By Atila Roque, executive director of Amnesty International Brazil
Early last Saturday morning (5 April 2014), the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s Maré complex of favelas (slums) woke up to a military occupation by around 2,700 federal Army troops. They took over from a military police contingent that had been in the area since 30 March.
Under an agreement with the authorities, the security forces will remain there until 31 July, after the World Cup ends. Once they leave, it’s expected that a Pacifying Police Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, UPP) will set up in Maré.
The Maré complex is home to some 132,000 people, spread across 16 communities. It’s a collection of slums and informal settlements located between Rio de Janeiro’s main access routes, and lies close to the international airport. It’s a diverse community, with a history of community organization and poor access to public services. Its residents share the space with organized criminal groups and milícias – criminal gangs made up largely of former or off-duty state law-enforcement agents.
The relationship between the police and Maré residents has been marked by violence and abuse, the result of the “war” on crime and drug-trafficking in the community, which has affected young black residents in particular. The residents are apprehensive about the changes, despite the prospect of getting rid of the entrenched “authority” of drug trafficking and the expectation of having better access to public services.
For Amnesty International Brazil, the Army’s presence in Maré is both a difficult and an opportune moment for the state to demonstrate that public security is a right to be guaranteed to and enjoyed by all city residents, with no exceptions. The favelas and outlying areas shouldn’t be treated as “enemy territory” to be conquered, and the battle against criminal elements shouldn’t lead to the criminalization of the entire community – especially the youth.
As the World Cup approaches, there’s a growing fear that this model – intervention by the Army and other security forces in the favelas – could be expanded, raising the threat of human rights violations and the militarization of daily life in the poorest communities. The armed forces have inadequate training for this type of operation, as well as little experience of engaging in dialogue with civil society and communities.
It’s worth remembering that the latest interventions by federal forces and state public security agencies in Rio de Janeiro led to grave human rights violations. In June 2007, an operation carried out with the help of the National Force in the Alemão complex of favelas resulted in 19 residents being killed in clashes with security forces. Some of them bore evidence of extrajudicial and summary executions, according to an investigation by independent experts. In June 2008, soldiers engaged in a federal security project in Morro da Providência were responsible for the deaths of three young people, who were killed after the soldiers handed them over to a criminal group.
The ‘We’re from Maré and we have rights’ campaign
Amnesty International Brazil has been closely linked to the Maré communities since 2012, when we launched the campaign, “We’re from Maré and we have rights”, along with the local NGOs Redes de Desenvolvimiento da Maré and Observatório de Favelas. The campaign’s goal is to inform residents about their rights and prevent abuses and disrespectful actions by the security forces, especially when they deploy on the streets and in the houses of the favelas. Towards this aim, we and our partners have distributed educational materials directly to more than 35,000 homes in Maré, as a way of preparing the communities for the installation of the UPP in the area after the World Cup.
Last week, in a meeting with Rio de Janeiro State’s Secretary of Security, we presented the concerns and demands Maré’s residents have about the military occupation.
Osmar Camelo, a representative of the Association of Morro do Timbau Residents (one of the Maré communities) said that his community wants to be an active participant in the process and highlighted the importance of establishing trust between the residents and the security forces. “The policing approach – which is aggressive and violates rights – must change,” he urged.
Directors of NGOs working in Maré unanimously demanded that the state recognize local mechanisms for controlling and mediating conflict, such as a community ombudsperson. This would be one way to ensure that the organized criminal groups’ use of violence to exert their control over the community isn’t just substituted by police doing the same thing. Another thing the organizations want is for the state to make inroads into Maré, not only through the police, but also through a range of essential services and a guarantee of rights for all.
Amnesty International Brazil will keep acting with our local partners in Maré and other human rights NGOs to ensure that the state security forces’ entry into the complex of favelas becomes a milestone for guaranteeing human rights, and not just the beginning of another violent chapter in the communities’ history.
Brazil: Slum campaign on human rights ahead of police operation (News story, 5 November 2012)