One Week of “Peace” in Rocinha

It has been a week since the state government’s ‘pacification’ process began in Rocinha – on the 13th of November. The constant coverage and sensationalism are quickly becoming repetitive and they are distracting from more important issues here in Rocinha and elsewhere in Rio.

It is important to keep in mind that the incursion and occupation that began last Sunday was merely the beginning of a real world experiment in public security and development policy – not to mention the start of Rocinha’s most intense era of real-estate speculation.

1st upp meeting, colonel alonso, bope, rocinha
Colonel Alonso of the BOPE addresses the crowd in Rocinha

Before going into much analysis there are a few matter-of-fact updates worth mentioning. On Wednesday the 16th there was a community meeting that was held in a popular sports facility located at the top of Rocinha, known here as the “Quadra da Rua Um” BOPE Colonel René Alonso was the primary organizer of the meeting which also included vice-governor of Rio de Janeiro, Luiz Fernando de Souza, commonly known as Pezão (big feet) because he supposedly has huge feet). Pezão is also Rio’s secretary of Works and Interior Development. He has played a significant role in many of the development initiatives taking place in Rocinha since 2007. To be fair to residents, the event wasn’t really a meeting, it was more of a government orientation speech, because there were no opportunities for residents to provide feedback or voice their concerns. The newspapers mentioned that there were around 500 people present but anyone who was there knows that more 1000 were in attendance. Colonel Alonso was very congenial and he was applauded several times, especially when he made it clear that the BOPE and the upcoming UPP are not there because of the gangsters, but for the regular residents, who he

UPP Rocinha, 1st meeting
The first meeting with residents after the police invasion in Rocinha

suggested have been trapped in a narco-dictatorship for decades. He affirmed that the police are here in Rocinha to defend order, democracy and the human rights of everyday residents. This point was loudly applauded. He also asked for Rocinha’s help in the ‘pacification’ process. He expressed that the state’s work would be futile without the participation of the community. Colonel Alonso confirmed that there is no official curfew in place and all legal activities should continue as usual. He even said that the notorious baile funks – that are a fundamental aspect of Rocinha’s youth culture – can continue as long as they obey the law, as in having all the proper permits and safety measure in order.

Vice-governor Pezão
Vice-governor Pezão

Vice-governor Pezão made countless pledges to residents, and basically went out of his way to guarantee that this time the governments promises would be fulfill. He said that R$ 51 million, about $29 million US dollars, had already been set aside for UPP related infrastructure and development projects. Among other important promises, he mentioned that the government was already working on the process of providing property titles to four thousand families (roughly 15 thousand people) in Rocinha, so they can ‘legally’ remain in their homes. While this is promising news it makes me wonder about the legal housing rights of the other 135,000 people living in Rocinha and how the state will treat them? (See the posting on the most recent São Conrado, Rocinha and Gávea’s Community Board Meeting for more on this and other developments in Rocinha).

The first meeting with the BOPE was a very important issue for the hundreds of motoqueiros in the community of Rocinha - seen here on the "rampa" going up to Laboriaux

Interestingly, a noteworthy chunk of the speech focused on Rocinha’s roughly 2000 motorcyclists. Several hundred of them are employed in Rocinha 24 hour a day motorcycle taxi industry (mototáxi). He pledged that the mototáxis would no longer have to pay fees to corrupt cooperatives and resident’s associations, or other bribes that depleted significant amounts of their salary. Of course, he mentioned that the mototáxi service would be regulated and needed to follow all the laws. From now on no children will be allowed to ride the motorcycles (by themselves or as passengers). This news has many parents frustrated, especially those who live in places like Trampolim, Vila Verde, Cachopa, Dionéia, Rua Dois and Laboriaux (where roughly 1/3 of Rocinha’s population lives) and where other forms of transportation are scarce or nonexistent. One young mother, Adriana, a resident of Laboriaux, complained that after nine hours of hard work, six days a week, it is going to be a real hassle to have to hike up the almost vertical one mile long road to her house carrying her three year old son who is not strong enough to walk the steep incline by himself. Everyone riding a mototáxi in Rocinha will now have to wear a helmet, a habit that was very rare in the past. Colonel Alonso said the DETRAN, Brazil’s DMV, will set up shop in Rocinha to make sure people are qualified and licensed to ride motorcycles. Rocinha was among the first places in Brazil to utilize, a mass scale, motorcycle for public transportation, and this is likely traceable to the fact that the Brazil birthplace of the mototáxi business was the northeastern state Ceará where approximately 60% of Rocinha residents can trace their roots. Today the service is fundamental to Rocinha’s public transportation and economy. In any given week the mototáxi industry employees over 1000 cyclists, or motoqueiros, dozens who travel from other communities to work in Rocinha, ‘the favela that never sleeps.’

