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In many ways, Lieutenant Tatiana Lima has got it “easy” as the police commander of the Santa Marta favela, or slum, in central Rio de Janeiro.
As the first favela of Brazil’s second-largest city to be “pacified” — in 2008 the armed drug traffickers who ran the slum were driven out and replaced by community police posts — Santa Marta has become a tourist attraction.
But even this relative safe haven has not escaped unscathed from a recent upsurge in violence in Rio’s favelas ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in August. A few months ago, police killed a 17-year-old “bandit” in a shootout with traffickers. They were trying to invade Santa Marta through jungle growing on the mountainside from which the favela enjoys commanding views over the beachside city and towards the Christ the Redeemer statue.
“It was our first such confrontation since 2008,” says the young officer.
The incident may have been unusual for Santa Marta but not for many other poor neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro. Rio and other Brazilian cities have a history of increased violence involving police and security forces ahead of major events and the 2016 Olympics are proving no exception, activists claim.
The violence only adds to concerns ahead of the games. These range from the mosquito-born disease Zika to Rio’s near-bankrupt state coffers and the confused political situation in Brasília, where there are in effect two presidents, interim leader Michel Temer and elected president Dilma Rousseff, suspended pending animpeachment for manipulating the public accounts.
“I don’t think it is a coincidence,” says Camila Nunes, a professor at the Federal University of ABC near São Paulo, of the upsurge in police-linked violence in Rio. “The cost of these events for the poorest parts of the population is very high.”
Police killings in Rio hit a high in 2007 of 1,330, when the city staged the Pan-American games, according to figures from the Institute for Public Security of the state of Rio de Janeiro. The figures were for the state of Rio but most deaths occurred in the metropolitan area.
Police killings then declined sharply before rising again ahead of the 2014 football World Cup final and this year’s Olympics. They were up 55 per cent to 645 deaths between 2013 and 2015. This was more than 45 per cent higher than police killings for the entire US in 2014. In an analysis conducted of victims killed between 2010 and 2013, Amnesty International found 99.5 per cent were male, 79 per cent black and 75 per cent aged between 15 and 29 years old.
Often multiple people are killed in each incident. Amnesty said in a report that five people were killed on April 4 in a police operation in Acari favela. There have also been numerous incidents of stray bullets killing children.
Activists attribute the deaths to policing style, which they say emphasises a fierce “war on drugs”. The favelas were the battleground where the rule of law that ostensibly governed other parts of the city ended, said Renata Neder of Amnesty in Rio. The use of combat troops from the armed forces in some operations only made this worse. With tens of thousands of state and federal police and armed forces to be deployed during the Olympics, many fear the number killed is set to increase.
“This is a structural problem,” said Ms Neder. “But these mega-events worsen the situation … if you have a police force that already kills a lot and you increase the number of police operations, the trend will be towards more dead.”
If you have a police force that already kills a lot and you increase the number of police operations, the trend will be towards more dead
Indeed, so notorious is the problem that it has made its way into popular culture. A highly acclaimed Brazilian film released in 2007, Tropa de Elite, or Elite Squad, shows police special operations officers killing drug traffickers in a favela, ironically named Morro dos Prazeres, or Mountain of Pleasures, to secure the city ahead of a visit by Pope John Paul II.
However, Rio’s state secretariat of security countered that there had been a sharp drop in deaths since the peak year of 2007. It attributed this to the introduction of the policy of pacifying and occupying the favelas, such as in Santa Marta. It said more than 2,000 police had been expelled for abuses since 2007.
“In the World Cup in 2014, the most recent grand event held in Rio, satisfaction with the levels of public security was 92 per cent,” the government said, citing opinion polls.
Still, that will be scant consolation for the poor caught in the crossfire as Rio locks down for the Olympics. Ms Neder of Amnesty said the government needed to be more transparent about how it planned to deploy security forces during the games and how it would hold individuals accountable for any abuses.
“There exists great apprehension among the residents in various favelas that they will have armed forces occupying their communities,” she said.