How far would you go for a better life? Murder, drug dealing and a life expectancy of 21, that’s how far
‘Oh my God, a gun, a gun, it’s a gun’, Paralympian Liesl Tesch recalled. On June 19, two men mugged Liesl and her team official at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro, the host city of the Olympic Games.
Rio has long been a city of crime, with an average of 50,000 murders per year. In particular, the gang-controlled favelas pose a constant safety threat. To improve the security in Rio, the Government must make the favelas a safer place.
According to the Urban Dictionary a favela is ‘a Brazilian ghetto, the toughest neighbourhoods you would ever want to find yourself in. [Such is its reputation that] it makes American ghettos and barrios look tame. Even the police are afraid to enter’. At present, there are over 1,000 favelas in Rio and between 23 to 24 per cent of the population, around 1.5 million people, live inside them. Residents build their huts out of scrap wood, corrugated metals or bricks. The favelas are far from safe though. Drug traffickers dominate 37 per cent of the favelas and the militia comprises 45 per cent.
Historically, ‘favela’ is named after a ‘fast-growing weed’ in Brazil. Rio’s oldest favela, Providência, took shape after the abolition of slavery in 1888, near the port trading enslaved Africans. Since then, homeless freed slaves have been building huts within or outside the outskirts of Rio. Between the 1940s and 1970s, poor rural migrants swarmed the favelas due to poverty and drought. Following the downfall of Communism in Latin America, drug criminals have come to control the favelas, becoming the de facto authority.
To raise the safety level in Rio, the Government launched the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) programme back in 2008. Firstly, this security policy evicts criminals and confiscates drugs and weapons. Secondly, it establishes police stations with policemen guarding the communities. The state Government has set up at least 38 UPPs in Rio’s favelas. However, this policy has turned Rio into a more stratified society. The programme mainly focuses on the wealthy South Zone of Vidigal for instance, and the favelas near Maracanã Stadium. Other favelas remain in the hands of gangsters. While the rate of homicide in the pacified favelas slumped to 9.2 per 100,000, in other places, it reaches 18.8 per 100,000. Moreover, some pacified favelas have even attracted foreigners, pushing up rental prices. Consequently, inhabitants and displaced gangs are forced into the unpacified areas.
For too long violence has troubled the favelas in Rio. Charitable organisation Ibiss found out that out of 32,000 children in Penha, only 4 have not lost a family member due to violence. Crossfire and drug dealing are daily scenes. According to Brazil’s main newspaper O Dia, 40 per cent of the 200 children surveyed have seen an adult using a firearm, with 18 per cent of them having seen this often.
In once instance, the son of politician Alfredo Sirkis experienced the death of his best friend, an undergraduate in his early twenties, who together with his taxi driver were shot dead in a taxi. His sneakers were gone. Even a small robbery can result in deaths. Danger in the favelas threatens everyone daily.
Sadly, the current economic system consolidates the power of the drug mafias. With few sponsored schools in the favelas, teenagers lack decent education needed for securing jobs in the public sector. The teenagers have no alternatives but to join the gangs. Over 15 per cent of Brazilian youth are unemployed. Even though some manage to secure a formal job, four-fifths of them work in low-skilled positions.
With few choices, many opt for the drug trade. If they become drug leaders, they can earn as much as 300,000 dollars a month. This sets the seal on early death with 80 per cent of them dying before turning 21. Ricardo, 21, joined a drugs gang before he was 15. He wanted to get out, telling the the Guardian: ‘I didn’t know what else I could do’.
The police themselves however further exacerbate lethal violence and promote injustice. The high-handed police force disfavours community policing. Out of a given three days’ police training, ‘half of that is shooting practice’, a local resident recalls. Worse still, the police often execute detainees in haste. In 2008, the police admitted that they had killed over 1,180 suspects ‘resisting arrest’. The exclusion of other causes of death dwarfs this number. Aside from that, 90 per cent of murders are unsolved. In other words, residents can hardly seek justice from the police.
Despite the pacification efforts, Rio’s favelas remain dangerous as violence, drug trafficking and injustice stay deeply entrenched in Brazil. To keep them safe, the Government must root out the culture of violence, inherent within gangs and amongst the police, and provide escape routes for trapped teenagers. Perhaps job creation could safely light up the dingy favelas.