Sunday, January 11, 2009

New Police Tactics in Rio's Favelas - Will They Be Successful?

A year ago, I offered some comments on the major shift Sao Paulo police had employed in their efforts to combat drug trafficking in the favelas. Within that shift, there were two keystones, one tactical (a more concentrated effort to combat just the drug dealers, rather than going into the favelas with guns blazing), and one policy-based (establishing a stronger state presence in the favelas via infrastructure and social programs to combat the return of trafficking once the police left). At the time, I also commented that Sao Paulo's approach offered at least some actual examples of how the Rio police could perhaps better undertake their own efforts in the favelas.

Well, it seems that the Rio police actually are finally trying to address the issue as well in two separate favelas:

The police have regularly launched large operations in Brazil's favelas, or slums, in their battle against drug gangs over the years, but authorities say the occupation of Santa Marta, a relatively small, contained neighborhood, is part of a new approach, a pilot project for the future of crime fighting in this violent city. Brazilian police officers are attempting counterinsurgency tactics similar to those used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq -- setting up small bases occupied around the clock inside violent neighborhoods, developing intelligence by living among their adversaries, and using government funds to rebuild broken areas and generate goodwill.
While in some ways, I'd welcome any shift away from entering favelas with guns blazing only to leave a few days later claiming the victory of a couple of dozen dead "traficantes," I'm not particularly sure following the U.S. model in Iraq is the guarantor of success. Suffice to say, the results in the Santa Marta (and Cidade de Deus, another site of new tactics) have been mixed. Some people in Santa Marta are satisfied with the police presence:
Barreto, 44, was lifting sacks of cement alongside several other construction workers employed by the state government to build some 50 sturdy houses to replace the decrepit wood shacks. "I think things are better now. People are feeling safer after the police occupation," he said.
The outstanding thing about this to me is not that the police efforts seem to be somewhat successful in driving some of the drug rings out; this happens often, only for the traffickers to return when the police leave the favelas. What's particularly notable here is the fact that the government was helping to build nicer houses for the residents, as well as employing the favela's residents in these projects, giving them an alternate source of income not tied to any "criminal activity." Any kind of success in an operation on this is absolutely determined by the strength of presence of the bureaucratic state in the wake of police operations, and this component has been completely absent from any efforts in the favelas in Rio up to this point. I fully agree with Boz that, if there's any hope that these efforts have long-term positive effects, it's up to the government to keep that sustainability going beyond the police actions. Thus far, I've seen nothing (and the article gives no indication) of how long the local, state, or federal government plan will support this project or what job opportunities the favela residents may have after temporary projects like construction, but the fact that there's any governmental follow-up action in the wake of police activity is a major shift, and one that is essential to attaining any mark of "progress" in combating crime, be it in the favelas or elsewhere.
However, the picture is far from perfect:
"The problem is that they [the police] act in this aggressive way, focusing on the poor areas, as if that's where the real criminals are actually living," said Rafael Dias, an investigator with Justi├ža Global, a human rights organization in Brazil. "The people in these neighborhoods do not have safety now. They have an occupation."
This really gets at the crux of the issue in terms of the difficulty of dealing with crime in the favelas. Although I've been hyper-critical of police activity in the favelas (and rightfully so, I think), it's not like there aren't real problems with crime in the favelas, and brutal police tactics do not take away from that fact. At the same time, it's not a simple good guys/bad guys incident in which all the favela residents are on the "wrong" side and the police have nothing but the purest intentions, and there are so many broader economic, social, and political processes at play in the favelas and in Brazilian society as to make them an absolute mess in trying to pull apart causes, effects, involvement, etc.

In that context, there are a lot of factors that are required in order to make an operation like those in Santa Marta and especially Cidade de Deus (which is the larger of the two favelas by far) succeed, including better preperation and more personnel, as well as a real willingness on the part of the police and the local and state governments to help build that infrastructure. The complexities of launching a successful "war on drugs" in the favelas are numerous (and that's not even addressing the issue of whether fighting such a "war" by attacking the supply-side, which only further complicates matters). There is the fact that some residents do want a stronger police and state (i.e., non-police governing body) presence in the favelas while others who aren't in any way involved in any kind of criminal activity do not. What is more, it is incredibly difficult to control all members of the police, and Brazil's police have continued to act with impunity, often times turning into militias that simply take over the vacuum of the traficantes they've forced out of the favelas. And, then there's the issue of treating anybody who's poor as a criminal:
The police have shut down popular dance parties [in Cidade de Deus], and several residents said they do not feel comfortable being outside after dark anymore, because of the risk of being accused of criminal activity.
"It's going backward. They're acting aggressively against normal people," Nael said. When the criminals were here, they didn't mess with normal people."
The police, like the majority of Brazilians, often treat poverty as a crime unto itself, and the marginalized in Brazil face numerous social, economic, political, and racial stigmas based simply on where they live. Unfortunately, it seems that this stigma thus far is playing a major role in obstructing any progress on the part of the police. The fact that many residents are turning on the police's presence, and that complaints of maltreatment and the implicit understanding as any favela resident as being "criminal" underlines many of the complaints above. For all the factors that need to fit together to make any police effort like these new efforts in Santa Marta and Cidade de Deus sustainable, perhaps the most important and most difficult is creating a shift in the mentality within the police forces (and society in the grander scheme of things) that treats the poor as inherently criminal. Until this stigma goes away within the police forces, I can't help but think that the police will undermine any new tactics and any efforts to establish an acceptable state presence in the favelas by antagonizing the majority of residents who live in the favelas and who are not connected to criminal activity in any way whatsoever.