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Favela War

Heavy gun battles happen on an almost daily basis in the city of Rio, especially in the favelas - poor, mostly unregulated shanty towns inside and around the city - and other peripheral neighborhoods, where three main drug gangs and several militia groups battle for control of territory and against the police.

Brazil’s president Michel Temer ordered the army to take over command of police forces in Rio de Janeiro 16 February 2017. The emergency measure, the first of its kind since Brazil returned to democracy after the end of a military dictatorship in the mid-1980s, comes amid rising violence and a spike in crime. It takes effect immediately and will last until the end of 2018.

The number of murders in Brazil has broken records: a total of 63,880 people were killed in 2017, a three percent increase from the previous year. Averaging 175 homicides per day, or 7.2 every hour, the murder rate is equivalent to that of a country engulfed in war, according to the Brazilian Forum of Public Security. The 2017 murder rate had also reached new heights, up from 29.9 to 30.8 deaths per 100,000 per people.

"The manner in which the country opts to address public security generates many victims," said sociologist Renato Sergio de Lima, president of the forum. "When you elect confrontation, the results are devastating. The numbers show we have a serious problem with lethal violence." The overwhelming majority of victims were young Black men, de Lima said, attributing the rise in murders to organized crime.

More militarization and policing forms the bulwark of the right-wing's strategy for dealing with Brazil's security issues, but such a strategy flies in the face of evidence from the six-month military intervention in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The 'Aimlessly: No Program, No Results, No Direction' report, published by the Intervention Observatory at Candido Mendes University, revealed that massacres in Rio de Janeiro state doubled and the number of shootouts significantly increased since the military intervention was launched on February 16. Silvia Ramos, coordinator at the Intervention Observatory, said the intervention was a political decision "that spawned new problems with the presence of soldiers in the political life of Brazilians, who were hurled into the center of a scenery without solving the problem of insecurity in Rio."

Twenty-nine violent deaths were recorded per 100,000 residents in 2012 - the lowest total on record - but then jumped to 38 per 100,000 residents in 2016, when Rio hosted the Summer Olympics, according to government figures. By September 2017, the number had increased even further, to 40 violent deaths per 100,000 residents. At least 134 police officers were killed in Rio, while police killed more than 1,000 people, the highest tally in nearly 10 years, according to government figures.

Saying drug gangs have “virtually taken over” the city, the Presdient said “I am taking these extreme measures because circumstances demand it”. The decree affects the entire state of Rio, including Rio de Janeiro's metropolitan area of 12 million people. He said organized crime “threatens the tranquility of our nation. For that reason, we have just called for a federal intervention in the public security for Rio de Janeiro. ... We will not accept a passive response to the death of innocent people. What is intolerable is that we are burying fathers and mothers and workers and police and young people and children”.

The order was quickly criticised by opposition figures, however, who derided it as a cynical move by the widely unpopular and scandal-plagued Temer, whose approval rating hovers around five percent, to look presidential in an election year. Brazil's security crisis will likely be a deciding factor in October's general elections, with law-and-order candidates gaining in popularity.

According to the Forum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, a public safety research group, 4,572 people were murdered in the state of Rio de Janeiro in 2016, an increase of almost 20% over the year before. In February 2017 alone, the state registered 502 murders, which was 24.3% higher than February 2016. Brazil’s national homicide rate is ninth in the Americas, according to a 2016 World Health Organization report, with 32.4 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. That’s worse than Haiti (26.6), Mexico (22) and Ecuador (13.8) but better than homicide-beset Honduras (103.9), Venezuela (57.6), Colombia (43.9) and Guatemala (39.9).

But in this country of 200 million, the sheer numbers are staggering. More people were murdered in Brazil in the five-year period from 2011 to 2015 (279,567 victims) than those killed in the war in Syria (256,124 victims by one count). Also notable is the profile of the people dying: in 2015, 54% of Brazilian homicide victims were young people between the ages of 15 and 24, and 73% were black or brown. Between 2009 and 2015, law enforcement killed 17,688 people. Figures from the Forum Brasileiro indicate that in 2014, 584 people died as a result of “resisting a police intervention”. In 2015, 645 out of a total 58,467 violent deaths were at the hands of police. And in 2016, 920 people were killed by the same forces that, in theory, are supposed to protect them.

Brazil has been trying unsuccessfully to quell crime with militarised law enforcement for decades, but governments remain immune to criticism from the local population and international human rights organisations. Warlike invasions carried out by the military police – do not provide any positive or sustainable results. Instead, the raids create widespread fear, injure or kill innocent bystanders, and kill people: both suspects and police officers.

