Photo: Iselin Åsedatter Strønen

Blogpost from Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro:

So far, kindergartens and shootouts have by and large been completely unrelated issues in my world. Not anymore. Now, for the past days, every morning around 7.30, I have slowed down and scouted cautiously: Does anyone seem tense, watchful? Are there any police troops in a state of mobilization hiding somewhere close? Are there any heavy fireworks all of a sudden, alerts of that something is about to happen?

Luckily, the answer has been no, so I have continued: up a rough, handmade concrete stairway, a quick turn to the left, and then, inwards, upwards, small, dirty alleyways, passages fit only for one person at the time, electricity cords hanging down from haphazard, spider web-like electricity poles, dog poo and garbage, dirty water pits and sewage-like water streams, broken pieces of cement, the occasional smell of marijuana.

Hard-plastic water hoses serving private homes, the size of a garden hose, lay open along the alleyway, tied together as bundles with a wire. Sewage pipes lay part open and are part put down in concrete, ready to be opened if it needs to be fixed or tapped into. Most of the time, direct sunlight is kept out by the towering brick houses built on the top of one another, three, four stories tall. All of a sudden, a small grocery store, a glimpse into a private home through an open door.

People are walking quickly downwards, many of them with a child on their arm or by the hand, sometimes we greet with a bom dia, but mostly people are busy with footing themselves without falling or getting wet. When we meet in the narrow alleys or stairways someone has to back up or wait, and you always have to look ahead before you turn the corner as those coming down run faster than those coming up.

The air is hot and damp even though it is early in the morning and winter here in Brazil. With sweat breaking out on my forehead and leg muscles aching, I continue upwards and inwards for five-ten minutes until I duck into a narrow, dark passage that is hardly noticeable, cross a provisional concrete bridge passing over a dirty, smelly and infectious water stream down the mountain side, nod to the hens that are picking in the dirt, and there I am, at the entrance to Dona Sofia’s* kindergarden.

Women and security                                   

Dona Sofia is a dark-skinned, calm woman in her 40ties. Every weekday between 8am and 4pm she receives up to 16 children in her home. The living room where the children gather, except from when they take a nap or wash up before lunch, is around 18m2. Since the furniture takes up half the space, the available space on the floor amounts to roughly 6 m2.

It goes without saying that it is not easy to take care of such a handful of energetic children in such a small space—not least if you are the sole adult, as Dona Sofia is. Occasionally, she gets a hand from her own elder children or mother who lives downstairs, but she also welcome volunteers for shorter or longer periods of time.

Henceforth, for the past days, I have been tía Iselin—auntie Iselin—every morning from 8 until 12. I have helped changing clothes, serving food, calming tempers and drying tears, and taught Norwegian children songs and “my name is” in English.

It might seem like an odd thing to do whilst on fieldwork, but I came to Rocinha, allegedly Rio’s and Brazil’s largest favela, with a desire to find out more about how mothers think about the security situation in their community, and about security more broadly. I soon extended this into also including young girls, and at night, when people are coming home from work and school, I am busy conducting a survey with open-ended questions to get a general overview over people’s perceptions of these issues. However, I figured that a kindergarden would be a good place to also explore the issue of security—from the inside of the favela, literally, and from a female, family, and parent’s perspective.

Photo: Iselin Åsedotter Strønen

The infamous UPPs

Rio’s favelas have received an unusual amount of attention both from media and academics the last years because of the so-called pacification programs introduced by the Brazilian government ahead of the World Cup in 2014 and Olympic Games in 2016. Police troops, called Police Pacification Units (UPPs), have been stationed in a number of favelas, especially those close to the city center and sports site. The goal was to chase out the drug traffickers, who have been de facto in charge of Rio’s favelas for two decades, and to improve the security situation for the inhabitants. To that end, the police troops were to also be accompanied by social development programs and community outreach efforts.

The rolling out of the UPPs has received a lot of criticism. It has been alleged that the motive was above all about extending the state’s control (as well as private commercial interests) over favela territories ahead of the prestigious sports game, and that the promised social development programs have yet to materialize. Attention has also been drawn to a string of reports of police-collaboration with traffickers, human right abuses, and criminal activities—the most famous case in point is the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of the bricklayer Amarildo Souza here in Rocinha in 2013. Consequently, reports also indicate that the favela population’s perceptions of the UPPs are dubious at best.

Retired, not gone 

My preliminary findings are quite unanimous: so far, all my respondents have answered that they find the security situation in the community worse—much worse, many say—after the incursion of the UPPs. Prior to the UPP “invasion”, Rocinha was controlled by one of the three large drug trafficking organizations in Rio: Amigos do Amigos. The organization was run by the young and mythical trafficker Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, nicknamed Nem, who was captured in a large-scale police operation in 2010 and are now serving a long prison sentence. However, even with him in prison and the UPPs stationed here, Amigos do Amigos is still the ruling organization and traffickers have not disappeared. Rather, they have retired to more limited and less easily accessible areas of Rocinha, and that appears to have caused some paradoxical—and from the population’s point of view very negative—impacts in two very distinct manners.

