The Pacification of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Military Intervention in Schools

The city of Rio de Janeiro’s public safety policy figures prominently among the Brazilian government’s public agenda. It involves flooding specific areas with military police to the point of occupying state schools.

Translation by Alfie Lake

En Español Brasil: La “Pacificación” de Río de Janeiro y la intervención militar en las escuelas

The city of Rio de Janeiro’s public safety policy figures prominently among the Brazilian government’s public agenda. It involves flooding specific areas with military police to the point of occupying state schools if necessary. This is the context in which a dispute on the premises of the favelas’ public schools is taking place, between the controlling police paradigm and that of education as a right and opportunity.

The city of Rio de Janeiro, by assuming its status as a global city, positions itself on the world stage as Latin America’s shop window. The “marvelous city,” chosen as the host of numerous mega-events, has consolidated corporate management of the city. From the memorable Rolling Stones concert in Copacabana in 2006, via the 2013 World Youth Day that brought with it the visit of Pope Francis, to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games sporting mega-events, these events have served as justification for a devastating intervention of the public-private initiative in the reshaping of the city’s urban spaces.

The implementation of a “pacification” policy is the spearhead to begin a process of gentrification in particular favelas of the city, consolidating a tourist corridor in the south of the city. It takes the experience of the system applied in Bogotá and New York, philosophically based on the broken windows theory and with specific military training actions from Israel.  The devising, organization and intelligence work of the pacification policy are carried out by the Security Secretariat of Rio de Janeiro State. Two departments of the Military Police are primarily responsible for its completion: the BOPE Special Operations Battalion and the UPP Police Pacification Units. Under some circumstances the police force also receives the support of the Armed Forces, something that occurred during the occupation of Complexo do Alemão or in the Rocinha favela in 2011.

According to data from Brazil’s Institute of Geography and Statistics, more than 14% of the marvelous city’s inhabitants live in favelas. There are more than 1.5 million people living across 43km2 of informal settlements and the number of favelas reaches almost a thousand, but the eight biggest bring together 40% of all the residents of this type of neighborhood.

The Police Pacification Units (PPUs) created from 2008 onwards – through the emblematic case of the “model favela” of Santa Marta in Botafogo – are considered a “model of community policing.” According to figures from the Periera Pasos Institute, 7 years on from the program’s implementation homicide rates dropped in areas where the PPUs were installed between 2009 and 2012; from 2013 onwards they rose, generating records of new peaks in violence. Data from Nupevi (Nucléo de Pesquisa das Violencias), cited by the researcher Marcos Barreira in the book “Hasta el último hombre,” the PPUs are present in less than 3% of Rio´s more than a thousand favelas, while the military dominate 41.55% and drug traffickers 56%. Admittedly, the PPUs cover 100% of the favelas in the southern part of the city. The PPU create security corridors and protected military areas in areas of high investment: “The west of the city has been practically forgotten and the Baixada Fluminense, which has the highest murder rates in the state, has been completely ignored. The weapons and parallel power have moved inland,” a teacher from a Rocinha school stated.

“Pacification” is an entry point for the market, not for social policies or the answer to serious problems in infrastructure and housing. Even in official statements from Beltrame (the security chief of Rio de Janeiro state), it is stressed that “the benefits of the pacification policy can be seen mainly in tourism, in property prices, and in the arrival of investment.” The pacification policy carries the entry of the market into the favela as a consequence, with the hope that the favela population will ascend to the middle class, or be driven out of the area for good, differentiating the favelas of the south by means of an increase in prices in an advanced process of gentrification. Various NGOs carry out their work by fortifying the “social task” in communities in this way. They go from organizations for alternative tourism (where the area’s school has a role that legitimizes the initiative) to providing information that allows people on low incomes to develop business ventures.

