Doubts over Brazil's 'pacification' strategy

Claire De Oliveira Neto
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A woman holds a poster arguing a shoot in the head is not a mistake, during the "march for peace" at Rio de Janeiro's Alemao favela on April 4, 2015 to protest the death of a ten-year-old boy, shot dead by the police

A woman holds a poster arguing a shoot in the head is not a mistake, during the "march for peace" at Rio de Janeiro's Alemao favela on April 4, 2015 to protest the death of a ten-year-old boy, shot dead by the police (AFP Photo/Christophe Simon)

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Fresh violence in Rio's slums has led to growing doubts over the effectiveness of Brazil's seven-year-old strategy of "pacifying" districts in thrall to gangs and drug traffickers.

After the country won the right to stage last year's World Cup and next year's Rio Olympics, city authorities began to beef up police numbers in the "favelas" -- as its slums are known.

But after the World Cup and as the Olympics draw nearer, outbreaks of violent unrest are forcing a rethink of a strategy which experts say is not sufficiently well thought out for the long term.

"We are going to step up, in bolstering police numbers," Rio state governor Luiz Fernando Pezao said Sunday in announcing the "reoccupation" of the Alemao group of Rio favelas.

But last week's shooting dead by a policeman of a 10-year-old boy in Alemao, home to some 70,000 people in the north of the city, has boosted calls for a different strategy.

Authorities are determined to to crack down on crime ahead of the Olympics, which start on August 5 next year

To date, they have deployed 38 police units in 264 impoverished, crime-hit neighborhoods housing more than a million people to "pacify" them.

But the shooting of Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira, killed outside his house, has whipped up a storm of protest against the police.

Fatal shootings are more rare than before the police moved in -- yet the past three months have seen an upsurge of violence.

Three people were killed and 22 wounded by stray bullets in January as gang warfare surged in Alemao and other large favelas, such as Mare near Rio's international airport.

- Fear, horror -

"Fear and horror are constant. We are caught in the crossfire every day as we are stuck in the middle of a game of cat and mouse," one Alemao resident, Zaquel Nunes, told AFP.

Nunes witnessed last week's violence and tried to come to the aid of a neighbor, a woman who died from gunshot wounds on the way to hospital.

Since January, 40 people have died in Rio state in similar incidents.

"This is a difficult time but we are not going to back to how things were seven years ago," said Major Marcelo Cobrage, coordinator of the Police Pacification Units or UPPs.

"It is impossible to prevent stray bullets and it is the traffickers who are using the population as shields amid the shooting," he told AFP.

"The police will not withdraw and we shall call for collaboration with the population, so that they tell us where the traffickers and their guns and drugs are."

But Ignacio Cano, an expert on crime and violence at Rio University, told AFP he doubted the strategy could work long term.

"This stronger occupation can reduce the amount shooting in the short term but these are special operations reinforcements which cannot continue indefinitely," Cano told AFP. "Instead, we need a program which bolsters community relations."

Cano also criticized what he termed the military mindset of politicians and the police and voiced the view that "for them, to pull out would be a defeat."

Sociologist Michel Misse from Rio's Federal University also has doubts.

"Many police think the UPP program will not hold in the long term and the favela residents think they will not stay beyond the Olympics," said Misse.

- Dealing pays -

Misse said traffickers chose the drugs trade because it pays better than other options.

"The attraction to youngsters is very great, not just because of the money but for the gang lifestyle of adventure and danger," Misse said.

"Some police close their eyes to drug dealing."

Rio University anthropologist Alba Zaluar said that "with pacification, the large favelas lost money, prestige and power" as the traffickers saw much of their terrain seized.

But Zaluar added that widespread social unrest ahead of the World Cup gave traffickers a chance to regain lost ground as police struggled to respond -- and the sometimes heavy-handed response cost the police public support.

Zaluar urged the authorities to pay more serious attention to how weapons get into the slums in the first place.