Residents in Rio de Janeiro’s marginalized favelas are contending with a new government plan aimed at reclaiming areas dominated by criminal organizations. But despite promises of social projects and improved infrastructure, the intervention mirrors aspects of the bloody state occupations that have long plagued the city.
On January 19, over 1,200 military police officers marched into Jacarezinho, a favela of over 60,000 residents in northern Rio de Janeiro, as part of a new plan dubbed “Cidade Integrada” (Integrated City). The initiative aims to pair state security interventions with social and infrastructure programs in order to reclaim the city’s most violent districts, and will reportedly receive $91 million in funding from the state government.
During the raids, police searched homes and patrolled streets to impede potential resistance from the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV), one of Brazil’s most powerful gangs that has long dominated Jacarezinho, according to the Small Wars Journal.
“The state government began a territorial recovery in the Jacarezinho community. Surrounding communities will also be occupied,” the military police said in a press statement.
There were similar scenes in the Muzema favela, in the east of the city, where military police made 30 arrests in a bid to wrest control of the area from militia groups active throughout Rio de Janeiro, the Guardian reported.
Several other communities will also see military police occupations in the future. While the exact favelas beyond Jacarezinho and Muzema remain unknown, Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Blaz confirmed to O Globo that further interventions are planned for Rio’s North Zone.
Already, the move in Jacarezinho has been met with public outcry. Brasil 247 reported that residents have alleged warrantless home invasions from police and interrogations without the presence of witnesses or lawyers.
Despite an emphasis on social and infrastructure programs, there are already concerns that the Cidade Integrada plan mirrors the hardline police occupations that have long spurred police brutality and civilian massacres in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.
Indeed, Rio de Janeiro security forces have a grim track record when it comes to murders in city, with police actions or operations in 2021 “responsible for three out of every four massacres that took place in Greater Rio, killing 195 civilians in total,” according to the Fogo Cruzado Institute.
Past interventions in the city’s favelas have often descended into police brutality. Last May, for instance, a raid in Jacarezinho targeting the Red Command killed at least 28 people in one of the worst displays of police brutality in recent times. In November of last year as well, a two-day operation ended in the deaths of nine civilians in the northeastern favela, Salgueiro.
Fogo Cruzado along with multiple media outlets described the Salgueiro operation as a retaliatory measure taken after the killing of a military police officer that same weekend.
Some analysts have drawn parallels between the Cidade Integrada plan and the so-called Pacifying Police Units (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP) that preceded it. The UPPs, launched in 2008, also sought to combat large drug trafficking organizations and militia groups by occupying favelas by force, but their efforts sometimes descended into extrajudicial killings.
Benjamin Lessing, an expert on Brazilian security policy, described Cidade Integrada as a plan that echoes many of the sentiments first expressed in the UPP, while being carefully advertised as a new policy. According to him, both strategies hinge on mass deployments of law enforcement to favelas under the control of criminal organizations with the goal of reclaiming territory for the civilian population.
Lessing noted that Cidade Integrada’s promise of subsequent social programs is also reminiscent of promises made with the 2011 UPP operation in Alemão. Such UPP projects had notable successes early on, but ultimately carry negative connotations with much of Rio’s population.
“Governor Claudio Castro is trying to come up with a brand that’s all his own,” stated Lessing. “He’s trying to differentiate his products from previous products, previous policy packages that have now fallen out of favor.”
Cidade Integrada does offer some progress in that initial police operations targeted a gang stronghold as well as the militia-dominated favela of Muzema. Under previous Rio governors, similar interventionist efforts largely ignored militia-held areas.
“They’ve nominally occupied or notionally occupied militia territory. They say they’re going to use this as a pilot, as an opportunity to learn how to combat militias, how to hand back territorial control to residents,” said Lessing, adding “If true, this would be welcome news, but there is no evidence to suggest they will do so.”
Nevertheless, the government will be hard-pressed to encourage residents of favelas to get behind the plan after years of bloody police interventions and civilian murders, with black or mixed-race citizens particularly hard hit.
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