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In the Violent Favelas of Brazil

Walter Mesquita
Favela da Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, December 2011

My Brazilian friend Marina and I were picking up a visiting friend from New York, who heads an NGO, in her hotel lobby near Paulista, the most prestigious avenue in São Paulo. It was 7:30 on a busy Friday night last October.

We walked up to a taxi outside the hotel. I sat in the front to let the two women chat in the back. Marina asked me to Google the restaurant menu. I was doing so when I saw a teenage boy run up to the taxi and gesticulate through my open window. I thought he was a beggar, asking for money. Then I saw the gun, going from my head to the cell phone.

“Just give him the phone,” Marina said from the back seat.

I gave him the phone. He didn’t go away.

Dinheiro, dinheiro!

I didn’t want to give him my wallet. The boy was shouting obscenities. “Dinheiro, dinheiro!

The boy’s body suddenly jerked back, as a man’s arm around his neck pulled him off his feet. The man, dressed in a black shirt, was shouting; he had jumped the boy from behind. He started hitting the boy. The taxi driver sitting next to me was stoic. He said that this had never happened to him before, but he couldn’t have been more blasé.

The next thing I saw was the boy and another teenager, probably his accomplice, running away fast up the street. The man in the black shirt chased them a bit, then came back panting to the taxi. “Did the bastard get anything?” our savior, whom we later nicknamed Batman, asked. He wasn’t a plainclothes cop, as I’d originally thought; he was just an ordinary citizen who was tired of the criminals.

“A phone,” Marina responded.

“Sons of whores. These motherfuckers—they always come in twos. Cowards.”

The taxi driver drove us to the nearest police station. Two lethargic cops were the only people there. “We get ten of these a day, just in this precinct,” said one of them.

The other cop went over to check in his register. “Three before you today.” There are 319 armed robberies a day in São Paulo.

Everyone in this country has a story. Priscilla, whom I met the next day, has been robbed ten times. Once a kid held a piece of glass from a broken bottle to her neck. Another time she was in a home invaded by gunmen, and one of them held a gun to her head for forty minutes.

I had gotten off lightly—just my phone taken. I still had my wallet, thanks to Batman, and I wasn’t beaten or killed or kidnapped.

The cities of Brazil are some of the most violent places in the world today. More people are murdered in Brazil than in almost any other country. In 2010, there were 40,974 murders there—21 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), compared to the global rate of 6.9. The highest number of murders was in India, at 41,726. But India has a population six times bigger than Brazil’s, so its murder rate is only 3.4 per 100,000 inhabitants. (Italy, by comparison, had 529 murders that year, at a rate of 0.9.) Four Brazilian cities had a murder rate of over 100 per 100,000 residents. Between 5 percent to 8 percent of Brazilian homicides are solved—as compared to 65 percent of US murders and 90 percent of British murders. Most of the victims are male and poor, between fifteen and just shy of thirty. The homicide rate has shaved seven years off the life expectancy in the Rio favelas (slums).

And this year another form of violence started making the headlines, with several high-profile cases of rape in Rio, including that of an American woman in a moving public bus. Rapes in the city increased 24 percent last year, to 1,972 reported cases. Sociologists and police officials are at a loss to explain this trend in a country where women are free to dress as they please, whose laws are often held up as a model for combatting gender violence, and whose president, Dilma Rousseff, is a woman.

The violence done to humans parallels the violence visited on the environment. In the great swath of greenery that makes up a large part of the country, fires, logging, and ambitious agribusiness schemes continue to devastate the rainforest, in spite of—or perhaps because of—Rousseff’s changes in the forestry code first formulated in 1965. According to government figures, deforestation, which had declined by 84 percent in the eight years before August 2012, has shown a 35 percent increase since then.

The violence hasn’t prevented Brazil from emerging on the world stage as the preeminent country in Latin America. Next year, it will host the World Cup; two years after that, the Olympics. Between 2003 and 2011, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—“Lula”—Brazil’s remarkable president, brought about one reform after another that improved the country’s economy. Rousseff, his successor, was until the protests of this June favored to win a second term next year. Both she and Lula are from the center-left Workers’ Party. Now, while not growing as fast as it did in the days before the crisis of 2008, the economy is still the world’s seventh largest. Brazil in the 1950s was 85 percent rural and 15 percent urban. Today the figures are reversed: the country is 87 percent urban. It’s the fastest urbanization of any country in recent times.

