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Pacifying Rio

By Mario Furloni and Patrick Kollman

South Africa overcame persistent doubts about its ability to put on a safe World Cup this month when organizers concluded a relatively crime-free tournament on Sunday. Some credit the government’s police saturation strategy with keeping crime down, while others have criticized the policy as overkill.

Regardless, there may be some lessons in South Africa’s World Cup experience for the next country to the host the tournament, one that has similarly had a reputation for violence: Brazil. In addition to hosting the 2014 World Cup, it will also be the site of the 2016 Olympic Games.

When Brazil succeeded in its bid to host the World Cup in October, there was celebration in the streets. But the jubilation did not last long. Just two weeks after the announcement, drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro shot down a police helicopter on the city’s north side, fueling doubts that the municipal government will be able to clamp down on the drug violence plaguing its favelas, or shanty towns, in time for the 2014 games. Rio will host the tournament’s final match.

To prepare, the Brazilian government has begun an aggressive program to prevent crime in Rio, what officials have called “pacification.” In practice, it’s a full-scale military operation to run out the drug dealers and bring in more police.

Seven favelas have been pacified to date. By the end of the year, the government says it plans to occupy 40 favelas, home to three hundred thousand people.  And as the World Cup and Olympics draw near, the program will likely expand.

Photo: Fabio Pozzebom/ABr

“Our primary goal is to rescue this part of the city, bring it under state control – to show the drug dealers that they can’t keep on subjugating people with their weapons,” said Police Commander Lima de Castro after a press conference marking the latest operation. “The problem is not drug dealing. The problem is the heavy weapons the drug dealers use to guard their turf… And regular people are the ones who pay the price.”

But some have questioned whether the strategy of “pacification” is actually working.

“Are you going to have millions of policemen in the more than six hundred favelas of Rio de Janeiro? Or are you just going to occupy the main favelas? The ones that show up in the media?” asked Paulo Lins, author of City of God, which was adapted to a film that introduced Rio’s favelas to an American audience. “They call them pacifiers, but what are they? It’s a bunch of men armed to the teeth in a favela.”

Reporter Mario Furloni goes inside one pacified favela, now one of the safest neighborhoods in the city, to investigate just what pacification can solve.

Mario Furloni and Patrick Kollman are students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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