In the next ten years, Rio de Janeiro is going to host both the finals of the World Cup of soccer and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Can the city that coined the word favela (and with it all the connotations of desperation and lawlessness) and the reputation as one of the most crime-ridden cities in the world pull off these massive international events? Certainly, Rio state authorities are doing everything they can to allay international fears and address concerns.
This week I toured a once-infamous Rio favela, Dona Marta, with a representative of the governor of Rio de Janeiro’s cabinet. My impression of the favela that I visited is that there certainly has been progress. We visited one of three police precincts that had been recently established to pacify the informal neighborhood. The one we visited had seven video cameras posted throughout the favela, friendly beat police walking the narrow, twisting stairs that threaded their way among the houses, and a sense of peace, even civility. A success by any standards in what many consider to be the quintessential den of crime and lawlessness.
Unfortunately, it’s only one of over 300 favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The plan is to take each one, one at a time, with a combination of rooting out local drug lords and criminal networks and establishing a system of community policing, providing basic services (such as electricity and social services) to these informal settlements perched on cliffs overlooking the city or islands within the city. By all accounts, including that of former New York City Commissioner Bill Bratton, this is the only way to do it.
But can they do it in time? The task is certainly daunting. In places like Dona Marta they have pacified the city—but even the police captain who commands the precinct in Dona Marta points warily at the other favelas across the valley and acknowledges the difficulties in each one.
The good news is that for now the governor, Sergio Cabral, has a genuine political, social plan. The scope and the geography, though, are daunting, not to mention the institutional complexity of state military and civilian police and federal responsibilities. More than anything, they demonstrate the complex institutional challenges facing Brazilian local authorities, which are the nub of the state problem both in terms of responding, investigating, prosecuting, and monitoring. The efforts I saw today demonstrate real potential. But are they scalable? Rio’s reputation depends on it.
*Christopher Sabatini is Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly and Senior Director of Policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas. He is a regular blogger on AmericasQuarterly.org.