The homicide rate in Brazil increased nearly 600 percent between 1980 and 2014. The situation in many Rio favelas is, for all practical purposes, a full-blown internal armed conflict, and not simply an urban crime problem. In its main features -- i.e., organized factions holding the monopoly on violence in their areas while in an open conflict with rival factions or/and state forces, the humanitarian impacts on innocent civilians trapped by violence in favelas dominated by gangs, and the need for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) to operate as though in a war zone to create "humanitarian spaces" -- the gang warfare in Rio's favelas resembles other situations worldwide that are formally recognized by governments and international organizations as internal armed conflicts.

Favelas can be seen as small states unto themselves, able to exercise some degree of autonomy and sovereignty. The globalized and post-colonial international relationships of the 21st centuries extend beyond traditional national boundaries to include subnational areas that do not claim independent state sovereignty in the traditional sense. While traditionally “you either are sovereign or you are not” has been the standard for statehood, this rule of thumb is increasingly found wanting in the 21st century. Favelas may be seen as semi-autonomous micro-states exercising degrees of de facto sovereignty.

With a population of over 200,000,000 people, Brazil as a society faces human rights challenges which find their expression in an incredibly high level of violence. The Human Rights Watch Report of December 2009, Lethal Force, police violence and public security in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, confirm the highest level of violence fueled by drug gangs which prominently target police in police posts as well as rival gang members. What both the U.N. Special Rapporteur and Human Rights Watch noted with grave concern, was the high level of lethal force employed by Brazilian police departments.

Human Rights Watch reported that the police departments of Rio and Sao Paulo alone had collectively killed more than 11,000 people between 2003 and 2009. What is deeply troubling about this is the fact that all too often the use of lethal force is explained by police officers as so-called resistence killings, meaning that an officer reported the use of lethal force as an act of self-defense, as an individual either opened fire on them, or in another threatening way resisted arrest. Nobody in their right mind can either downplay or minimize the fact that those Brazilian police officers who enforce the law in these high crime and drug gang controlled areas, do not face death on a daily basis with the beginnings of their shifts and even thereafter.

The Rio combatants are, of course, rival criminal gangs, militia groups, and the police, as opposed to political or ethnic factions. But in the gangs, complete control of geographic areas (Rio Governor Sergio Cabral referred to gang-dominated favelas as "occupied territories"), their relatively elaborate command and control structures, their powerful military weaponry, and in the horrendous body count they leave behind, Rio's gangs do resemble combatants in recognized internal armed conflicts worldwide. A signal distinction is that Rio's internal armed conflict is not generalized throughout a national or even regional theater. Instead, it is occurring within relatively discreet urban pockets (though violence can spill outside favelas), spread throughout a celebrated and highly developed megacity, one of two (with Sao Paulo) in a democratic country with one of the world's largest economies.

The dichotomy of extensive armed conflict raging in a celebrated and highly developed megacity in an economically powerful democracy may be becoming more than Brazilians can absorb, and frustration and the focusing effect of the 2016 Olympics in Rio seem to be galvanizing the public and state and federal governments to seek decisive action.

The de jure definition in International Humanitarian Law for "internal armed conflict" may not describe precisely the violence in Rio. To address conflicts between a state and non-state internal forces, Protocol II of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts) provides for applying law of war protections to conflicts between a state’s "armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol." Many, if not most, of the conflicts since World War II have been “internal,” that is, between a rebel or insurgent group and the state itself.

Typically, and understandably, states have resisted the application of the law of war to such conflicts, for to do so might imply legitimacy to acts of violence carried out by the non-state actors. After all, the law of war recognizes that lawful combatants may kill and engage in other acts of violence against legitimate targets. States have not wished to risk conceding such a privilege to rebels, preferring to treat them, and their acts, as criminal. Domestic law still applies. Unlike combatants in cases of international armed conflict, guerrillas do not receive immunity for their war-like acts.

The ICRC works to create "humanitarian spaces" in favela conflict areas, proceeding cautiously, first using local NGOpartners such as AfroReggae and Luta Pela Paz. In concrete examples, this has meant trying to convince gang factions to recognize certain places -- e.g., schools, clinics -- as "safe areas," working to establish mechanisms to locate and negotiate release of hostages, bringing basic supplies (including food and water) to civilians who are regularly isolated by the most extreme violence inside "favelas within favelas." ICRC also worked with former staffers of Doctors Without Borders to address treatment and evacuation of wounded or deceased persons. MSF closed its operation in the notorious Complexo de Alemao favela when it was not regularly able to fulfill its mandate of treating wounded citizens, owing to the grim fact that the lethality of the conflict in Rio's favelas leaves mostly dead victims.

Public concern in Brazil over steadily rising crime and a murder rate more than four times that in the United States has re-fueled a two-decade old debate over the question of deploying the military to undertake urban crime fighting missions. Enthusiasm for this idea increased in the aftermath of the Pan Am games, when the military carried out a support role in providing security and helped prevent any incidents from marring the games. Defense Minister Jobim, while not voicing outright support for the idea, has declined to rule it out. Various polls have consistently shown public support it.

