Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Rio, the Olympic City, Is a Hub for Progress in Brazil

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If you walk today through Complexo do Alemão—an enormous Rio de Janeiro shantytown, or favela, that was once the frequent scene of gun battles—you can see the changes.  Last Christmas eve, the Brazilian Symphony performed a classical music concert in the community that, until recently, was so dangerous that police were afraid to enter it. People in the neighborhood, many of whom had never been to a concert before, were delighted.

To reach the neighborhood, you can now take the newly-installed cable car that resembles a gondola at an Alpine ski resort. Not only does it spare you the long climb in hot December weather—it offers a terrific view high above the 3.5 square kilometer neighborhood where 69,000 people live. The glass window reveals a giant and densely populated favela composed of poor houses unevenly distributed along narrow streets and small corridors. It is a unique and complex human map of haphazard paths and supply lines for water, electricity and gas.

The new cable car—which cost the Brazilian public $105 million—is part of the Brazilian federal government’s Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (Growth Acceleration Program—PAC), a huge urbanization project that has taken place in Rio’s poor communities. The cable car was constructed to make Complexo do Alemão more accessible. “The lift is a blessing for the ones who live at the top of the community. Now we feel free,” said Teresinha Maria de Oliveira, a washerwoman who has lived in the favela for decades.

The government has also focused on housing, public health and sanitation, and improvements in these areas are clearly seen by anyone who visits Complexo do Alemão. Recently constructed apartment buildings, schools and health centers have changed the image of a place that for 30 years had been a living hell. But violence and fear are still powerful memories for most residents.

“We never knew when the conflicts would start,” remembered Mrs. Oliveira about the era when armed drug dealers dominated the neighborhood. “My sons couldn’t study. It was too dangerous to take them to school during the shootings between police and gangs,” she said.From Complexo do Alemão, criminals dispatched orders to set fire to vehicles and threaten people in the city, as witnessed in the last days of November 2010, when a series of arson attacks destroyed 100 cars. Local vendors shut down shops and followed the drug lords’ rules, fearing reprisals.

But the authorities’ counterattack against criminality soon followed. On November 25, 2010, six armored vehicles from the Brazilian Marines entered Vila Cruzeiro in Penha neighborhood, supported by military and police troops. The action was broadcast live on television for six hours and the whole country witnessed the drama—including the escape of almost 200 criminals into the surrounding woods. Three days later, the armed forces occupied the neighboring Complexo do Alemão, ending an era of terror. During the following days, 43 tons of marijuana and 230 kilos of cocaine were confiscated in those areas.

“After the pacification program, we are in heaven,” celebrated Teresinha Oliveira. “We don’t hear shootings anymore, people can be outside safely during night time. Everybody here is happy now.”

Rio is an example of how different levels of power may work together to address serious problems. For the first time in years, the city, state and federal governments are allied to promote change and to prepare Rio for the future. Security and the marked drop in crime has become a topic of daily discussion in a city where 22 percent of the population lives in more than a thousand slums. Addressing this problem has become one of the government’s top priorities as the country gears up to host the 2014 World Cupand the 2016 Olympics—a first for South America.        

Rio has seen a crackdown on violence and disorder, as well as a complete transformation of the favelas with urbanization projects. After decades of a war on drugs, a new plan has emerged to improve social justice and reinstall public services, raising the quality of life of Rio’s poorest citizens.

In order to promote development, citizenship and sustainable peace in Rio’s poor communities, City Hall has implemented a program with three main objectives: improvement of infrastructure and housing, conflict resolution and local economic development.

Thiago Ventura, a young resident of Complexo do Alemão, has witnessed the changes. He was selected for a fellows program at Globo Television that recruits youth from the favelas to report on its local news show. As a resident of the community, Ventura now has a chance to describe what life was really like there. “It’s a victory having a local reporter expose the community’s problems without interference from the gangs.”

In 2002, Globo Television lost one of its best investigative reporters, Tim Lopes—who was murdered while investigating child prostitution in clubs run by traffickers in Complexo do Alemão. After this tragic episode, many journalists decided it was too dangerous to work in the favelas. Just a few continued reporting there, risking their lives to break the severe law of silence.

“My friends wouldn’t come to visit me at Alemão; it was too dangerous,” Ventura said. During the reign of criminal gangs, killings were common in the neighborhood. “I used to see the drug soldiers walking in front of my house, carrying rifles. Once, I saw one of them open fire with his machine gun, killing a teenager.” Ventura also has stories about friends he lost. “One of them, in debt with the traffickers, was forced to snort cocaine until he died.”

