For the original by Mariana Albanese in Portuguese published on the Carta Capital blog Negro Belchoir click here.
The actions and the images are shocking, and yet they are celebrated on the BOPE Facebook page. The deaths of two soldiers were being vindicated and their honor washed with the blood of young black bodies that lie on the steps up to any favela in Rio de Janeiro.
The saying from Africa goes “The true story of the forest will only be known when the lion speaks.” A lioness, in this case: Mariana Albanese, a journalist and editor of Vidiga!, human rights activist and resident of Vidigal favela in Rio. Below she tells her story as someone who feels the direct effects and the contradictions of a security policy whose main missions are a cleanup and killing.— Douglas Belchoir
By Mariana Albanese, journalist and editor of Vidiga!
When I saw the news on TV about the death of a young police officer, Alda Castilho (22), in the Parque Proletário UPP (Pacifying Police Unit), I got a lump in my throat. One detail particularly struck me: she had been studying psychology in order to try to help the youngsters in the community as best she could. It hurt, as it reminded me of the policewomen in Vidigal, the Rio favela I moved to in 2011, eight months before the pacification there. As with the majority of those officers who go to the UPPs, she was young, full of life and wanted to be truly involved in the community, as many of her colleagues do, teaching sports or music classes. They are responsible for community breakfasts. These police officers do not come from rich neighborhoods, they don’t earn a lot, and they certainly see something of their own childhood in the community’s youngsters.
However, there was not much time for any sentiment. On the following day a hunt began which ended with nine people shot in the Morro do Juramento favela. Six youngsters killed, lying on a stairway that could be any of those in Vidigal, and the bodies that could be any of those youngsters that fill Vidigal’s alleyways with funk music and typical Carioca style.
The photo hurt, but the pain of seeing the posts on the Vidiga! Facebook page was even deeper. The typical phrases, repeated ad infinitum, appear: “Who cares about these kids?” or “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” First off, who knows who they were? Only later did the information come out: three of them had no criminal record, and three had records for minor crimes.
The paradox that I saw then was that if killing were to lead to peace then surely Rio de Janeiro would already be as crime-free as Stockholm. The strategy has to be changed, simple as that, because what we have now doesn’t work. Where could that change come from? On the sertão, the Brazilian backlands, Padre Cícero preached: “he who robbed, does not rob anymore. He who killed, does not kill anymore.” At no point in my life have I known of a wise person who preached peace through war. Nonetheless, biblical quotations are used to justify these contemporary decrees of death.
When I arrived in Vidigal there was (and there still is) the memory of the war, the battle between two factions between 2004 and 2006 that saw as its grand finale the BOPE [Military Police Special Operations Battalion] killing six people in a house they had invaded. The owner of the residence, lying on the ground under a police gun and seeing someone else about to be killed, tried to say that he was not a criminal. He was only saved when his dog came and licked him, proving he indeed lived there. He was saved, but he would have been killed because the BOPE does not make arrests; it only kills. It has always been the same approach: shoot, then afterwards find out who the victim was.
The possibility of change (of its own accord) was one of the few changes that the UPPs brought to Rio’s favelas: as armed trafficking got more complicated, many people saw an opportunity to leave that life behind. The life of a drug trafficking ‘soldier’ is generally short: they either die or get tired of it. It is almost impossible to stay in Vidigal for a while and not come across numerous folks who got tired of it and who are now plying an honest trade. You come across a number of these people who society calls monsters and wants dead, but who are now working exhausting jobs and then enjoying a barbeque at home with friends. One day, one of them came to me to vent. He told me that he had gone to the UPP captain’s room and said: “I’m out. But I’m only going to be out if you can assure me that you won’t be on my case all the time.” On that day he was inconsolable as there was a police officer continually threatening to confiscate his moto-taxi vest [required to work as a moto-taxi driver in Vidigal]. An intelligent man, he had been trying to organize everyone the drivers as a group. “I have to pay child support next weekend. They (traffickers) asked me to go back, but I won’t.”
Knowing the whole context is vital in understanding the animosity towards the UPP. It is not just a good versus evil thing. Especially in the beginning, they hassled honest residents and imposed rules in the community that made life even more difficult than when “the other management” was in charge.
There are the shifts. Shifts in character. People know that, depending on an officer’s intentions, good or bad, a party will be permitted, or not. Because, in addition to the violence that everyone has seen, there’s extreme social control over daily life. The philosophy of pacification is based on the principle that everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise. Therefore, popular gatherings are feared and restrained. The baile funk event is the first gathering to be banned, even when it is in a controlled environment with a legitimate sponsor. There are numerous cases when UPPs have stopped a children’s party or a group of people in a bar watching a game on a Sunday: in Alemão, shots have already been fired on this account. The Security Secreatriat’s blessed resolution 013 (which no longer exists, but as there is nothing to substitute it we still see remnants of this offspring of the dictatorship) is only valid in the favelas and gives the UPP commander the final word: he can simply decide that you won’t celebrate your birthday. Because of this pressure and their track record in the favelas, actions against the Military Police are generally celebrated.