Brazil's military has been reluctant to become involved in the war against drugs. Officers argue that, according to the constitution, it is the responsibility of the Federal Police to pursue such a war. The armed forces consider their involvement to be potentially corrupting and are loathe to become entangled in a "no-win" war. Furthermore, Brazilians, like other Latin Americans, are sensitive to United States involvement in the region and fear the United States may use the antidrug role as a rationale for an expanded presence in Brazil. From 1990 through 1993, the United States provided Brazil with approximately US$1 million a year for antidrug activities. As a result of United States Attorney General Janet Reno's visit to attend President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's inauguration on January 1, 1995, the antidrug agreement was renewed in April 1995, just before Cardoso's official visit to the United States.

The armed forces have been willing to provide logistical and intelligence support to the Federal Police in the war against drug trafficking. They have also become increasingly involved in countering the spread of armaments among the drug traffickers. In 1994 there were an estimated 40,000 illegal weapons in Rio de Janeiro. The constitution gives the army the responsibility for supervising armaments. In addition, the army's Eastern Command has provided the Military Police (Polícia Militar--PM) of Rio de Janeiro State with many weapons, long-range vision goggles, and bulletproof vests for countering the well-armed drug traffickers. In October 1993, the army provided the police forces with 7.62-millimeter FAL assault rifles--the first time such rifles were used by police forces in Brazil. The army also trained members of the Special Operations Battalion (Batalhão de Operações Especiais--Bope).

In October 1993, some police officers were implicated in the smuggling of arms to the traffickers, and as a result the army was called on to take firmer measures. All weapons seized in police operations were to be put under army control in military arsenals. In addition, special army agents were to work with the Civil Police, Military Police, and Federal Police forces to identify the traffickers' arms sources.

Drug trafficking and domestic consumption are, by all accounts, on the rise. Some of the groups involved in drug trafficking control entire shantytowns (favelas) and are far better armed than the Federal Police or State Police. In October 1994, there were reports that up to 70 percent of the police force was receiving payoffs by the heavily armed drug-trafficking gangs in the favelas. Growing public demands that law and order be restored in Rio de Janeiro prompted the Itamar Franco government to order the army to launch an offensive against the gangs and to oversee a purge of the police force. The army, under the command of a general, mobilized as many as 70,000 soldiers for the operation in the favelas.

In mid-June 2008, however, 11 soldiers from an Army unit deployed to a Rio slum as security for a social project handed three youths over to drug traffickers, who subsequently killed them. The incident has brought the debate over the military's proper internal role to the front pages of newspapers throughout the country. Despite a lower court ruling ordering the Army to withdraw from the "favela", Minister Jobim continues to argue that the Army was deployed legally and should not withdraw. The debate over whether to deploy the military to take on crime in urban areas, which is already taking place in an ad-hoc fashion, will not be fully resolved until Congress addresses the matter legislatively. Until then, the executive is likely to see internal military deployments as a tool too tempting and politically useful to forgo during public security crises.

Police corruption has been a long-standing problem in Rio de Janeiro. From the relatively low-wages that Rio police officers earn (the second lowest in all Brazilian states) to the high level of danger they face on a daily basis (arguably, the most violent work conditions), Rio police are relatively easy targets for drug traffickers' influence. Many police officers supplement their meager incomes by working with Rio's drug traffickers -- supplying contraband weapons, running drugs themselves, or providing protection. Several previous government administrations have attempted to tackle Rio's police corruption, but the underlying problem of officers being paid too little to tackle too big and dangerous an enemy remains.

Brazil understands that it faces extraordinary challenges as it prepares the country’s security for the upcoming Games. As a result, the federal government has created a specific agency under the Ministry of Justice charged with overall security planning and coordination for the Confederations Cup, the World Cup, and the Olympics. Brazil’s Secretariat for the Security of Large Event’s (SESGE) is in charge of the tactical and operational security planning at the 12 Brazilian host cities for the World Cup in coordination with state and local security forces. The institution brings together officials from all relevant federal and state security organizations, to ensure an integrated effort for security nationwide.

In early 2009 Rio de Janeiro’s State Secretary for Public Security launched a program called the Favela Pacification Plan, with the aim of entering and occupying, and thereby “pacifying” various favelas (slums) in Rio in order to provide public services and security to law abiding citizens. Rio’s police successfully entered at least five favelas, including several – Cantagalo, Pavao-Pavaozinho, and Morro da Babilonia – located near popular beaches and tourist sites commonly visited by U.S. citizens. The incursions of the police into favelas frequently led to gunfire and violence in and around the favelas, and led to retaliation attacks by criminals against public transportation.

