Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A prayer for the pacification of Maré

I spoke with Flora the other day and she told me that things have been coming up in the news about Maré, the neighborhood in which I used to work in with Fight for Peace. The state had been planning their “pacification” project on that neighborhood for a while now, but given the social uprisings last June and all the other frantic scrambling the city has been making to accommodate for the upcoming mega events, the plans have been postponed, until now.

So “pacification” is this program that the city started back in 2008 with the intention of “cleaning up” the favelas of Rio de Janeiro by installing police units inside of the neighborhoods and thus expelling the drug factions that previously controlled the area. On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Neighborhoods which had previously suffered some of the highest mortality rates in the developed world would finally have an installed sense of state security. This would also presumably free up the traffic for more public services such as trash collection, emergency medical vehicles and public transportation, as previously these entities were hesitant to enter the area due to an exaggerated sense of danger. 

But the situation is a bit more complicated than that, primarily on how the police forces would initially establish themselves. It would be nice to say that the drug factions would lay down their arms and move quietly out of the neighborhood as requested, but that scenario is idealistic and naive at best. 

Pacification can go one of two ways. Either the drug dealers flee the area and simply go to a neighboring favela that isn’t pacified, or they fight back. In both scenarios there are typically casualties, just one produces more than the other. I asked Flora what she thought was going to happen in the coming weeks.

“Maré is very hard,” she told me. “It’s always been considered different from the favelas in the south zone.” 

You have to understand that in Portuguese, the term “very hard” means something a bit different than it does in English, especially in this context. I suppose the best translation would be that it is stubborn, and not only that, it is known throughout the city as having the rougher drug factions, so if I had to choose between which two options would most likely occur, I’d bet on the second one. 

I remember when the traffickers in Maré took down one of the infamous BOPE officers during a police operation back in June. I mean just having the willingness to combat the BOPE says something about the place. BOPE is basically the American S.W.A.T team on steroids. The emblem embossed onto their uniforms are two crossed handguns behind a skull that has a knife stabbed through the top of it. This is literally the symbol they communicate to the public as they drive around in a large black armored truck that has small sliding metal windows for them to stick their rifles through. But I think perhaps the most troubling part of it all is the mental training. There are those that truly believe that people in favelas are an infestation to be exterminated and this ideology is drilled in during training. This also brings in the issue of how the police distinguish traffickers from everyday residents, which brings in the issue of profiling and stereotyping. Unfortunately it seems to have not been done as delicately as hoped, since much of the time a good portion of the casualties in these police operations are residents with absolutely no ties to drug trafficking. They only “look” like those involved.

Though to be fair, traffickers are in fact residents from favelas. They grow up in the same homes, walk the same streets. They’re people’s children and parents, they're the neighborhood kid that used to play ball on the corner. And though they’ve chosen a path that many wished they wouldn’t, at the very least, they’re recognized in the community. 

Drug factions act as almost an informal social order in favelas, setting rules and enforcing them when broken. I remember having a conversation with my friend Gilberto when I first arrived in Rio, a friend who works exclusively on children’s rights issues in favelas. I asked him about any potential dangers I should be aware of from working in Maré, and while he told me some, he finished by looking at me sternly in the eyes and saying, “But nobody will rob you there. It is the law of the favela.” 

From my experience, that’s been more or less true. I’ve never been assaulted or even really approached by anyone with an assault rifle slung around their shoulders. In fact, the only time they’ve talked to me was to compliment the artwork of my tattoos. I’ve been told by other people, both outsiders and residents, that there is a social sense of order. Nobody steals, nobody kills (without reason), nobody rapes. If someone violates these rules, they are made an example of, its severity matching the size of the offense. Perhaps the biggest offense is child molestation, as offenders are mutilated and often put on display. For this reason I’ve often seen children of all ages run around freely without any sort of adult supervision. It’s almost as if children have a greater sense of freedom in this regard. 

This isn't to say that things are fine and peachy in favelas. They're certainly not. But it is to say that these places aren't monstrous cesspools of disorder and chaotic violence. While innocent people do die at much higher rates than other parts of the city, it is usually due to being caught in a crossfire during an invasion between either a rival drug faction or the police. You could argue that even the sheer presence of such an occurrence lessens its social habitably, and you'd have just reason to think so, but favelas do - though not perfectly - manage some sense of social order.    

In fact, favelas have survived this way for decades. They’ve more or less operated independently from any state support or supervision. So if anything, the difficulty of the police entering a favela is more of a reflection of the state’s historical ignorance to this part of society than anything else. 

At best, pacification is controversial. On the one hand, murder rates will most likely go down afterwards, at least by state statistics, and it will be safer for outsiders to enter these areas. On the other hand, it could be comparable to a police state, to where familiar faces of authority are replaced by state officers who have little knowledge or ties to the community. Another issue is that a relative sense of security increases the desirability of an area, thus potentially raising the property values to rates unaffordable to current residents, and with that, the demographic changes. A classic case of gentrification. 

So brings in the question of intention. Why, until now, has the government been waiting to push this initiative forward? If the real intentions were for the livelihood of the residents as being treated as equal citizens of the state, is it then just a coincidence that the push is finally happening in conjunction with the arrival of the World Cup? I’d argue that it’s a strategic move. You can see it in the geography of where they have chosen their movements thus far. Maré, specifically, has been chosen because it sits right in the middle of the route from the international airport to the city. The building of “beautification walls” (the 10ft cinderblock walls built back in 2009) strengthens this claim as there is very little practical functionality to the walls aside from shielding the view of the slums as drivers pass by on the highway. 

So again we ask, does the state have a sincere interest in combating the drug trade? At this moment, pacification doesn’t stop the drug trade, it only changes it. The gangs relocate to other areas where affiliate camps are located and those areas become increasingly more dangerous, such as the case in the other favela I worked in with Gilberto, the Complexo do Salgueiro. So in some sense it’s merely pushing the problem around the city to make room in the area where the tourists will be frequenting, basically creating a safe space for those attending the World Cup and Olympic Games. Is this a good thing? Well, again, there’s no real clear answer. I guess one thing you could ask yourself to clarify the situation is, what do you think of tourism? 

Flora told me that the word on the street is that people are asking for protection from God when talking about Maré. She told me this says a lot about the situation. In other favelas, they would consult the state, try to negotiate with the authorities, but in the case of Maré, they simply appealed to a higher power. It says something when you don’t even try to exercise a solution with the physical parties involved, and instead go directly to some amorphous entity for protection because you really feel there’s not enough time. There’s not enough time for either side to change, not enough reality for anyone to believe it could. It’s as if these lines are permanently etched into the sand and their collision is some inevitable fact of nature. You only hope for a kind aftermath.

Gilberto recently told me that the situation, again, is "very hard". He said the national police and army are planning to move in this week and occupy the favela. I don’t really know how to feel about the whole thing. I’m not politically invested enough to be angry. But I do know that I worry. I worry about the kids that I know there, about the gym shutting operations for a time, worry about the people worrying inside their homes. Part of me always knew it was coming, I guess maybe I wish I could be back in Rio right now. I mean it wouldn’t really make much of a difference if I was in the city. It’s not like I would be in the neighborhood or manage to do anything that was tangibly helpful to anyone that lived there. But I guess if all that's left to do is pray, maybe I think praying a bit closer would mean something.

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