the criminals adopted guerrilla-style tactics and began occupying territory. “The idea was to have this red wave to take over the city and set up an alternative state – but then cocaine came into the picture,” says Pedro Henrique de Cristo, consultant to the UN-Habitat programme aimed at reintegrating Rio’s favelas.
According to a study by Mr Henrique de Cristo, 16.6 per cent of Rio’s population, or more than 1m people, live under the drug warlords outside the control of the government. Their average income is about one-third of that of regular neighbourhoods, murder rates are nearly twice as high and teenage pregnancies are five times higher.
“When you are a teenager, between 12 and 15 years old, you have two choices here – continue your education or join the traficantes [traffickers],” says Leandro Lima, a local journalist and native of Rocinha. “Soldiers” in the drug gangs can earn $1,000 a week, a small fortune compared to what most youths earn, he says.
There is also a racial divide. More than half of the population of the favelas is black, compared with less than 7 per cent elsewhere. Activists allege favela residents receive worse treatment from the Rio police, who killed one person for every 23 they arrested in 2008 – compared with one for every 37,000 in the US, according to Human Rights Watch.
Conditions improve markedly after the favelas are pacified. The scheme first caught global attention a year ago when Rio’s elite paramilitary force, the Police Special Operations Battalion, or Bope, was filmed driving gangsters from Rio’s giant Complexo do Alemao favela.
While local populations still distrust the police, Mr Henrique de Cristo says they support the presence of the UPPs – police posts set up in pacified slums and occupied by officers trained in community policing after Bope has pulled out.
The challenge is how to expand and sustain the UPP scheme. Bope says it has pacified only 19 out of 130 gang-controlled favelas and is aiming to get to 40 by 2014. But some question whether Rio has the resources: by some estimates, the city would need to increase its police force by more than half to occupy all the drug lords’ territory.
The strains of not deploying enough police are already visible in Rocinha, the locals claim. Although the state governor says Rocinha will receive a UPP next year, for the moment it will have to make do with patrols by Bope.
Residents claim life was more secure under the ADA, the gang that ruled Rocinha and which prohibited theft. Fabiana França, the six-months-pregnant owner of a small clothes shop down one of Rocinha’s dark alleyways, says a neighbour was recently assaulted and had her Christmas bonus stolen.
“Safer? No, it’s less safe! All the police go home about 8pm or 9pm,” she says. “I’ve now put up bars on my windows where I live.”
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