Inside the cable car, while admiring the splendid view of Guanabara Bay and the mountains of Rio on the horizon, Ventura talked about the future: “The infrastructure in the community is better now; we have more schools and social assistance. It is possible to believe in a good future. In ten years, children here will have opportunities other than the ones the traffickers had, and people will understand that crime is not a good choice.” 

The Rio de Janeiro State Government security plan has installed 28 Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (Pacifying Police Units—UPPs), bringing a permanent community police presence to the favelas for the last four years. About 370,000 residents have directly benefited, and almost one million people in the neighboring regions have also been affected. There will be 40 UPPs installed in Rio in time for the 2014 World Cup.

“The idea is simple: to reestablish control over territories lost to drug traffickers,” explained Rio de Janeiro Chief of Police José Mariano Beltrame, also State Secretary of Security. “Drug trafficking, militias—all crimes—reside in the absence of the State. The presence of the police is just a starting point, a basic condition to reestablishing social services and boosting economic development.”

“We are very optimistic,” said Ventura, who believes that the World Cup and the Olympics will give visibility to the changes in the city and Complexo do Alemão. “I haven’t heard of a shooting for months; before, it was every day. You still can see small-scale drug commerce, but the gangs do not dominate the territory anymore” he adds. For Ventura, a new era has arrived in which meets the neighbrohood’s basic infrastructure needs—such as the asphalt that has just been put on his street.

 “Now we have social services, doctors 24 hours, physical and social activities for the old, courses and more professional opportunities for the youth. Quality of life has improved a lot here,” said Maria da Penha da Silva, another resident of Complexo do Alemão.

The first Pacifying Police Unit was installed in December 2008 in the favela of Dona Marta—the scene of Michael Jackson’s video clip “They Don’t Care About Us.” Today, with the gangs gone, tourists are everywhere. Almost all return home with a picture of themselves beside a statue of the King of Pop, which stands at the top of the hill.

The favelas have grown up right next to very exclusive areas in Rio’s prosperous Zona Sul, or Southern Zone. The residents of Rocinha—the biggest favela in the country with 70,000 inhabitants—have an average monthly income of $288, while their neighbors in nearby São Conrado earn ten times more, according to the 2010 Census.

But the favelas are also the source of carnival, samba and good food, and have always attracted tourists. What is different now is that visitors can walk freely through the favelas. Mangueira, the favela where one of the most traditional Rio samba schools was born, also has a UPP. Launched in November 2011, this police unit forms a security circle around Maracanã Stadium, the stage of the World Cup finals. Six hundred thousand people are expected for the World Cup.

The residents are the ones who benefit the most from the police presence in the favelas. Just days after the police invasion in 2011, sanitation workers picked up more than 280 tons of garbage in Rocinha. In the past, it had been too dangerous for clean-up crews to work there. Before November 2011, traffickers selling drugs in the favela used to make half a million dollars per month. Today, young people that worked for the dealers are being recruited to go back to school.

The community is also slowly starting to impose regulations. According to the energy company Luz (Light), the illegal use of electricity has been reduced by 90 percent since the police occupation. With the end of the drug lord era—when criminals used to provide the population with illegal services such as pirated cable TV—public and private banks have finally been able to enter Rocinha. When the first bank vehicle transporting money approached the community, the only armored trucks residents had seen before were those driven by the police. According to the Serviço de Apoio às Micro e Pequenas Empresas (Support Service for Micro and Small Enterprises—SEBRAE), 90 percent of businesses in Rocinha before November 2011 were informal. However, just a few months after the pacification, almost $1 million in microcredit was granted to entrepreneurs who opted to legalize their businesses.

According to polls, many favela residents view the UPPs favorably. A survey conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Social Research (IPBS) in January 2010 revealed that most residents of poor communities approved of the presence of the Pacifying Police Units. Ninety-three percent of people polled in occupied favelas considered their neighbrorhood safe or very safe, compared to 5 percent who thought the opposite. 

Crime statistics also illustrate the changes that have taken place in communities provided with the special police units. According to the Secretary of Security of Rio de Janeiro, there was a 34 percent reduction in the number of homicides in Rio and a 21 percent reduction in robberies between 2007 and 2012. The number of prisoners has risen 84 percent.

The National Map of Violence, a federal ranking of Brazilian states based on data from the Ministry of Health, also shows improvements in the security of the state of Rio de Janeiro. The incidence of homicides in the state fell 20 percent between 2000 and 2010.     

In a way, Rio has become a hub for progress that perfectly represents the transformation that Brazil is undergoing. These mega-sporting events are a matter of great pride for Brazilians, but they also mean international recognition for all the economic and social progress the country has made in the last decade.

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