Colonel Alonso and Pezão also made reference to universities that would be opening in Rocinha. If this does occur, it is likely they will be centers for distance learning because of the lack of space for actual universities in Rocinha. Either way, it would be nice to actually have a high school, or a few of them, in Rocinha before there are any universities. Most of what they spoke about is in the papers but the brunt of the message is that ‘peace’, ‘order’ and ‘opportunity’ have come to Rocinha.

Now a little analysis is necessary. Mundo Real prefers to view this entire UPP ordeal through the lens of development. Rocinha is fascinating story of development and underdevelopment. The community emerged in the first place for numerous complex reasons that this update doesn’t aim to describe in too much detail. The factors that contributed to the origin and evolution of Rocinha, up until recent UPP ordeal, can be traced to a historic blend of public policy (or lack-there-of), civil society activity and the free market. A very quick summary points to a few fundamental causes; such as,

  1. Brazil’s historic lack of a meaningful rural development agenda,
  2. Significant regional inequality between the northeast and southeast of Brazil that pushed thousands of migrants to Rio de Janeiro’s favelas,
  3. The absence of any serious urban housing plans,
  4. Enormous socioeconomic inequality between social classes and races,
  5. Two decades of a military dictatorship that considerably eroded the already modest trust that previously existed in government, politicians and their public security apparatus,
  6. Rocinha’s highly strategic location situated between the affluent Zona Sul and Zona Oeste (which has grown exponentially since the 1980s) which continued to attract poor migrants to work in the thriving nearby construction and service sectors,
  7. The communities proximity to Rio’s tourism and media industries,
  8. Decades of across-the-spectrum government abandonment of Rocinha,
  9. … and in light of the utter absence of government the ensuing total domination of the community by drug traffickers since the early 1980s.

These are the main contributing factors, in no particular order, that have caused Rocinha to develop as it has.

The UPP is merely the most recent ‘development’ policy/program affecting Rocinha. While the UPP is one the most important interventions, there have been new development initiatives announced nearly every month for Rocinha since 2007. This ‘age of development’ is dizzying. There are several meetings everyday on fundamental issues that are, and soon will, affect Rocinha. Regrettably, there are so many meetings and conferences that only the ‘professional meeting goers’ are able to attend most of them. Many of these people who attend meetings for a living are also the people who shouldn’t necessarily be granted too much trust with valuable information and resources. The result is that everyday residents are usually left in the dark about most issues until they have already been decided upon. Mundo Real and its growing network in Rocinha, attend as many meetings as possible, but often it is not feasible for those of us who have to work and study and have families to take care of.

The current police operations have already cost millions and will cost hundreds of millions more once the state’s official UPP is established sometime in early 2012 and also once the City’s UPP Social program is fully implemented here (www.uppsocial.com.br). It hasn’t even been mentioned herein that the PAC II development program is going to cost over R$ 700 million, and most of this, according to experts (like Luiz Carlos Toledo), will go into constructing an elaborate cable car (teleférico) across Rocinha that will be very similar to what was recently built in Complexo do Alemão.

UPP Day 3 Rocinha
The Battalion of Special Forces in Rocinha with their flag behind them. The ironic placement of the white flag next to it reads "I support Peace" with the UPP acronym placed in the phrase.

Increasingly, this ‘pacification’ process is feeling surreal and difficult to comprehend. The very terminologies and jargons being used are perplexing. What is a “shock of peace” after all? I for one have never been ‘shocked’ into a peaceful state of being. Also, what does it mean when policemen armed to their teeth and decked out in warfare outfits – whose coat of arms is the symbol of an evil looking skull being stabbed through the cranium with a huge dagger and with two pistols positioned behind it – are also carrying banners and flags that read “I support Peace” or “We are here to pacify your community”? The once heavily armed gangsters have been replaced with even more heavily armed police (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugw1Z6eSmnY). The photos below sum up much of irony inherent in this age of ‘pacification.’

Despite the irony and exaggerations of force, the majority of Rocinha residents are satisfied, so far.

Rocinha has become more orderly and less noisy since last Sunday, and most people are enjoying this. Complaints of police abuse have been few. There have been a couple dozen complaints, but most have been as a result of BOPE officers entering into resident’s houses when they are not home. There have been even fewer reports of violent abuses. There have been a few, and while they need to be taken VERY seriously, it is also important to remember that there is still a small segment of Rocinha’s population who do not want the UPP here and who despise police and some residents are willing to invent stories to get in the way this process. For this reason all cases of abuse need to be taken serious and investigated thoroughly. The few cases of abuse have been slowly increasing as the media begins to move onto other stories and leave Rocinha. This has some residents worried that as the media’s cameras leave the community the BOPE will begin mistreating Rocinha’s residents in much the same way they did over the last couple decades. So far this hasn’t been the case, but it is an issue to keep in mind.