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Rio: Ramping Up to The World Cup

Rio: Ramping Up to The World Cup
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Art by Blake Jones

Andrew Lenz is a Houstonian who has lived in Rio since 1998 and has spent the last 10 years helping develop and run a variety of community projects in different favelas (densely populated urban informal settlements of poor people) around the city.

Could you let a gringo audience know about what the Pacification Police Units (UPPs) are doing as Rio gets ready for the World Cup this June, and the Olympics in 2016?

The UPP program that Rio’s police have been implementing in several favelas since 2008 is the state’s attempt to re-occupy parts of the city that, for the past several decades, have been dominated by drug gangs. The overall goal is admirable, but unfortunately it has failed in its implementation.

Although the state has more than doubled the police force in the past 10 years, they have done little to curb corruption and police brutality. There have many been well-documented cases of UPP forces committing theft, torture and murder. I know people that have had their children’s percussion classes prohibited, as well as birthdays and samba parties being shut down at the whim of the commanding officer in charge of the favela.

These sorts of issues have severely hurt the public support of a program that in its early phases was unanimously well received.

So, it’s really inconsistent and not based on one standardized policy?

The attitude and relationship with the community varies from favela to favela depending both on the policing style of the particular commanding officer and on the resistance of the drug gangs to give up turf. Some “sheriffs” are more oppressive and unreasonable, while others are genuinely trying to make a difference.

Has some Brazilian “funk” (electronic dance music) been criminalized?

In Brazil it is against the law to promote or support criminal activity in any way. As a result, certain songs that were produced by the drug gangs or explicitly promote violence, organized crime and other illegal activities are censored and are known as “Proibidão” (strongly prohibited).

Other than that, funk is completely legal and is very in-fashion all over the country. A couple years ago here in Rio, the state legislature even made it an official cultural heritage for the state along with samba. There is still obviously a lot of prejudice and fear of both poor people and of popular culture amongst the elite and governing powers (as it is all over the world).

In some ways, the government and corporations are trying harness it for their own interests. I know for example that Coca-Cola, together with the UPPs, put on a funk competition a few months back that took place in all the pacified neighborhoods.

So, realistically, is this going to help protect tourists and sports fans during the World Cup? Could it somehow create a backlash?

I think the UPP program and the general safety of tourists are two different things. Some people feel that drug dealers that have lost income due to the police presence in the favelas will turn to theft and other street crime. This might affect Rio’s residents during other parts of the year, but I tend to think that there will be such a strong police presence in the touristy neighborhoods during the World Cup that it won’t be an issue.

How has this affected you so far? How do you imagine your life will be affected during the World Cup?

At the moment, most people in Rio are not very positive about the changes that the city is going through. The cost of living has gone up dramatically, while the generally quality of life has not improved at all or in many cases has gotten worse (the traffic and pollution here for example are worse than ever). Many people are being driven out of the neighborhoods they grew up in, either due to rising property prices, or in more dramatic cases by direct government relocation. This all obviously causes a lot of frustration and was the spark of the large protests that happened last year. People are getting tired of hearing empty promises from the government while feeling like they are always just getting stuck with the bill.

We’ll see if this sentiment will last during the World Cup though. That will probably depend on how far the national team gets in the competition.

What is the messaging from popular movements? Do they essentially see the cure as worse than the disease (drugs and street violence)? Are they calling for drug legalization or some other response?

Whether one occupying force is better than the other will always be dependent on whom you are asking, where they live and what their life stories have been. In general though, there is a strong cry for the demilitarization of the police force. Most people agree that Rio’s police are poorly trained for the job they are being asked to do (whether that be occupying the favelas, preventing street crime against tourists, or dealing with protests). This, combined with rampant corruption throughout the police force, means it’s doubtful they will ever completely be successful in “pacifying” the favelas or winning the trust of the population.

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