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What Future is Rio de Janeiro Building with its Current Public Security Policies? [OPINION]

December 10 is Human Rights Day

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This is the sixth article in a year-long partnership with the Behner Stiefel Center for Brazilian Studies at San Diego State University to produce a series of monthly favela-sourced human rights and environment reporting from Rio de Janeiro on RioOnWatch. The following article was written by Carla Souza, an early childhood education professional raised in the favela of Rocinha, as a special contribution to RioOnWatch and responding to the question: what would you do to solve Rio’s public security crisis?

The Death of Innocents

It’s strange that nowadays the word “childhood” is associated with public security. Childhood should be about play, education, care, nutrition, public squares, music, smiles, and love, but such things now appear to be quasi-utopian concerns for the children that live in the stigmatized territories of this city. It hurts to speak the names of children killed by the public security policies of the State. We’re forced to catalog the names and ages of children killed in a phase of their lives when they should have been playing make-believe, learning to read, going to pajama parties, picking out their clothes for the first time, and making up new expressions. And yet, in a wave of terrible statistics, we’ve begun to count bodies rather than dreams. We now give names to childhoods that no longer exist, the majority of them black childhoods. Of course this hurts.

These children of the favelas died and had their stories interrupted by a security policy based in armed confrontation in the favelas. Inverting life’s natural logic, parents now bury their children. Between 2011 and 2017, the number of children and adolescents killed by the police annually in the state of Rio de Janeiro more than tripled, rising from 55 to 193. The 2018 Child and Adolescent Dossier, developed by the Public Security Institute (ISP), shows that, for the latest year for which data are available, 2017, one in four homicides of adolescents in Rio state occurred during police operations.

Ágatha Félix’s mother on the day of her burial. Photo: Bárbara Dias

Alarming Data Reveal Ineffectiveness

Reports on the subject are alarming and reveal the inefficacy of this type of security policy. According to the Network of Security Observatories, a security monitoring body, between January and August of 2019, the state of Rio saw 1,697 police operations—41% higher than 2018—and an increase in homicides committed by Rio police, for a total of 1,249 deaths between January and August of 2019, up 16% in relation to the same period last year. This is not what an effective security policy looks like.

It is of utmost importance that we evaluate, in this policy of confrontation in police operations in the favelas, the impact of these interventions on the daily lives of residents. However, these data, which would be fundamental allies in building the perspective of residents of these areas, are difficult to access, whether from public or informal organizations. The omission of detailed information only serves as another form of invisibility, enabling the continued occurrence of these infractions.

There are online platforms, however, that together with a handful of newscasts and resident social media feeds (which residents use to alert one another on how to travel safely in and out of the favela), provide some support in tracing these data. In the favelas of the Complexo da Maré, in the North Zone, the Right to Public Safety Bulletin, produced by NGO Redes da Maré (Maré Development Networks), is an example of such a platform.

The 2018 Bulletin revealed that, from January to December of 2018, in Complexo da Maré, there were: sixteen police operations, six of which lasted longer than ten hours; ten days of canceled school; eleven days of closed health posts; suspended services, commerce, and leisure; material goods hit by bullets (cars, shops, and houses) and 24 deaths. To make matters worse, this scenario makes it difficult to travel to work or school, and raises the number of psychological disorders for the population that lives with this near-daily violence on their streets. This reality is already more than sufficient to affirm that something is very wrong in terms of maintaining the safety of the people of these territories.

A minimum of good sense seems distant for a country that spends more on prisons than schools. Data from National Survey of Penitentiary Information (INFOPEN) predicts that, if the current rate of imprisonment is maintained, Brazil will arrive at the sad score of one million prisoners by 2022. According to Supreme Court Justice Cármen Lúcia, a prisoner costs thirteen times as much as a student. On average, a prisoner costs R$2,400 (US$580) per month, while a middle school student costs R$2,200 (US$532) per year.

Education as a Solution

The population of the favelas is yet to experience a solution to the violence. Without real violence prevention programs and education programs, peace is a distant reality for citizens that are just as Carioca as the residents of Rio’s upper-class neighborhoods. What we are witnessing are dichotomous public policies that are more or less violent according to the zip code of the individual.

These vulnerable populations live at the mercy of the State that, beyond not guaranteeing basic rights, such as quality health and education, takes lives earlier and earlier, justifying these deaths as a necessary evil in guaranteeing safety. How is it possible to justify the death of children in police confrontations that aim to seize drugs and guns? If there is more fear than rights, then it is time for a reset, rethinking the path forward, acting honestly, and forming policies for all, equitably, based on the demands of each neighborhood. We can’t have a public safety policy that follows the logic of a divided city.

What, then, is the solution? The answer to this question demands planning for the short, medium, and long term. But for such planning to take place, it is crucial that we deconstruct the violent and racist mindset that permeates security policy, that we have effective investigative intelligence services, and that we combat police corruption. And fundamentally, in a move that should be obvious, we must invest in education, increasing the number of schools, improving their structures with more inviting learning spaces, creating the means to implement full eight-hour school days, and valuing our education professionals. Furthermore, schools must be open to the communities they inhabit, integrating them into their activities, incorporating the knowledge of their older residents and their cultures into the school calendar, guaranteeing that children have their capacities potentialized, not only in formal disciplines, but also in the broad development of their abilities. For this development, we must utilize diverse forms of artistic manifestation—music, dance, art—as another path to ponder the world and give children the right to a more humanized education, offering the students of these territories a range of options beyond that of subemployment.

Unfortunately, the future that the State is currently building is the one foretold by Darcy Ribeiro, who, in 1982, said: “If the governors do not build schools, in 20 years there will not be enough money to build prisons.” More than 20 years have now passed, and the demand for educational solutions remains. Lost childhood should be a sufficient reason for all of society to involve itself in this debate in search of new and more humane paths, such that all can be truly safe and live in a better society.


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