As Olympics Near, Violence Grips Rio's 'Pacified' Favelas | KUOW News and Information

As Olympics Near, Violence Grips Rio's 'Pacified' Favelas

May 31, 2016
Originally published on June 7, 2016 12:36 pm

In the misty rain, surrounded by Rio de Janeiro's green hills, police officer Eduardo Dias was buried last week. He was shot, purportedly by gang members, as he was leaving his post inside the favela, or shantytown, where he worked as a community cop.

The killing took place a few hundred feet from the Maracana Stadium, where the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics will be held on Aug. 5. As family members wept by the graveside, the pastor raised his hands.

"This rain is like our tears," he said. "Not just ours, but coming also from the heavens for everything that we are going through. I have been asking God, until when, my Lord? Until when are we going to have to bury our good policemen? Until when will we have to keep burying our children?"

Brazil has been rattled by a terrible recession, multiple corruption scandals, a political meltdown and the Zika virus. And now Rio is suffering a security crisis.

Murders are up 15 percent from last year. Robbery is up 30 percent. Amid the economic and political turmoil, the state security budget has been cut by a third. The gangs are fighting for territory in advance of the Olympics, according to authorities.

While everyone is feeling the effects, the impact is greatest on Rio's poorest communities, the favelas.

'Disneyland' Favela

To get a sense of how far things have slipped, I went back to Babilonia, a community I visited when I first arrived to Rio three years ago.

Babilonia, like many of Rio's favelas, is located on a hillside with an amazing view of the water and the famed Copacabana beach. Babilonia became known as one of the so-called Disneyland favelas because they were shown to visiting dignitaries and the media as an example of how conditions had improved.

In the new and improved Babilonia, police walked around with their guns holstered. Residents were opening up businesses catering to tourists. They included restaurants, and hostels that were advertised on Airbnb. The drug gangs kept a low profile.

All this was part of a bold policing program called pacification, which placed permanent bases of community police, known as UPPs, in neighborhoods that had little or no state presence previously. Residents considered them long overdue and the state considered them necessary as Brazil prepared to host the World Cup in 2014 and this summer's Olympics.

But unlike three years ago, the pacification police are now patrolling with their guns drawn. Police commander Paulo Berbat walks to the crest of the hill, where muddy paths disappear into the jungle.

He says six weeks ago, a rival gang from the neighboring favela tried to push in and take control from the group that controls the drugs and guns in Babilonia. Three drug dealers were killed in a firefight that sent fear through the community.

Too Scared To Speak

Rodrigo da Silva agreed to meet with me on the beach where he works. He owns a hostel in the favela that he advertises on Airbnb, but he also sells food on Copacabana to make ends meet.

He hoped the Summer Olympics would get him out of the hot sun. But so far, there have been few guests at his hostel. "Our business has decreased," he says. "We had much higher expectations in terms of hosting people throughout the Olympics. If the situation had improved, maybe I wouldn't still have to work here on the beach."

Other members of the community had similar stories about a sharp drop in business due to the violence.

Aside from da Silva, favela residents refused to be interviewed, in marked contrast to three years ago. Several told me they had been directly threatened by the gangs, who said we were asking too many questions.

"If you talk too much, it ends badly," da Silva says. "Here's the deal: You do not mess with their business, don't mess with their stuff — and they don't mess with you."

Olympic officials are promising the games will be safe for visitors and athletes. Brazil will be bringing in double the amount of security that the London Games had four years ago.

"What we need to push, and we will do so, is to have more security before the games, and more security after the games. We don't want the games to be an island of success and perfection. We want the games to transform Rio, and to make Rio a safer city in the years to come," says Mario Andrada, the communications director for Rio 2016.

But even if the Olympics go according to plan, the future of the pacification program is in doubt. Da Silva tells me he fears the worst.

"There will be more violence, more violence in all the communities because of the fights between the drug gangs, fights against the police," he says. "In the end the ones who will pay for this will be the residents, as always."

