Thursday, October 6, 2016


The Good, the Bad and the Innocent of Rio de Janeiro’s favela

By: Sam Campbell

Produced and Edited By: Charlie Hatch

The 2016 Summer Olympics brought back the glitz that has long characterized Brazil. At the same time, it distracted the world from an issue of national importance: are the favelas truly safer because of UPP?

The UPP, or Pacifying Police Unit, is a division of Rio de Janeiro’s police operating in the city’s most treacherous neighborhoods. It has two primary objectives: first, it must wrest control of the favelas from known gangs and drug traffickers. Second, it must integrate the neighborhood back into society.

John Teles, 26-year native of Santa Teresa, has since moved out of the favela. “Some time ago it looked like everything [was] getting better because the UPP seemed to be working well,” he said. His opinion changed due to the lingering criminal presence.

“The truth is, [the gangs] never left the favelas and the UPP never worked how they should,” he said. “I go there once in every two weeks, and there is always one of them, the outlaw guys or the police.”
“I saw by myself in many situation, both were there at the same time.”
Instability worsened after the UPP began operations. “When I lived there, we felt like something was about to happen,” Teles said. Even now, “sometimes crossfires just happen out of the blue.”
A member of the national police in the district of Lima.
Photo by Zhu (from Flickr Commons)
These crossfires result in casualties on both sides. But they leave in their wake a slew of innocent ones that were never involved.
Giselle Moreira, a clinic worker in the favela of Jacarezinho, said “it always has crossfire between police and drug traffickers.” Stray bullets already wounded a bystander in the six months she has worked there.
According to a 2015 article from the New York Times, a police officer’s gunfire caused the death of 10-year old Eduardo de Jesus. “The fury of Eduardo’s death will fade without producing many significant shifts in policing methods.” This is, “if previous killings of children by the police are any indication.”
Vanessa Andrade, Chief of UPP’s Press Office, said, “In the first 7 months of 2016, the actions performed by [UPP] resulted in the arrest of 860 adults and 336 adolescents.”* After repeated attempts of contact, the police departments of Rio declined further comment.
The presence of both powers presents frightening volatility. “People are afraid to suffer some kind of violence in their day-to-day activities,” said Thaís Oliveira, a native of Ilha do Governador.
Oliveira lives in the north zone of Rio. On her way to work, she passes three of the city’s most notorious favelas, Maré, Cidade de Deus and Farmanguinhos.
“It happens more often than I think,” she said. Oliveira explained that there is a public rejection of the police, created from “barbarities committed by some police officers, including torture and executions of innocent.”
The police construe innocent casualties to be suspicious characters, said Dayana Seiblitz, a former resident of Copacabana. Because the police “just pick up some persons and they just threaten them to get information,” she said. “They are replacing the bad people in the favelas.”
“So I don’t know who to trust.”
And similar to the situation in the U.S. with instances of police violence against African-Americans, Seiblitz said they are doing the same. “Black, young and basically men, and teenagers,” she said. “This is basically what they look for.”
Amnesty International outlined definitive proof of targeting of black men by police in Rio. 99.5 percent of those killed by police intervention were men, and 79 percent were black.
According to the 2010 census, Over 50 percent of Brazil’s population is of African descent, which is perhaps the cause for its seemingly underserved reputation as being one of the most color-blind societies.
Despite bias from law enforcement, however, perceived social discrimination is very low. “I mean, this is part of [American] vocabulary now: ‘Oh, this black guy…this white guy,’ you guys say it a lot,” Seiblitz said. “But here, we don’t.”
The lack of verbal distinction between races is a symbolic equality that makes the actions of the police appear even stranger, especially compared to an American public who sees verbal aggression towards blacks every day.
Seiblitz, who now lives in the south zone of Brazil, is quick to clarify the difference in perspective, given her wealthy upbringing. She admitted, “The police works for people like me…not the poorest people.”
The UPP, developed in 2008, was meant as a permanent solution to decades of unsuccessful police raids. Despite some positive local news coverage claiming its effectiveness, public perception of the UPP dwindles. And why?
Since its first installment eight years ago, Brazilians heard waves of optimism, encouraged by the government’s Public Security Institute (ISP). In its historical report on “homicide by opposition to police intervention,” municipal records show deaths by this cause peaked in 2007, falling just after UPP’s implementation.
Historical series of the murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants, Municipality of Rio de Janeiro.” From Brazil’s Institute of Public Security 
Local media readily adopted statistical vindication of the UPP. Even English-written publications like The Rio Times echoed that the UPP must be working. The difference between what is nationally reported, and what is actually felt by inhabitants could be to blame on the lack of Brazilian media integrity.
In terms of press freedom, residents’ claims might be substantiated. Reporters Without Borders ranks Brazil 104 out of 180 countries, attributing part to a very concentrated media ownership, “especially in the hands of big industrial families that are often too close with the political class.”
It’s worth noting the political inconvenience that would follow a local press report on shootouts not on the soccer field.
“I am sure we don’t know everything that happens,” Seiblitz said. “What we see in the news is just a little tiny part of what is really going on in the favelas.”
But natives to these favelas know. They are stuck between the criminals they know they shouldn’t trust, and the cops they feel they cannot.

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