“The bellies of favela women are factories for gangsters,” said Sergio Cabral Filho, the former governor of Rio De Janeiro who had to resign following the massive protests in June 2013. It so happens that different ideas of the subject that resides in the urban periphery lead to the development of diverse political policies. Cabral is the man responsible for the implementation of the PPUs. Pacification is based on the logic of war, a particular method of exercising power, where one of the parties in conflict suppresses the other through the use of violence; it is pacification in confrontation with a view to domination. Pacifying society from this conception assumes that one of the parties presents itself as being apart from the conflict, by presenting a discourse that strives to be considered a universally valid order, a particular form of the organization of the world.

It is what the university professor Carlos Vainer calls city of exception, “a model based on access to public spaces, and urban spaces in general, being controlled. The city of exception does not start with the addition of large-scale events; it begins before that, but it is certainly consolidated with the mega-events and runs the risk of being dragged out, or rather changing all the urban paradigms in one stroke”. Basically, that “city of exception” is characterized by authoritarian military management of urban spaces.

Pacification and school premises

The State Program of Integration in Security was created in the year 2014, the result of an agreement between the Department of Education and the Department of Security through which the PPUs carry out “social action” in the 38 communities they can be found in, using schools as a foundation for action. In this way, for example, “pacifying” police are tasked with “tracking” school absenteeism, in addition to guaranteeing “safety” in schools through their presence in day-to-day school life.

Cultural, sporting and music events can be seen in publicity for the police’s “closeness to the community” action, widely disseminated across the media. Regarding the PPUs’ communitarian character, Beltran states that “in the sphere of social action, the main focus will be schools.” Social action, aimed directly at constructing hegemony, sometimes gains entry into schools through school support in the majority of favelas. In others, the PPUs operate directly within schools buildings, occupying their physical facilities.

While being interviewed about the presence of the police in the favela, the mother of a Rocinha school pupil unleashes her opinion: “That idea of the PPUs controlling school absenteeism is absurd. And what happens when my son skips class? Do they give him a slap? What training does the military police have to deal with the education of our children? We want more kindergartens, more health centers, more social projects. Now that everyone can see that this security plan is a failure, our public safety secretary comes and says that he’s on his own. The PPU is a policy of social control and exterminating the poor, the only people who can’t see that are people who don’t want to.”

A study carried out by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation researcher Joana Monteiro declared that pupils in schools located in “areas of risk” (including PPU areas) achieve lower grades in tests, something that figures confirm. At least in the results referring to the Caic Theophilo de Souze Pinto state school in Complexo do Alemão, 9th grade students obtained low grades. During the two years that the school lived with the presence of the PPU on its premises it did not reach state averages.

The Complexo do Alemão Case

In 2012, after having come under fierce attack in the precarious container from which the Nova Brasilia PPU operated in, the group of favelas called El Alemão, the security secretary made the decision to set up the PPU base in the playground of the school in the favela.

The presence of the military police in the Theophilo de Souza Pinto school brought with it a series of conflicts in daily school life, which ranged from patrols during school arrival and leaving times and searching students in the entrance of the school building or on their way to school, to gun shots in front of the school. 820 pupils currently study at the school; before the installation of the PPU base, the school was able to double the numbers of enrolled students. The drop-out rate is alarming.

Parents of pupils, students and teachers say that the military police frequently use the inside of the school to exchange shots with gangs of drug dealers, and it has happened that students have been caught in the line of fire. A series of declarations can serve to illustrate the situation in the school and those shown below were obtained during the tragic month of April 2015 in the Complexo area, which saw a number of deaths caused by stray bullets that affected the population, among them the symbolic case of Eduardo, a 10 year-old boy.

Views regarding the pacification policies:

“My beloved school, mistreated by the disdain of the state government. In accordance with the “pacification” dictatorship in Complexo, the school is a haven for vagabonds, and their scheming workers.” – A female teacher in Complexo do Alemão.

“This school went to the dogs when the military base moved in.” – The mother of a pupil.

“The conspicuous presence of heavily armed police officers inside the school puts the entire school community at risk, violates teaching principles and considerably limits the development of education. For us teachers, today the problem of violence is the presence of the PPU in the school.” – A statement from the SEPE, the state union for education professionals.

