Unease In Sprawling Rio Slum Ahead Of Police ‘Pacification’

Brazilian police are preparing to occupy one of the deadliest shantytown complexes in Rio de Janeiro, hoping to drive out drug gangs ahead of next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

It’s the latest “pacification” effort in a Rio slum, and the city’s new chief of police says he’ll need some 1,500 cops to secure this one, called Mare.

Police in the past would typically stage raids, but then withdraw from the dangerous shantytowns, known here as favelas. But under the pacification program, they now set up shop inside the favelas.

But Mare is a vast, poor and dangerous complex of 15 such shantytowns, home to some 75,000 people.

Traffickers openly deal drugs on the streets. Men on motorcycles speed around with weapons slung over their backs. A few months ago, an engineer took a wrong turn into Mare and was shot in the head and died.

Most people here don’t want their names used when they speak to reporters. But in a lingerie shop, a young woman says people are afraid here. Mare is run by the drug gangs, she says, noting that her shop pays them protection money.

Even children, she says, get involved in trafficking and, some carry guns and use drugs.

The woman says she welcomes a police presence, but notes that most people prefer the drug gangs to the Brazilian police.

The pacification program has had mixed success. Some favelas have flourished and the numbers of killings in Rio has dropped. But in other favelas there is an uneasy coexistence with the Police Pacification Units (UPP).

Across town, in the favela called Caju, police wear flak jackets and carry assault rifles as they patrol the narrow alleyways between cinderblock buildings and jerry-rigged electrical lines.

UPP officer Carlos Guimaraes says residents of Caju will eventually get used to the police presence. But for now, people avert their gaze as the police walk past. It feels a lot more like Iraq than Rio.

The mistrust has cause. According to Amnesty International the police in Brazil are responsible for some 2,000 deaths a year. And last month in the pacified favela of Rocihna, a bricklayer named Amarildo de Souza went missing after being questioned by his local UPP unit.

In mare, nine people were killed in a June raid launched by the feared Special Operations police battalion.

Bira Carvalho, a former drug addict and now community leader in Mare, says a few months ago he was targeted in a police raid, and his house was ransacked.

The police have subsequently apologized, but Bira says he doesn’t think Mare should be pacified. He says the community needs jobs and schools, not more armed men.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.