NPR has been collaborating with the the PBS NewsHour, which will also feature reporting by Lulu Garcia-Navarro on its program Tuesday evening.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The countdown to the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro this August has revealed one challenge after another for the host country. Brazil is in the middle of an economic and political meltdown. There's the threat of the Zika virus. And in Rio, there has been a spike in crime. That's meant more funerals, like the one NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro takes us to now. She says people in the city worry about what will happen after the games end.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: In the misty rain, surrounded by Rio’s green hills, Officer Eduardo Dias was buried last week. He was shot purportedly by gang members as he was leaving his post inside the favela, or shanty town, where he worked as a community cop. The killing took place only a few hundred feet away from the Maracana Stadium, where the opening ceremony of the Olympics will be held. As family members wept by the graveside, the pastor raised his hands.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "This rain is like our tears," he said, "not just ours but coming also from the heavens for everything we are going through. I've been asking God, until when, my Lord? Until when are we going to have to bury our good policemen? Until when are we going to have to keep burying our children," he asked.

Rio is in a security crisis. Murders are up 15 percent from last year. Robbery is up 30 percent. Brazil's economic and political turmoil has meant the state security budget has been cut by a third, so there are fewer cops out on the streets.

And the gangs are taking advantage, fighting for territory in advance of the Olympics, say experts. Rio's poorest communities, called favelas, are being particularly hard hit. To get a sense of how far things have slipped, I went back to a community I visited when I first arrived in Rio.

So I'm climbing up an endless amount of stairs. Babilonia, like many favelas in Rio de Janeiro, is located on a hillside with an amazing view of the water, which is right next to the famed Copacabana beach. And it's a real tourist draw, but that's changed now.

This is one of the communities dubbed a Disneyland favela because it was where visiting dignitaries and the media came to see how much things had improved. Police walked around with their guns holstered. Residents were opening up businesses catering to tourists. The drug gangs kept a low profile.

This is my report in 2013 on how peaceful some of Rio de Janeiro most conflict-ridden areas had become.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A new boutique hotel perched on top of one of Rio's previously most dangerous favelas is about to open. And yes, there's a jazz club and yoga, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All that came courtesy of a bold policing program called pacification, which placed permanent bases of community police called UPPs in neighborhoods that had never had any state presence in advance of the Olympics and the World Cup. In Babilonia these days, there are over 100 UPP officers.

We're on patrol with the pacification police. Unlike the last time I was here, this time the police are walking around with their guns drawn, pistols at the ready, very different type of patrol.

PAULO BERBAT: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: UPP Commander Paulo Berbat takes me to the crest of the hill, where muddy paths disappear into the jungle. He tells me six weeks ago, a rival gang from the neighboring favela tried to push in and take control from the group that's in charge of the drugs and guns in Babilonia. Three drug dealers were killed in the firefight. It sent shockwaves and fear through the community.

BERBAT: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So much so that we had to leave Babilonia to speak with residents and business owners about what was going on. Rodrigo da Silva owns a hostel in the community that he advertises on Airbnb. But he sells food on the beaches to make ends meet.

RODRIGO DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He tells me he had hope the Olympics would get him out of the hot sun and backbreaking work. But so far, there been few guests. Other members of the favela had similar stories, saying revenue had dropped at least 50 percent because of the violence. Other than Rodrigo though, all refused to be interviewed in marked contrast to years ago. Several told me they had been directly threatened by the gangs who had been informed we were asking too many questions.

DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "If you talk too much, it ends badly," Da Silva tells me. "Here's the deal - you do not mess with their business. You don't mess with their stuff and they don't mess with yours," he says.

ROBERT MUGGAH: There's a sense now of creeping anxiety and dread.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Robert Muggah, who studies security and development at the Igarape Institute in Rio.

MUGGAH: So in contrast to the - let's call it the great enthusiasm in this experiment, probably one of the most extraordinary policing experiments in the world, today we're seeing a real sense of gloom, that pacification is just maybe not working the way it ought to.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Olympic officials are promising the games will be safe for visitors and athletes. Brazil will be bringing in double the amount of security that the London summer games had. But what happens after the Olympics is unclear. And the future of pacification is in doubt. Back on the beach, Rodrigo Da Silva tells me he fears the worst.

DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "There will be more violence in all the communities because of the fights between the drug gangs - the fights against the police," he says. "In the end, the ones who will pay for all this will be the residents," he says, "as always." Lulu Garcia Navarro, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

SIEGEL: And Lulu will have more on the rise in violent crime in Rio in a report tonight on the "PBS NewsHour." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.