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In the Violent Favelas of Brazil

Their favela, they say, is to be pacified by the end of the week. It’s not that the young traffickers lack alternatives for employment, such as in Rio’s booming tourist industry. It’s that they won’t have the same level of luxury: “a gold chain as broad as a baby’s arm.”

The BOPE did invade the Maré complex—but not as part of the UPP process. During the June protests, robbers from the favela started looting shops along the Avenida Brasil. The BOPE was called in, and a sergeant chasing the robbers into the favela was shot dead. His colleagues erupted. By the time the smoke died down, eight residents of the favela—some of them young traficantes just like the one I had recently interviewed, others merely innocent bystanders—had been killed.

What is happening in the favelas of Rio is not so much pacification as legalization. The dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985 was brought down after many years and great sacrifices. Everyone who was not connected to the junta was its victim. People rushed to spend their pay as soon as they got it in their hands, because by the afternoon it would be worth much less. When democracy came, everybody—the rich in Leblon and the poor in Rocinha—felt they should benefit from it, and in Brazil, for a time, most people did.

But in the favelas there was no democracy. The traffickers continued with their own dictatorship; the people of the favela still had great trouble getting access to the courts or casting a vote. Pacification is an attempt to interrupt a despotic process. It is, for the construction workers and ladies who sell feijoada—a black bean stew—in the slum, the final fall of the dictatorship.

During the last twenty years, the drug dealers took informal control of much of life in the favelas, including, most importantly, music, the cultural lifeblood of Brazil. “Our challenge is what will happen after the pacification,” I was told by Ricardo Henriques, who was until last year the head of the Instituto Pereira Passos, the government’s urban think tank that formulates policy for the UPP.

As Henriques rather optimistically sees it, the takeover of the favelas will happen in three phases. The first consists of the police moving in and denying the drug dealers the ability to do what they want, legally and culturally. The second: “It’s a little bit boring, the police are here.” The third phase consists of the state substituting for the prohibited culture an officially sanctioned culture, or at least culture that doesn’t continue to glorify rape and murder. “You do it in a creative manner,” explained Henriques. “No guns. Less erotic, but really creative. The music is not proibidão.”

For decades, the favelas have existed in a parallel system to the rest of Brazil. “The idea of the state is to stay there for the long, long term,” Henriques said. He wants to reduce the inequality between the favela and the rest of the city. “Our challenge is to integrate those areas into the city.”

If this schematic-sounding vision of pacification works—and the ongoing protests throughout the country are putting it in doubt—what would come after it? One night I went to a jazz club in the favela of Tavares Bastos, which had been pacified for a year, right below the headquarters of the BOPE. The rooms of the club were packed with sweaty bodies and heavy with marijuana smoke. If the BOPE wanted to find drugs it wouldn’t have to go far. But it will never come here, because these are people from the rich, white areas of Ipanema and Leblon. The only black people I could see were the saxophonist and my guide, the street photographer, who lived here.

“The people from the favelas can’t imagine themselves here,” said the photographer. The music was bebop and bossa nova, an American idea of the jazz that Brazilians listen to. No samba here, much less funk.

The club was opened five years ago. A beautiful white economist who works for a bank, wearing an expensive dress, told me she was already bored. “Two years ago there used to be more interesting people. Now I only see all the people I would see near the beaches.”

It costs fifty reais to get in; a beer is fifteen reais. On the way to the club, I passed a number of small cafés. In some, neighbors were enjoying beers that cost a third as much. In one, pleasantly overweight couples were dancing close together to samba. All the lights in the houses of the favela were out; it was after midnight. But the white patrons on their way to the jazz club were raucous, laughing, energized by the thrill of the expedition to this clandestine destination.

In Tavares Bastos, and in favelas like Cantagalo, with its easy access to the rich southern zone of Rio and increased security after the pacification, the residents are being forced out, not by violence, which they can live with, but by high rents, which will make living there impossible. Their right to live there was protected as long as it was illegal. After pacification, the biggest threat to longtime residents of the Rio favelas will come not from drug dealers, but from property dealers.

—July 11, 2013

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