Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Militias in Rio's Favelas

BBC News ran a very good report about militias in the favelas this week. I've commented before on how corrupt police are often extorting civilians and using violence against them when the favelados speak out, sometimes in an extremely gruesome fashion, and any arrests against police corruption strike me more as an effort to look like the police are trying to clean up, rather than any real effort at reform. In this light, the BBC article is one of the best I've seen yet in really getting into the details of how militias (which, as the article alludes to, are generally corrupt officers and ex-cops trying to make extra money in the favelas) operate, and the consequences of their presence.

There are several comments I'd like to make on this. First, the people interviewed in the article (and the article itself) make it seem as though it's a question of drug lords vs. militias, but it's not so simple. Often times, these militias end up becoming involved in the drug trade too, unable to deny the lure of the money they can make. They have even gotten in turf wars with drug dealers in other favelas in the past. Likewise, drug gangs also offer health services, internet, and "protection" to the favelados, sometimes (though not always) as extortion. So presuming that it's an "either/or" proposition distorts a much more complex dynamic involving "protection" and the drug trade.

Secondly, you see rhetoric throughout the article, both from those for and against the militias, that the state can't exercise its control in the favelas, and this fact either justifies or explains the presence of the militias, depending on which side of the argument one falls. However, I really don't see how this is the case, and nobody offers a good explanation of why the state can't. Rather, I think the state simply doesn't. Although there have been some changes in administration under Sérgio Cabral, governors in Rio (and it is more their jurisdiction than the federal government's) have tended to offer no social services for the favelas (the only exception to this being Leonel Brizola, who worked heavily on infrastructure such as roads, electricity, plumbing, and schools in the favelas in his two terms as governor from 1983-1987 and 1991-1994). At best, governors pop up in the favelas when it is election season to act like they "care," but afterwards, it's usually a mixture of ignoring the social needs of the favelados and sending in the police to tackle the drug gangs. Neither of these approaches really shows any strong effort of the state to effect change, nor do they explain why the state "can't." As Brizola's administration and recent concerted efforts to follow up police action with social programs in São Paulo demonstrate, it's not that the state can't; it's that the state chooses not to.

Thirdly, given that the militias are already basically extorting favelados, suffice to say that I find politician Jair Bolsonaro's proposal in that the state should suport them...less than satisfactory. For all of the absurdities within the argument (ignoring the extortion, believing militias automatically reduce violence in all situations, the fact that militias don't really bring any significant social changes to the favelas), perhaps the most ridiculous is the argument that the state should support the militias because of the rhetoric above that it can't patrol the favelas itself. If the state has the money to support the militias, why not just fund your own state employees to establish control in the favelas?

Finally, I think the treatment of BOPE is problematic. The article cites residents who live in the Tavares Bastos favela, which is right next to the BOPE elite police headquarters, as speaking highly of what BOPE has done for them. While the proximity of BOPE no doubt has an effect, both the residents of Tavares Bastos and the article more broadly make its eem as though BOPE is a great force of change, not subject to the problems of the regular police, an image further propagated in the recent film Tropa de Elite, and as both Venha Futuro and I have commented, that is far from the case.

Overall, though, the article is one of the first and best I've seen at dealing with the militias in the favelas, an overall underdiscussed subject. I suspect the militias don't come up as much for many reasons (they don't fit neatly within the "drug lords-vs.-noble cops" narrative; they undermine the notion that the problems in the favelas are due only to poverty, race, or the drug gangs; nobody in Brazil knows how to or is willing to deal with the widespread social problems that result in cops going crooked; etc). It's really good to see BBC dealing with it, particularly using the terms they use ("take over;" "kind of dictatorship"), and it's really worth reading.