Brazil is also a model for other developing countries looking to help the poorest of their citizens. “Bolsa Família” (family allowance), introduced by Lula in 2003, is a startlingly successful program in which the government pays small amounts of cash directly to poor families. Some of the benefits are tied to certain conditions that the recipients must meet, such as making sure their children attend school. It covers a quarter of all Brazilians, 50 million people. This has led to a 20 percent drop in income inequality in Brazil since 2001, when it was one of the most unequal countries on the planet. Thanks to Bolsa Família, Brazil’s middle class grew from 40 million to 105 million in the last ten years. This has created the world’s biggest lower-middle class.

Revolutions generally begin with the formation of a middle class, as recent events demonstrate. In June, protests in São Paulo over a ten-cent increase in bus fares swelled into the largest demonstrations since the fall of the dictatorship, drawing millions of people into the streets of all the major cities. They were protesting the lavish outlays on the World Cup and other sporting events at the expense of basic facilities for transport and education; endemic corruption in the Workers’ Party; the slowdown in the economy; and the high levels of violence in Brazilian society. Most of the protesters were young, college-educated, and unaffiliated with any political party.

The government tried hard to respond to the demonstrators’ wide-ranging grievances. The mayors of São Paulo and Rio rolled back the bus fares. Dilma Rousseff promised a referendum on a package of reforms including a shift from proportional representation to voting by district, which could mean more responsive governance in the favelas. The demonstrators, some of whom seek an outright cancellation of the World Cup, do not so far seem to be satisfied. Rousseff’s approval rating plunged from 57 percent in early June to 30 percent a month later.

The anger of the demonstrators arose partly from injustices that have persisted throughout Brazil’s history. Bolsa Família has done much to solve the problem of inequality, but not race. Half of the country is black, but blacks make up 70 percent of the poorest Brazilians. According to studies based on the 2000 census, an eighteen-year-old white Brazilian boy has, on the average, 2.3 years more education than an eighteen-year-old black boy. The father of a white boy also had 2.3 years more education than the father of a black boy. Sixty years ago, the grandfather of a white boy had 2.4 years more education. Practically everything else in the country has changed, but the educational disparity between white and black has remained stubbornly constant over three generations.

Brazilians like to think of themselves as a multiracial society, but a walk around the favelas of the cities demolishes this myth. Most of the residents are dark-complexioned, much darker than most of the rich who live by the water or in the suburbs, and darker than most of the young people who have recently been protesting in the streets. Over the last year and a half, I have been visiting São Paulo and, especially, Rio de Janeiro, observing the process of “pacification,” by which the government attempts to peacefully enter and reestablish state control over the most violent enclaves of the city, those dominated by drug gangs called traficantes, or by syndicates of corrupt police called militias. Until 2008, when the pacification program started, the traficantes controlled roughly half of the favelas, and the militias the other half. Both still hold power in most favelas. The ultimate aim of the state government of Rio’s plan, called the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP), or Police Pacification Unit, is to drive both of these groups out and replace them by the state.

Today, of Rio’s 6.3 million people, 1.4 million live in the favelas. There are some 630 of them, containing more than a thousand “communities.” The state government aims to “pacify” forty of these favelas by the time of the World Cup next year—a kind of demonstration effect that will get attention from visitors. Since the program started in 2008, thirty of the largest have been pacified—that is, they are under the control of the official police forces, not the drug dealers or the militias. In the past, the police would raid individual favelas, capture or kill the biggest drug dealers, and leave. They would soon be replaced by other dealers, and the violence would continue. “The new strategy is not to target individual drug dealers. It is to take back territory,” a high police official told me.

Under the UPP program, elite police units—and in some cases troops from the army and even the navy—invade the favelas and stay for up to three months. Then they are replaced by the regular police and squads of UPP civil servants. The UPP establishes schools and garbage collection, brings in public and private companies to provide utilities such as electricity and television, and hands out legal documents such as employment and residency certificates. In the areas under its control, the UPP has set up community security councils, which attempt to mediate conflicts between local hotheads before they spread. The message is: the state is here to stay. So far, the program has generally been seen as a success, and was a major factor in the reelection of Sérgio Cabral in 2010 as the state governor backed by the Workers’ Party.

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