Thursday, June 28, 2007

More Violence in the Favelas

Today, over 1300 military police officers invaded one of the larger favelas in the northern part of Rio, allegedly killing 19 people in their ongoing version of the "war on drugs". (It's worth noting the MP here is simply armed, militarized police; it is not the police of the military in the way that American MPs are). The number of dead has wavered back and forth in the media throughout the day, though most accounts now seem to be settling on 19, including 13 alleged traficantes, and it seems there were 6 more dead. News reports here claim that the six were weak links in the traficantes' chain that the traficantes themselves killed. The police occupied the favela and found a signifiant weapons caché near the top of the favela (most all the favelas in Rio are spread out along the mountains and hillsides that pop up in the city).

The media are declaring the move a huge success, and the use of 1300 military police officers is certainly unprecedented. To be honest, I'm not quite sure who has decided to step up the efforts against the favelas so fiercely. Unlike in the U.S., the governors of the states in Brazil and the president are much more aligned, and work together far more here than in the U.S. Thus, this could be an order coming from Lula himself, from the military, or from Rio's governor. I'm not really sure what they hope to accomplish with this. Arguments that it's not about the upcoming Pan-American games may be true, as the state has increased pressure on druglords in the favelas since a string of violence at the end of last year temporarily shocked the city. However, such arguments may be false, though, since the efforts have really increased in the last few weeks.

Unfortunately, I doubt today's capture of arms and the dead of 13 "alleged" traficantes (I've commented before on how the media uses that term indiscriminately to dehumanize favelados). The police cannot stay in the favela forever. As soon as they leave, it is probable that either some other members of this favela (Alemão) will fill in the previous traficantes' void, or that some neighboring favelas' traficantes may try to move in on the turf (turf wars between favelas and their traficantes are very real in Rio).

As is often the case, the poor majority of favelados who simply live there with little economic recourse are still the victims in all of this. The occupation in the name of crime-fighting has left many innocents wounded in the crossfire and unable to return to their homes. Even worse, as a precursor to today's action, police throughout the city have been concentrating at the entrances to favelas and strip-searching "suspects", yet generally targeting the elderly and the children residents of the favelas. I'm not going to pretend that it's impossible that these groups, and particularly teens, could be used to smuggle drugs or arms, but the fact that pre-teen children and the elderly are being arbitrarily strip-searched when they try to return home is inexcusable.

Yet, once again, Rio doesn't seem particularly upset by this. The media refers to the actions ("Hurricane 1" and "Hurricane 2" - all good military maneuvers must have their names) as simple "searches" of those going into the favelas, reducing the severity by neglecting to mention the searches involve stripping. Only through a recent conversation my wife had with the main contact for human rights in Rio did I learn of the severity of the searches. Yet this doesn't make the news. Instead, there are some benign "searches" vaguely referenced in the media, buried deep in the news, yet when 13 traficantes and 6 alleged associates are dead, the media here is trumpeting the good news. All the while, innocent residents of the favelas continue to suffer and be ignored, as has been the case too often. Until Brazil can address the issues of poverty and the obscene gap in wages here, the favelas, and the comments they make about this country in terms of equality and race, will never go away.