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Favela Residents Contribute to Debate on Youth, Security, and Violence

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Last Thursday, July 13, Rio of Encounters hosted the debate “Youth, Security, and Violence,” at the Rio Museum of Art (MAR) in Rio de Janeiro’s Port Region. During the event, social activists, academics, and favela residents discussed the impact of violence on youth, and women‘s perspectives on violence, along with the role of Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) and of news media in favelas. The debate included a panel of speakers who shared perspectives and expertise on violence and youth, including: Charles Siqueira, Coordinator of the Knowledge Ship in Triagem; Guilherme Pimentel, a lawyer who writes for Nossas and coordinates Defezap; Marciel de Freitas, a UPP police officer; and Betinho Casas Novas, a photographer specializing in urban conflict.

As a life-long resident of Complexo do Alemão, Casas Novas shared his personal experiences with the police and gang-related violence. Growing up in Alemão, Casas Novas and his friends and family were often surrounded by conflicts between drug factions in which civilian casualties were common and daily life perilous. During the debate Casas Novas recalled the losses he experienced at the time. “I grew up during a time when there were many fights between factions. Neighbors were hit by stray bullets and we were often afraid to leave the house.”

In addition to fearing the constant danger of losing loved ones, conflicts between drug factions and police limited access to education for Casas Novas and other students. Many times, fights between factions put students at risk while walking to or from school and caused frequent school closings. “I lived in a place known as the alley of death where executions took place. I couldn’t go to school for a year because there were bodies outside my door,” reflected Casas Novas. The constant exposure to gangs, school closings and difficult living conditions lead some youth to join factions and perpetuate the cycle of violence. Many of Casas Novas’ childhood friends succumbed to these pressures. “I represent the part of the statistics that didn’t enter into trafficking but there are people I grew up with who did. Classes, resources, and social services that provide opportunities for young people are lacking. I think that a prejudice exists that favela youth only have options to be vendors or house workers when they should be able to be athletes, journalists, teachers.” Casas Novas explains that it is this lack of opportunity which often leads youth into gang activity.

In addition to talking about his childhood experiences, Casas Novas discussed the negative consequences that the UPP intervention of the past few years has had in his community by oppressing residents and destabilizing the neighborhood. This has led to a long-term economic depression in Alemão, which has only made conditions worse for residents as fighting between police and gangs continues. Casas Novas commented, “Alemão wasn’t the first favela to be pacified but it is the most emblematic. The UPP came to the favela with social projects and public support that only lasted for a couple months, then by eight months into their operations, all businesses in the area were shut down and we were left dependent on NGOs and external programs.” He stressed the need for a fresh start with new methodologies which rethink the role of policing and take a more holistic approach to community interventions in order to be more sensitive to the needs of residents and prevent unintended consequences. “Policing isn’t the cause of poverty. We need to stop saying that the UPPs aren’t working out. That’s finished. What we need now is a new politics of public security.”

The other panelists discussed their experiences in the areas of youth, security, and violence, including in what ways the municipality could interact with youth in order to create more secure and safe spaces. Guilherme Pimentel has worked to improve police accountability and give young people tools to protect themselves against police violence through the Defezap network which he coordinates. He commented on the issue of state oppression and police violence: “The authorities work to improve education and healthcare, but why do these exercises in citizenship not apply when it comes to security?” According to Pimentel, ​”favelas are islands, with a specific culture and framework. You have to know–really know–the favela if you want to do something. You can’t arrive with ready-to-implement plans.” He continued to explain that Defezap, an application designed for residents to announce incidents of violence by the State and contribute to perceptions of public security and human rights, is one an example of “a discreet, usable and trustful way to build awareness and give updates on real-time violence.” Residents can record any form of State violence or violations and subsequently send them anonymously through WhatsApp, after which the responsible authorities are notified.

Several panelists further emphasized the role technologies can play in building community participation and democratization of knowledge. As part of attempts to make technology available to residents of the North Zone, Charles Siqueira recognized the challenges facing favela youth who often lack the resources needed to succeed. He described his position on the topic of youth violence, “I don’t judge anyone. This is how I open up the channels of dialogue in the community. I’m an intermediary with credibility with the police and the traffickers and without being involved in either.”

As a member of the UPP, Marciel de Freitas came from a very different position, commenting on how he is viewed: “People say I don’t have the face of a police officer. They say this because of existing stereotypes. Being a police officer is about professionalism, not about having an ugly face.” Throughout the debate Freitas was able to give a face to the UPP as well as provide insight problems within the institution: “Around the world violence is directly connected to corruption. When one grows so does the other.”

In addition to discussion among the primary panelists, the debate was opened up to commentary and questions from the audience. During this time, Luis Fernando Pinto, a resident of Senador Camará, read a poem which he had written to reflect on the violence experienced by favela residents. He later commented, “My poem was inspired by my experiences living in a community. I have been living in Senador Camará for 27 years. So, it is about experiences and stories seen through my window and walking on the streets of that territory. I see a daily question of survival. Will I be able to sleep tonight? Will there be a tomorrow?” Other audience members also contributed poems, opinions, and questions, which the panelists responded to. One West Zone favela resident commented that at the event “there was a sense of revolution, and everyone had a say. There was a wide variety of perspectives from around the city. I think that type of discussion is always worth it. Even if the topic is sad or complicated, or even if we don’t reach a solution, I think it is always worth it.”