On December 13, 2012, the Vidigal UPP acted aggressively to limit the activities on a sports court, the only leisure space in the area. They were going to build their headquarters there, with a “hall that you can use!” Nobody wanted it, and we went to the court to stop the bulldozer, which was there without the authorization of the City Council, which owns the land. A confrontation began, and a Military Police officer who already disliked me hit me in the face, grabbed me by the hair, threw my cell phone to the ground (I was filming what was going on) and kicked it away. I was enraged, I tried to grab him, and was then arrested. When I returned to the favela many people came and told me stories of abuse and, mainly, congratulated me for having reacted against them. I had to go to my mother’s house, as each time I passed an alleyway some guy, sometimes drunk, would come up and hug me. It wasn’t that anybody wanted to attack me, they just thought of me as a heroine or something. And then I thought: for the favela, the police is not the solution and nor are the drug traffickers. Nothing has become substantially better in pacified communities.
There are many varying tones of the favela. The location, the gangs, and the UPP command all vary. In each case, what people on the outside considered a freedom from evil in reality is a brutal social shock without preparation. Like having the ground pulled away from beneath your feet. It has nothing to do with salvation. You live in a certain way, under certain rules. Then the Shock Patrol arrives, and they impose their way. Two months later, a new command arrives, and other rules come into play. In the beginning, everyone was afraid of being seen speaking with a police officer as the general consensus is that, in the end, they will leave and things are going to go back to how they were before.
My opinion is that the UPP system does not solve any one of the roots of the problem; it is merely a form of social control. The favela kids don’t tend to know how a gun ended up in their hands. Did it come from across the border? From the army? And what about the drugs? How many plantations are there in the favela? Look at the drug chiefs’ homes: any teenage TV soap actor has the same level of apartment. Even Nem, a well-known drug lord, told it straight: he paid half of what he earned on buying the government’s connivance. That is no secret at all, it’s in all the papers, and so I ask myself: why do these people keep on repeating, like mantras, the same phrases to do with “justice?”
When I hear people saying that a good criminal is a dead criminal, I think about how manipulated they are. Favela communities don’t like criminals, just like Leblon does not like them. The favela resident can’t get a job and carries an undue infamy. Depending on the faction in power, life really is difficult. But those people are living inside of the problem, and have a more human view of it. In the favela the tendency is to be against the police’s actions, even if those killed were criminals. They were on the “wrong track,” but they are also Dona Maria’s kids and they played soccer with you from a young age. The favela resident does not like crime, but they don’t want to see their neighbor dead. They just want them to get out of that life.
When I arrived in Vidigal, I was scared of the traffickers and I was anxious for pacification to arrive. But, months later, I began thinking there was something deeply wrong with society and not with the favela, as I have never seen social organization as good as in the favela. There were no muggings; people could sleep with their door open. They controlled the traffic, the trash, and they truly cared about the community–it’s not just this currency to buy a strange connivance. They built sports courts, they paved the streets. In sum, it is much more complex than what people from the outside, or who take a tour, know.
I remember one night when I was coming back from a party and I leaned up against a railing to look at the moon. I accidentally bumped into something, and someone said: “hey, that’s my stuff.” It was a trafficker on his watch and in his spot. I said sorry and explained what I was doing. He came over to me, put his elbow near mine and leaned there too, saying: “It’s a hell of a view, right? There is no better view in Vidigal. I spend the whole night here, admiring it.” I got even more confused after that: a “marginal,” “criminal” and “bum” who likes to philosophize and gaze out from the hill overlooking the sea. Oh, if only this world was as simple as good and bad.
What is the solution for this whole mess? We have to get to the source of the problem: if people don’t want a “bum” to assault their “sister or mother” (always the same examples used), then they need to call for a global security action plan. By catching the big criminals who control the drugs and arms trafficking, and who don’t tend to get blood on their hands, the havaiana-wearing youngsters in the favelas will stop dying in their hundreds. These kids are only the very tip of the iceberg. Nearby to those who are really in charge, these kids lying dead on the floor are about as dangerous as Patati and Patatá, a pair of famous clowns.
The police needs to be demilitarized urgently. We don’t need to stop them altogether, of course, but the way they act needs to change, as do their working conditions and pay. The hatred of the police is not against one or other guy on duty on your street, but rather it is directed towards the institution of the police, as a whole, which is not credible at all. At the same time, do what has to be done: truly make the favela a part of the city, with rights to sanitation, education and health. But, to be honest, I don’t think this is going to happen. Those who make legislation tend to have an interest in violence and poverty. We are entering a civil war that will go on for years. Street muggings today are not just a question of money. Violence has not gone down in places where poverty has decreased. This is a generation filled with hatred. It’s no longer about the little thief who goes up the hill with a stolen bag of handkerchiefs and documents and whose mother thinks the documents are for her to finally have identity papers [as told in the famous Chico Buarque song ‘O Meu Guri‘]. It’s about the kid who’s going to beat up a rich son of a bitch who applauds the ideal world that Sherazade preaches. Against the “good” or “well-to-do man.” But that kid does not know why he is doing this. He only knows that there is hatred within him.
I am very discouraged with regards to the future. In Vidigal, it is just a matter of years until all of the poor people are out. The same is slowly happening, unfortunately, in Rocinha. Only a very big tragedy is going to stop that, I think.