Human Rights Groups Say Brazil’s Policy of Saturation Policing Criminalises Poverty

(IPS) – The policy of a saturation police presence in the favelas or shantytowns that are home to around 20 percent of the population of this Brazilian city is merely a means of criminalising poverty, because it does nothing to address the underlying question of social exclusion, which drives the violence, human rights groups complain.

Rio de Janeiro state Governor Sergio Cabral began a year and a half ago to send Pacification Police Units (UPPs), made up of members of the military police, into the slums to wrest control over the neighbourhoods from drug gangs.

The UPPs “are just one more way to exercise control over the poor,” Patricia Oliveira, a member of the Community Network Against Violence, told IPS.

The activist said the “plan is condemned to fail” because “it is impossible to keep up an armed occupation forever.

“This forms part of Governor Cabral’s zero tolerance plan towards the poor,” said Oliveira, who described the policing strategy as “a copy of the same kind of scheme used in Bogotá,” the capital of Colombia.

Cabral, of the opposition Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), took office in Rio in January 2007 on a tough-on-crime platform, promising to crack down on the drug gangs.

In seven of the favelas that line the hills ringing the city, black-clad special forces are everywhere, as part of the strategy that began to be implemented in December 2008 in the Doña Marta slum.

The seven slums involved are Providencia, in central Rio; Pavão Pavãozinho, wedged between the city’s prime tourist districts of Copacabana and Ipanema; Tabajara on the south side of the city; Doña Marta, in the beachfront neighbourhood of Botafogo; Cidade de Deus (City of God) and Borel in the Barra da Tijuca, a middle-class residential neighbourhood; and Batam in Jacaraepagua, on the west side of the city.

The state government’s aim is to expand the “pacification” plan to 17 favelas by the end of 2010, out of a total of more than 700 in the city.

“In the favelas where the UPPs operate, the cases of police brutality and abuse have increased,” said Oliveira. “If you’re black, poor, dressed like a ‘rapper’ and wearing a cap, the police are going to stop you to find out who you are, where you live and where you work.

“Before, you had to ask the head of the drug gang for permission to do anything; now, you have to go to the local police chief. The right to free expression and circulation is as limited as it was before,” she argued.

Human rights groups also question why the police operations are in the hands of a police force that has a reputation as one of the most violent in the world.

In Brazil, the military police of Rio have the highest number of deaths that are officially registered as the result of armed resistance or firefights with the police.

“And the number of deaths at the hands of the military police has surged since Cabral became governor,” said Camila Ribeiro, head of projects in Justiça Global, a local human rights organisation.

“The people who die in these killings always fit the stereotype: poor black men between the ages of 15 and 30 who live in the favelas,” she told IPS, saying the phenomenon reflected “a policy of extermination and social Darwinism.

“The state Public Security Institute’s statistics show that in the first quarter of 2009, 581 people were killed in confrontations with the police,” a drop with respect to the same period in 2008. More recent figures are not available.

Ribeiro and Oliveira say the UPPs have only been sent in so far to favelas that were controlled by drug gangs, except in the case of Batam, which they say was ruled by “militia members.”

The militias are armed paramilitary groups that promise to keep the favela clear of drug traffickers in exchange for monthly protection payments and control over services like electricity, distribution of cooking gas, pirated cable television feeds, garbage pickup or water.

The militias are made up mainly of off-duty and former police officers, as well as prison guards and firefighters.

“Cabral knows there are politicians suspected of belonging to militias, but he prefers to turn a blind eye,” Oliveira maintained. “Batam is an exception because two journalists (with the O Dia newspaper) were tortured there while investigating the militias.”

Ribeiro believes there are hidden interests behind the police saturation strategy.

According to the activist, “these operations cover up the intention to economically squeeze people out of their neighbourhoods,” because along with the UPPs come the utility companies, to force people to register and pay the same fees that are charged in middle-class and wealthy neighbourhoods, “which the poor simply cannot afford.”

In the favelas, most residents have power or water because they illegally tap into the electrical grid or public water supply.

She said that five of the favelas targeted by the strategy “are located in the city’s poshest neighbourhoods,” where “there is little space for further construction” of upscale residential units.

The pressure for the local residents to move elsewhere is, in her view, “another form of real estate speculation.”

The other two favelas, Batam and Cidade de Deus, are also surrounded by wealthy areas. But the former was included in the stepped-up public security strategy because of the two reporters who were tortured there, and the second because of the visibility the neighbourhood gained from the 2002 film City of God by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles.

Both of them also form part of the area of the city where the installations for the 2016 Olympic Games will be built, and the authorities “need to send out an image of peace and safety in the entire city, but especially in that area,” Ribeiro said.

María Costa Correira da Silva, a community leader in the Borel favela, where a UPP was stationed a little over a month ago, commented to IPS that “there haven’t been any incidents yet in the neighbourhood, although we’re on the alert, because in other communities beatings and arrests of young people who question police authority have increased.”

But in general, Ribeiro admitted, the image of the UPPs among local residents “is positive because they are seen as the lesser evil, after years of being caught in the crossfire between traffickers and the police.”