Brazil’s police try a softer approach in Rio’s slums

RIO DE JANEIRO – Leonardo Bento longed for vengeance after a policeman killed his brother five years ago. So when he heard that the new “peace police” force in the City of God slum was offering free karate classes, Bento signed up, hoping he would at least get to beat up the karate instructor.

But the unexpected happened. Eduardo da Silva, the police instructor, won him over with humour and a handshake. “I began to realize that the policeman in front of me was just a human being, and not the monster I had imagined in my head,” Bento, 22, said.

Years of hate and mistrust are thawing in some of Rio’s most violent slums. Pushed to alleviate security concerns before the city’s double-billing on the international stage – the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games – Rio officials have embarked on an ambitious plan to wrest control of the slums, or favelas, from ruthless drug gangs who ruled for years with big guns and abject terror.

The peace officers are central to that effort, flooding in after the military police clear the streets in gun battles that can last for weeks. Their job is part traditional policing, part social work. They devote themselves to winning over residents scarred by decades of violence – some at the hands of the police. And the tips fed to them from those who support their efforts, officers say, help them keep the relative peace.

For decades, City of God – whose brutal past was immortalized in a 2002 film – was one of the city’s most fearsome neighbourhoods, so dangerous that even the police rarely dared to enter.

Those days seem long gone. Drug dealing remains, and in at least one area, outsiders can enter only with permission from local youths who patrol the streets.

Still, the men with the big guns are gone, or at least have been driven underground. And life is returning to the streets.

Children now play outside without fear of stray bullets. They skip rope and play table tennis with paddles made from floor tiles. Soccer matches, formerly violent affairs, have become more civil, with officers sometimes joining in the games.

But almost two years after the new police units first arrived, many residents in this community of 120,000 people still struggle to accept that the 315 police officers working 12-hour shifts around them are no longer the enemy. Others welcome the calm but distrust it, worrying that the police force – formally called “police pacification units” – will leave once the Olympics end.

“Nobody likes us here,” Officer Luis Pizarro said during a recent night patrol. “It can be frustrating sometimes.”

Pizarro and two others patrolled along a narrow river choked with garbage and reeking of human and animal waste. Families gathered around makeshift fires. Women danced the samba as men drank cachaca, the Brazilian sugarcane liquor. Almost no one waved at or greeted the officers, who walked through an alleyway littered with multicoloured paper used to package crack and cocaine.

“There goes the Elite Squad,” said one man from a doorway, chuckling as the three officers passed by.

The hostility is not difficult to understand. For decades, government officials refused to take responsibility for the slums, and as drug gangs built caches of weapons it became more difficult for the police to enter without a firefight. Residents resented the police for abandoning them, and reviled them for the brutality that marked their bloody raids.

Without a daily police presence, city services suffered, and doctors and other professionals began to shun the slums for safety reasons. Drug gang leaders became judge and jury.

“People did not have the courage” to retake the slums, said Jose Mariano Beltrame, who took over as Rio’s secretary of public security in 2007. “People preferred to throw the dust under the carpet to avoid facing the problem.”

The favelas have rarely surrendered without a fight. At least eight people died in City of God in 2008 in the initial raids by the police. Such battles are expected to become more widespread as the police move into new neighbourhoods. So far, they have installed 12 pacification units, covering 35 communities. But Beltrame plans to establish units in 160 communities by 2014, including in favelas like Rocinha and Complexo do Alemao, which are larger than City of God.

Even with violent challenges ahead, many Rio residents are rooting for the program. Dilma Rousseff, the leading candidate to be Brazil’s next president, has proposed expanding the model to other cities. Millions of dollars in donations from companies like Coca-Cola and a billionaire businessman, Eike Batista, are also pouring in, paying for things like police equipment.

Beltrame said his main goal was to rid the streets of “weapons of war,” not necessarily to end drug dealing. He is also working, he said, to diminish police corruption that added to the violence and residents’ jaded attitudes. Many of the peace officers are purposely recruited right out of the police academy, before they are tempted to accept drug money to supplement relatively low wages.

Still, it is clear that the police presence has changed lives for the better throughout City of God. Officials offering city services are able to enter more freely. School attendance has increased, with one high school showing a 90 percent rise in attendance since the community police arrived, a school official said. Earth-moving trucks are dredging the narrow, sewage-filled river, and garbage trucks pass through three times a week.

The police have also made more than 200 arrests since they retook City of God, and crime has fallen: six homicides last year compared with 34 in 2008.

Residents are mainly grateful, though some say something intangible has been lost, a certain edgy free-spiritedness.

Captain Jose Luiz de Medeiros, who leads the police unit in City of God, said he was building a force for the long term, and working hard to win the residents’ trust. About a dozen officers recently visited a new day care enter, spinning pacifiers around their fingers while children played with their radios and clambered around their legs and holstered guns.

Some of the officers have been pulled off patrol duty to teach guitar and piano classes and English. Da Silva, the karate instructor, is one of those who now teaches fulltime.

Bento, who joined the class after his brother died, said he had considered going into drug trafficking to gain access to guns. But since meeting da Silva, he has changed his mind and now tries to help other residents conquer their fear of the police.

Da Silva said he understood the people’s wariness. “It is impossible for them to forget their past,” he said. “All I can do is make sure I am open to them.”

To make his point, he comes to City of God unarmed and without a bulletproof vest.