Pacifying the Favelas

The favela shanty-towns of Rio have been a locale for First World fantasies at least since 1959’s Black Orpheus. Now you can actually go on a slum tour of Rocinho and other favelas. This may or may not be exploitation; this may or may not be voyeurism; these tours may celebrate the human spirit or may be the crassest commercial enterprise since the 9 – 11 commemorative coin (the one with the fold-out twin towers thinly plated with silver that might actually have been recovered from the WTC.)

A guide points out features of living in poverty to appreciative tourists.

But if the Brazillian government has its way, squalor-seekers will have to go elsewhere on their holidays; once again, Brazil wants to clean up the favelas in time for a major influx of tourists. The events this time are the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Rocinho, favored tour destination.

In 1993 the clean up was ongoing and particularly aimed at children. After all, nothing disturbs tourists more than seeing child beggars. A group of off-duty policemen who wanted to clean up the view opened fire on about seventy people sleeping near the Candelaria cathedral. Eight people were killed, the youngest was eleven years old. Many others were wounded. People were outraged and there was a brief effort to prosecute some of the police officers involved. Survivors, possible witnesses, began to be murdered, and some fled Brazil. Last time anyone checked, only eighteen or so of the original seventy were still alive. Some of the officers were tried, a few convicted, one killed resisting arrest, most got off. The most important witness has moved to Switzerland.  Of course, the death of eight children is not a big deal compared to the 600 or so murdered annually around the time of the Candelaria trials.

Now we shouldn’t be too tough on the police, after all they were following the directives of higher-ups. Possibly they saw themselves as similar to the heroic members of Elite Squad, a very popular movie in Brazil which depicts police efforts to clean up Rio before the Pope’s visit. Of course, no one in  Elite Squad sets out to murder children; the police targets are drug lords. Likewise, the current favela clean-up is aimed at the drug gangs. Or at least, that’s the story.

A journalist and an artist, Paim and Maumau are their working names, have produced an in-depth look at the  favela clean-up. Their take in Part One (click picture below): the drug gangs provide social structure that is otherwise missing; the police are corrupt and will take their rake-offs whether the drug gangs are operating or not; drugs are still for sale and murders still happen — in short, the cops have replaced the criminals. Part Two goes inside the favelas for a longer visit.

”]Brazil in the last while has been a model for nations trying to escape crushing World Bank debt and the effects of a privileged elite/impoverished majority social structure. Conditions have improved, but it will be a long time before the favelas disappear. Perhaps Brazil should spend more effort on cleaning up its police force rather than cosmetic disguise of its slums.

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