For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than rural areas, which has led to the creation of massive slums in cities around the world.
There are currently 1 billion people who call a slum home, and in Rio de Janeiro, one in five of the city’s residents live in a favela, as they are known in Brazil. For decades, the government has chosen to look the other way, as the favelas became a haven for violent drug trafficking gangs, who protected their profits by ruling with an iron fist.
Rio de Janeiro is now hoping to show the world that they can wrest back control of these favelas with a bold new offensive known as “pacification.” The city is also racing against the clock, promising to make Rio safe before they host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
This spring, "Vanguard" correspondent Mariana van Zeller travelled to Rio to investigate if Brazil’s pacification program was working — and to see how it is affecting the residents of Rio de Janiero’s 600 slums.
Authorities in Rio say they are serious about confronting this problem head-on. One morning our team joined 500 police officers on a mission into a favela. At the end of the day, the police had taken back control of the slum and arrested nine drug traffickers, all without incident.
But that is not always the case. Another morning, “Vanguard” attended the funeral of a 5-year-old boy who was killed by a stray bullet from a police officer’s gun. Rio’s police force kill on average 1,000 people a year, and police are often feared as much, if not more, than the traffickers themselves.
But in favelas like the City of God (made famous by the 2002 film of the same name), our team witnessed a new breed of beat cops known as UPPs. These community police patrol 24 hours a day, and residents said that while they are still getting used to having them around, their biggest fear is that the protection will leave after the Olympics are over.
When van Zeller was able to interview some of the drug traffickers themselves, they called the Pacification program a “façade” and said that if they are forced to leave their favelas, they will simply move on and do their business in a different slum. Authorities are hoping that, eventually, the gangsters will have nowhere else to go.