When action begins and the group of soldiers starts to penetrate into the complex maze of alleys and dark backstreets, an eerie silence sets on everything. The favela knows that when the policemen set off in a large group, chambers constantly loaded, a shot can easily be set off. The previously crowded passageways, becos and vielas, empty in seconds.
People are afraid and scurry away, dealers keep an ear out for noises echoing off the houses’ bare brick walls. The sound of footsteps and soldiers passing their weapons from shoulder to shoulder according to the direction in which the rifle barrels are pointed can be heard. They advance rapidly but cautiously. Their nerves are tense, their minds highly alert.
This war of position repeats itself every night in Rio de Janeiro’s pacified favelas. The traffickers have stayed on in the community and continue to carry out their business. Though no longer shamelessly out in the open. The police’s oppressive presence has taken over the physical space which a few year ago was entirely in the hands of the donos, the slum rulers, now forced to act from outside.
Over the last months however, due to a military, economic and credibility crisis, criminal organizations have gained new strength with attacks on the police becoming increasingly frequent in many of the slums. The police force responsible for the highest number of deaths in the world is also confirmed as suffering the greatest number of casualties and concern is rising rapidly with next year’s Olympics in August approaching.
Orders reaching the 38 UPP units from the pacification coordination centre are clear: zero tolerance and be wary not to be shot. Avoid clashes. An increase in violence must be averted. Too many police officers have already died and a pacification crisis would risk putting Brazil, already facing political and economic turmoil, on its knees.
As the police officers turn into an alley they notice something suspicious. They stop a woman and put her against the wall. They intend to search her. This is enough to provoke a reaction from the friend accompanying her. “She’s a woman” she shouts, “You can’t search her, only a female officer can!” The soldiers, all men, are forced to back down amidst the women’s cries. A few metres on a young man finds himself hands to the wall. The officers pressure him, “You’re an addict.” The truth is that anybody who fits the discriminatory profile elaborated by the police – black and dressed in a certain manner – is suspected of being one of the low-profile drug traffickers who have replaced the “old school” ones carrying a kalashnikov. His pockets are empty and after being questioned he is let go.
Photo by ©Marco Negri
The UPP face a long night of patrolling. And every time an alleyway leads into another giving space to an opening above them fear of being shot is high. “They take advantage of the neighbourhood’s layout, its irregular structure, to strike,” an officer says. You feel as if you are constantly being watched. Green areas are the most dangerous. It is there that armed traffickers hide, finger on the trigger, aiming at the police. Officers are particularly wary when they pass by areas with vegetation spared by the avalanches of concrete and the construction of houses. The enemy is on the other side. A sudden noise, an abrupt movement are enough to cause a shoot-out. It happens nearly every night. It’s a tension roller coaster.
A cluster of boys quickly exchange hushed words and disperse as soon as they see the patrol units approaching resolutely. No greetings are exchanged, everybody trying to avoid each others’ gaze. “It’s like adding oil to a glass of water. You can stir in every direction but the two liquids will never mix.” The metaphor expressed by Cleber Araujo, a favela resident, accurately sums up the relationship between the police and favelados. A relationship which not even the pacification strategy has been able to improve. Too many years of violence and abuse, of mutual mistrust, have deeply marked the weaker subjects, forced to live between two fires and suffer injustice from each side. And still neither has gained any credit.
Photo by ©Marco Negri
Enforcing stringent military control, a full-scale military occupation, has not favored the police’s entry into the favelas. They had announced a revolution: neighborhood police, greater respect for human rights, a ban on the use of war weapons. But the result has been disappointing. Only a few months later it was already obvious things would go differently.
Weapons continue to be pointed, manners are aggressive, violence and abuse rife. The UPP has been showered with criticism more than ever before as if to emphasize the disappointment after the illusion of the revolutionary announcement. “Residents want the police to work,” says Lieutenant Carlos Martins da Veiga, “But they don’t want to pay the price for it. They want greater surveillance, but they don’t want to be searched. But can you ask a bricklayer to work without making noise?”
The young girl, pulled along by her fearful mother covers her eyes at the view of the police agents with pointed rifles and seems to suggest you can.
Photo by ©Marco Negri