On a cloudy afternoon in late August Joanna Darck heard shots ringing through her favela in Rio de Janeiro. She quickly grabbed her 11-month-old baby, Isabella, and sat on a mattress on her kitchen floor. She placed her crying baby on her lap and waited for the gunfire to die down.
The commotion rattling down the alleys erupted into her home when police officers kicked in her front door and pointed a gun at her head. “Worst minutes of my life,” she recalls. Once the police officers realized it was just Joanna and her baby in the house they quickly left.
Police operations like this one have been a common occurrence in Rio de Janeiro’s more than 1,000 favelas since 2008. A little over a year after Brazil won the FIFA World Cup bid for 2014, law enforcement entities known as Police Pacification Units (UPP per its Portuguese acronym) started the process of pacification. Police forces entered favelas, engaged in shootouts with drug traffickers, and more often than not, ended up withdrawing.
Officials in Brazil once saw the Olympics, and the 2014 World Cup, as an opportunity to give the economy a boost and force the government to clean up some of its longstanding problems, including public security in favelas. But as the spotlight turns away, it’s become clear that the flashy event didn’t do any good for the country’s most marginalized citizens and it in fact may have made matters worse.
Now that Rio’s mega events are gone, the economy is predicted to continue to shrink by 4.3 percent amid a recession and a political crisis fueled by rampant corruption. This turmoil has left favela residents fearing the future and the role police operations will play in their daily lives.
The UPP has 38 police posts scattered among various favelas. In March 2016, as a result of a 32 percent budget cut, plans for new UPP posts were shut down, including in Joanna’s favela of Maré. Favela residents were pleased, but it didn’t stop police intervention. Shootings are still being reported and the number of deaths at the hands of police continues to grow. According to Human Rights Watch, Rio de Janeiro state police killed more than 645 people in 2015, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2013.
Maré is one of the largest favela complexes in Rio de Janeiro. It is made up of 16 favelas that extend from the Red Line freeway all the way up a smattering of Rio’s hallmark hillsides. Maré is home to about 140,000 cariocas and has long been an unwilling and difficult target for police pacification. Mostly because of size and territorial claims by existing drug gangs.
On the last Sunday of March 2014, three months before the World Cup kicked off in Brazil, Police Special Operation Batallions (BOPE per its Portuguese acronym) entered Maré in an attempt to pacify the favela. Military tanks rolled in and soldiers armed with guns in one hand and collective warrants issued by the courts in the other, entered homes throughout the favela.
Maré was under military occupation for a large part of 2014 when the World Cup brought the media spotlight to major Brazilian cities. Residents feared that the Olympics would draw a similar military occupation, but instead dealt with increased police operations.
According to Amnesty International’s report on violence and police operations during the Olympics, Maré, along with a few other favelas, was disproportionately targeted and resulted in several civilian deaths. On June 23rd alone three Maré residents were killed in a civil police operation.
Thais Cavalcante is a young community journalist based in Maré where she was born and raised. She keeps diligent track of violations in her community and noted a constant police presence starting in June all the way through August. “People were killed by the military police and security forces,” she says.
The problem, Thais says, is twofold. On the one hand, investment in public safety has been higher than in health and education. “They insist on spending money to repress the people and at the same time time invest less in them,” she says. “This is visible in the favelas, not the rich neighborhoods.”
On the other hand, she argues it is a problem of public perception. Many Brazilians watching television credit the armed forces for pacifying favelas, but Thais believes this is a skewed view. “The armed forces kill and hide the danger they pose within community spaces,” she says. “It is in service of a public policy of false security.”
Mauro Pereira, a Maré resident for the last eight years, agrees. “When the police comes into the community it is never to protects us,” Mauro he says.”They come in to oppress us.”
Mauro is an IT specialist who has had to miss work on several occasions because police shootings were taking place on a neighboring street. When he hears bullets fly he lays low to the ground, away from windows and doors. “It is a sad reality,” he says.
And while local journalists like Thaís believe that now that the Olympics are over things are slowly changing most residents remain skeptical. “Nothing will change,” says Mauro. “Unfortunately, this is our reality.”