One issue is that previously, traffickers controlled the whole favela, imposing their own “laws”. A central part of their “legislation” and efforts to maintain territorial control, social support, and a good business climate was that criminal activity (except their own drug trafficking, that is) was not allowed within the confines of the community. Thus, rapists and robbers, if there were any, would soon be eliminated, and most of my interviewees say that that rape, robberies and break-ins virtually did not exist in Rocinha before. A woman I interviewed last week even alleged that before they didn’t even have to lock their doors. Now, people say, these kinds of crime happens with much more frequency. Social control has been lost, respect for others has declined, and outsider can with much more ease come and commit their crimes here.

Unpredictable police

The other issue is that shootouts have become a more common and unpredictable affair, as the police and traffickers occasionally enter into violent confrontations. This may explode when the police troops are on their daily rounds, or it happens as part of a planned police operation targeted at a particular part of the community where traffickers are hiding. There were indeed shootouts before as well, people confide, but with less frequency and with more predictability, as the traffickers would warn people of something was cooking.

This is also why I scout for irregular police mobilizations or warning signals (heavy fireworks may indicate that traffickers know that police is on its way) in the morning before I enter into the community where the kindergarden is located. Indeed, this area is just a stone’s throw away from one of the trafficker strongholds in Rocinha, and thus one of the areas the most prone to shoot-outs.

School-time shoot-outs

In a recent article published by the online community newspaper, it is reported that police authorities and school-and kindergarden headmaster in Rocinha will schedule a meeting in July. The topic to discuss is how to avoid that police operations coincide with the hours in the morning and afternoon when parents are bringing or picking up their children from the kindergarden or school. As any parent may imagine, the prospect of being trapped in a shoot-out with your child in your everyday surroundings is a terrifying affair, and such a policy may, at least, slightly reduce the risk for this to happen.

Regulating foreseeable “shooting hours” does not solve the problem, though, as shootouts may occur nevertheless. Last week I interviewed a young mother who experienced a shootout at her doorstep in February. It was around 1pm, she said, and she fled the street and into her home—her one-year old daughter in her arms—where they went into hiding under her bed. “How did your daughter react”, I asked. “She got very nervous”, she responded, “because she noted how afraid I was”.

And then we have Claudio* in the kindergarden. A quiet, skinny two-year old who is prone to get lost in his own thoughts and somehow retreat from what is happening around him. “His home was destroyed from a shoot-out recently”, Dona Sofia told me the first day. On her mobile phone, she showed my pictures of what was once Claudio’s home, riddled with bullet holes, apparently completely blown up. “Luckily, he was here, in the kindergarden”, she said, “and no one from his family got hurt. But they are now living somewhere close by with a relative, and he is really unhappy and long for his old home, he doesn’t eat, does not sleep well…”

Limited training                

In spite if these dangerous and stressful dynamics, it is important to mention that all said and done, Rocinha is a safer favela than many others. In broad daylight, crime is not a real worry. Indeed, for a gringa like me, it is probably safer to be here than at Copacabana, where robbery indeed is a common occurrence. Concurrently, all respondents also indicate that they feel safer inside of Rocinha than outside its community borders. Nevertheless, the feeling and experience of reduced security is real, and people do report a high degree of fear for shootouts. And they have good reason for this: in the course of the history of UPPs, there have been many cases whereby innocent people have been both hurt and killed by a so-called bala perdida (lost bullet) or get trapped in cross-fire.

Moreover, as another member of the Everyday Maneuvers-project, Tomas Salem, has done research on, the police officers in the UPPs are often neither properly trained, motivated and remunerated for the task, and the death toll for police officers is high. Add to this a lack of trust and cooperation between the police and the broader community where they work, and you are left with a remedy with limited prospects for “success”.

The problem of problems

Also, it is an open question what will happen after the Olympic Games in 2016. Will the UPPs be phased out? If so, what will happen when that power vacuum is to be filled? Or shall the UPPs just continue to patrol the favelas without any other overarching plan or any real removal of traffickers?

And what about the real million-dollar question that have the potential to solve the problem of narco-crime in the long run: to provide decent jobs, decent salaries, decent health care, decent leisure option, decent sports-and culture centers, decent basic sanitation, decent housing and quality education for Brazil’s millions of favela dwellers?

In spite of all of Brazil’s achievements during the past 15 years, this is far from being a reality. And in the meantime, the favelas are characterized by a fragile and volatile co-existence between police and traffickers, with ordinary hard-working people—and mothers, fathers, and children—trapped in between.


* The name is fictitious

Arriving the kindergarden Photo: Iselin Åsedotter Strønen