Under the Favela Pacification Program (FPP) whereby specially recruited and police officers trained in community policing enter Rio’s favelas (slums), expel drug gang members and other armed criminal elements, and establish a permanent presence, called a Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (UPP). Municipal authorities can then enter the favela and safely deliver much needed social services and economic assistance to residents. The long-term goal of the FPP is to integrate the favela residents into mainstream society, a process that is ongoing and currently exceeding expectations.

Human rights and favela community representatives generally supported Rio de Janeiro's Favela Pacification Program and reported no killings related to the 450 Pacification Police Unit (UPP) officers that patrolled the four favela shantytowns under "pacification" by 2009. By then authorities had "pacified" four favelas, i.e. eliminated drug-trafficking elements, established a sustained UPP presence, and started provisions of basic services. Anti-narco trafficking operations are still underway in a fifth favela, which would receive UPP officers to conduct community policing as soon as the security situation fully stabilizes. Crime indicators - especially homicides - were much lower in pacified communities and the provision of basic services, such as electricity and trash collecting, was steadily improving.

By 2011, significant progress had been made in reducing Rio de Janeiro’s legendary, critical crime rates. Since November 2008, there have been 20 major pacification efforts. The result is that police have reasserted permanent control in dozens of previously unpacified favelas, home to nearly a million people. The two major Rio de Janeiro drug gangs, the Commando Vermelho and the Amigos dos Amigos, have permanently lost their base of operations in the Complexo do Alemao and Rocinha favelas. The senior leadership of both gangs are now in custody or on the run as fugitives. Police effectively control every major favela in Rio from the downtown financial district, extending south to the affluent Zona Sul (South Zone) and west to the Barra da Tijuca. This includes the area near the Maracana Stadium that will host the 2014 World Cup finals and the Barra Da Tijuca where the 2016 Olympic Games will be based. The goal until 2016 is for more than 20 additional pacification efforts to stand up, requiring the hiring of thousands of additional police officers. This is will bring nearly all of Rio’s favelas under the effective control of the police by 2016 when Rio hosts the Olympic Games.

According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Amnesty International, specialized Police Pacification Units (UPPs) significantly reduced violence in dozens of communities, but the NGO stated that police in Rio de Janeiro continued to depend on repressive methods and were responsible for at least 30 percent of all civilian casualties in police operations. Under the pacification program, the Rio de Janeiro State Secretariat for Public Security inaugurated eight new UPPs during the year, bringing the total to 27. In July 2012, after 19 months of control of the community, the armed forces handed over control of the favela Complexo do Alemao to UPP officers. At the end of 2012, UPPs were responsible for patrolling approximately 150 favela areas in Rio de Janeiro State.

After decades battling organized crime in the favelas, the poor communities that dot the hills surrounding the city, authorities in 2008 launched a huge slum "pacification" program. By 2014, some 38 Police Pacification Units (UPPs) comprising 9,500 officers have been installed in 174 favelas home to some 600,000 people. Rio intensified its efforts to keep a lid on crime as it attempts to turn the city into an international showcase for the World Cup and the Rio Olympics in 2016, the first Olympiad in South America.

Authorities stepped up efforts to quell the violence as the 2014 World Cup, which kicked off on June 12, loomed ever closer. Rio would stage seven matches, including the July 13 final. Rio authorities asked the government to approve military support for police in favelas in thrall to violent gangs and drug traffickers after a series of attacks on police units. President Dilma Rousseff on 24 March 2014 confirmed the government would send troop support following an appeal for assistance by Rio governor Sergio Cabral. Brazilian reconnaissance troops entered a sprawling slum district near Rio's international airport 26 March 2014 ahead of a larger operation to secure the crime-ridden area ahead of the World Cup. The federal troops joined police in the deployment in Mare to set the stage for a major joint drive to "pacify" a cluster of 16 neighborhoods seen as havens for organized crime.

The crisis of fatal violence against Afro-descendents in Brazil that sees one Black youth killed every 23 minutes in what some have called an “undeclared civil war,” according to a new Brazilian Senate committee report announced, is leading experts to raise alarm over a “genocide” suffered by young Black people in the South American country. The June 2016 report, carried out over the past year by a Senate commission on youth murder in consultation with victims of violence and their families, counsellors, researchers, lawyers, police, and other representatives, finds that over 23,000 Black youths are killed in the country every year, BBC Brazil reported. That’s more than three quarters of the total 50,000 annual youth murders. According to the commission, some participants in the study referred to the crisis as the de facto “extermination of poor and Black youth.”

Jose Mariano Beltrame, the state security secretary of Rio de Janeiro, submitted his resignation on 10 October 2016. In recent months he had decried a lack of resources and political commitment by the state government on security issues. The former police officer who was lauded in recent years because of reduced violence and inroads against criminal gangs in Rio, resigned as violence and crime rebound in the Brazilian city and erase many of the gains made during the near-decade he was in the job.

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Page last modified: 16-08-2018 15:26:58 ZULU