Is Military Force the Answer? Violence in Brazil’s Favelas

Brazil’s famous slums, or favelas, have long been the headquarters of organized crime and drug trafficking. Many of you will remember the famous movie City of God, which showed the development of slums in one of the most affected cities: Rio de Janeiro. In light of the approaching 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the Brazilian government recently launched military operations to seize crime in the city’s favelas.

It is difficult to describe what it feels like to be in a favela. If you look at pictures, you may see houses that have been built without an organized or structured plan. You may also notice that many of these houses have affluent and/or tourist neighbours. The favela “borders” are generally heavily secured and monitored, often lacking sanitation systems, electricity, and police presence.
As the World Cup and the Olympic Games approach, the Brazilian government has launched several operations in order to counterattack drug traffickers and restore the law. In the past couple of years, Rio’s favelas have seen an enormous amount of violence in what can only be described as a war between military police and the criminals taking refuge in the city’s slums. Tanks and heavily armed task forces have invaded some of the most crime-dominated areas. According to the BBC, “UPP’s or Pacifying Police Units have been installed in nineteen of Rio’s favelas, and there are plans for more.”

The use of military force raises questions about the possibility of collateral damage. Even though favelas are occupied by some of the city’s most important drug dealers, many people call it home as they try to make an honest living to support their families. Military operations seek to minimize collateral damage, but in such a densely populated area, avoiding casualties seems near impossible.

It is worth noting that these operations have developed in light of upcoming international events, such as the FIFA World Cup. Seeing as the slums have long been a focus of crime and drug trafficking, why weren’t these operations launched before? Many would argue that the “pacifying” of the favelas should have taken place a long time ago. Has the international pressure of hosting the events influenced Brazil’s security police?

Marina Asnis, a Trent student from Brazil majoring in Psychology and Sociology, says, “It is not easy to talk about Brazil’s Military Police entering the favelas.” She agrees that, according to Brazilian TV’s perspective, it is good for the police to enter in the favelas and try to bring peace to some Brazilian cities. However, Marina comments, “At the same time, it is hard to believe that just a few people died on those operations; or as the media said last October (2012), there was an operation in four favelas in Rio de Janeiro that had a small number of people killed and ended in peace with no shots being fired.” She notes that there is always a feeling of uncertainty towards what really happened.

On the other hand, Lucas Hiroshi, a current resident of Sao Paulo who is majoring in Psychology at Mackenzie University, agreed that “in São Paulo, the Military Police is usually protecting and serving only a small part of society. It’s a conflict, when ordinary citizens such as workers and students are coming in and out of the favela to work or study and they face the constant fear not only of being intimidated by local robbers or the drug dealers, but also from the police. Actually, the work from the Military Police tends to be worse; they are meant to work for the population but instead they tend to spread violence on the same poor population they are intended to protect.”

The question must be asked: to what extent will these operations prove to be efficient? Military Police may be needed to pacify the favelas and restore the law, but they will not solve the underlying problem. Fighting fire with fire may liberate the favelas for some time, but structural and long term solutions are central to lasting change.