“Neighborhood patrols take place at the same time as the beginning and end of the school day. I say that they are using the children as shields, they are wrong. With my taxes I help to pay for the wages and weapons of the same people that are killing my neighborhood friends! Before it was common to see kites and children running, nowadays here no-one runs because they will get shot in the back. And those little ones have to see the same police officers in the school!”  – Statement from a neighbor that is part of the favela organizations.

Nevertheless, from the corridors of power declarations are made like those of the state education secretary, who declared: “the presence of the police unit brought no harm to the school. The complaints are not representative of the majority of teachers and pupils.”

On May 4th, 2015 and arising from the community’s neighbor organization, a public hearing in the school playground was held with committees from the Rio de Janeiro State’s Legislative Assembly, and attended by several members of parliament and leaders from the security forces. After a healthy exchange, the removal of the PPU from school premises was laid out.

Statements from the May 4th public hearing:

“The school façade is covered with bullet marks, next to the chair in the director’s office there are holes made by rifle bullets. What the presence of the PPU base did to that school is beyond question.” – Statement from the PSOL member of parliament Marcelo Freixo.

“That is incompatible with the teaching process. You have to choose: either the school, or the PPU.” – Statement from the teacher chosen to speak to represent the collective.

The students’ union did not dare to participate in the hearing because by exposing themselves, their security could not be guaranteed. They left a letter, which was read out by teachers on May 4th and said: “Our goal is to re-establish peace in our place of study, and bring back the projects that we lost so that the school would be neutral territory in this conflict, just as it was 3 years ago.”

Education for all, and the strategy of inclusion for segregation

Compulsory secondary education has already been sanctioned in Argentina and Mexico, and is on the rise in many South American countries. In Brazil, Constitutional Amendment 59 gave the year 2016 as the deadline for the implementation of obligatory basic education until the age of 17. In particular in Rio de Janeiro, the “Marvelous City”, a territorial dispute has resumed in the schools of the periphery. Constitutional Amendment 59 was passed in November 2009 and dictates that all Brazilian teaching systems must be adapted in order to guarantee 14 years of free school education. That policy that strains the old selective mandate of secondary education masks a strategy to “incorporate to segregate.”

Schools in the center of large cities cannot be spoken of in the same terms as schools in the periphery. Could anyone imagine these police events in a private school in the noble neighborhoods of the Marvelous City? The functions of schools in the center and schools in the periphery are not the same. The different educational possibilities, on top of the march of the privatization of education, lead to the consolidation of various school trajectories that bring about the confinement of the different social sectors in institutions that are socially and culturally homogeneous. It is in this way that the current hegemonic order to assimilate the entire population in public schools with compromising educational projects, and diversifying educational possibilities according to social sectors, makes the segregation projected in the planned city model more effective. From childhood, a fragmented world where the populace lives parallel lives that rarely meet; it signs up to the construction of a fragmented world where the population lives parallel lives.

In this upside down world, the role of schools in the periphery is inverted. Where the seeds of hope for a transformation through education should sprout, the presence of police consolidates the controlling model that uses violence and constant repression. Favorable to the development of capital and the structuring of the model city, the policy of “pacification” in Latin America is systematically violating the rights of the people again.

In any case, resistance always endures, and under the heavy stone of the times the flower is again giving us its scandal. Community organizations have been disputing their territory. Public schools, despite an uneven balance of power, have come to be the places of greatest legitimacy for the participation of fathers, mothers, students and teachers; schools are still places for workers to meet and organize, to express with dignity the anger of daily life, and to collectively construct alternatives.

Diego Ferrari is a social worker, human rights activist and member of the Filhos e netos por Memoria Verdade e Justiça en Rio de Janeiro (Children and Grandchildren for Truth, Memory and Justice in Rio de Janeiro) group. He has participated in social movements such as the Dario Santillán Popular Front in Argentina, and contributed as Political Teaching Coordinator in the ENFF of Brazil´s Landless Workers Movement, Movimiento Sin Tierra.