Since the end of the World Cup, shootouts between gangs and law enforcement have become the new normal for residents of a favela in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO — Francisca Thamires Nascimento Alves should be free to attend college classes, go to a corner store or luncheonette, and walk through her community with her friends.
But because the 17-year-old lives among the series of sprawling hilltops that make up the cluster of favelas of Complexo do Alemão (which translates to German Complex), her routine is not marked by these mundane activities — it’s defined by gun battles.
“There’s been a lot of shootings and we who live here are afraid of leaving home, even to buy bread, even at home we [do not live] peacefully because as they say, ‘Random bullets have no direction,’ and that I can assure you,” Alves told MintPress News.
In a recent 15-day period, three people were killed and 19 injured by stray bullets in the Rio de Janeiro slum. Alves and other Complexo do Alemão residents have gotten caught in the dirt road clashes between law enforcement and drug traffickers. Since the World Cup ended on July 13, residents have reported hearing shootouts nearly every day. Classes have been interrupted, commerce has come to a halt, and public transportation has stalled at times.
“The drug dealers are trying to come back to the communities and the police are not letting them,” Alves said. “This makes things even worse.”
Drug traffickers often give merchants several hours’ advance warning of violence, but as that time dwindles, the number of triggers pulled rises.
On July 21, 6,930 children were unable to go to school when shootings occurred in a police operation to arrest 40 suspected traffickers. The next day, 11,537 children stayed home from school.
“Sometimes mothers don’t have anyone to leave their kids with, so they can’t work,” Alves said. “Not just mothers, but fathers as well.”
Leonardo França, an 18-year-old university student and Complexo do Alemão resident, says that although there was “always a tense atmosphere reigning in the slum,” the mood of residents had “really changed” in recent weeks. Security forces appeared to strengthen in the lead-up to the World Cup, he says, fueling hopes that things would change.
“Now that the Cup is gone, every day we hear sounds of gunfire… [it] has been horrible,” he said.
“The level of violence changed considerably, or rather, it was already bad, but it had been covered up by events in the country. Now it’s back, and thanks to it, all we see almost daily [is] innocent people dying in fights that they don’t belong in,” França said.
Freedom changed to fear, he explains, because residents cannot leave their homes.
Residents fight both sides
Once home to the headquarters of Rio’s Comando Vermelho (“Red Command”) drug faction — one of the three largest criminal organizations in Rio — the more than 15,000 residents of Complexo do Alemão have been caught in a perpetual cycle of conflict from opposing sides, including the police.
Since 2008, the state government has sought to institute a “pacification” scheme into the favelas, reclaiming territory once held by heavily armed criminals.
Security forces conducted an infamous five-day sweep to drive out criminals in November 2010. Though nearly 40 people — including some bystanders — died in clashes, many felt the operation marked a “turning point” for Complexo do Alemão, a historically lawless area where locals had answered to drug kingpins for decades.
Securing the areas as Brazil prepared to host the World Cup, and as it continues to prepare for the 2016 Olympics, the Unidades de Polícia Pacificador, or Police Pacification Units, known as UPPs, are special community policing units implemented as new security models.
A drop in crime in areas formerly dominated by gangs has been attributed to the new security measures. But the resurgence in violence in the favelas seen since earlier this year, according to news reports, shows that traffickers are apparently looking to retake territory.
At the end of July, it was reported that five officers had been killed and 23 injured in clashes this year.
As violent incidents rose ahead of the World Cup, security forces sought to beef up their offensive as the global spotlight tilted toward Brazil. But with a tainted image tied to a policy widely-perceived as “shoot first, ask questions later” and a series of abuses that global human rights monitors continue to document — civilian deaths from police shootouts with criminals, for example — distrust rose against the UPPs.
In 2013, the program came under greater fire when Amarildo Dias de Souza, a local bricklayer from Rio’s largest favela, Rocinha, went missing after he was arrested by UPP at the beginning of nationwide protests. At the time, officers claimed that he already been released. Several months later, however, 25 officers were charged with torturing and murdering Souza, then hiding his body.
More than a year later, “Where is Amarildo?” remains on signs at protests and is chanted as a reference to the man’s still missing remains. The case is pending, but it has also been folded into the larger social movements against police violence and solidarity demonstrations for Brazilians.
The amount of incidents gone wrong was a point of concern inComplexo do Alemão, prompting residents to send an “SOS” on social media channels.
Fearing retribution, they opted to express their thoughts via Twitter, rather than in the streets. França says the “Twittaço for Peace” campaign, which took off among the youth, was intended to focus attention on local authorities.
Using the hashtag #SOSComplexodoAlemao, locals have used social media as a platform to express their frustrations and report recent incidents of violence, either at the hands of police, gangs or other residents.
Some have used the hashtag to provide documentation of the violence flooding the favela. One user, for example, posted a photo of a young man who had been shot in the eye.
Others, meanwhile, used it to plead for peace.
But Alves, the university student from Complexo do Alemão, she says she chose not to participate because it would not solve anything.
“Because what the morro [hill] really needs is peace, not only for the residents, even for the police — there outside — everyone thinks the culprits are the residents because the media blames us,” she said, adding, “Plus, most of the time the politicians are to blame because they do not always respect the people. Sometimes we are treated like trash.”
The violence hit home with Alves three months ago, when she lost a close friend, Caio Moraes da Silva, to a stray bullet.
She says Silva, a 20-year-old mototaxi driver, was working when he was killed in a community protest in Complexo do Alemão. Silva has been carrying a passenger in the vicinity of the small protest that turned violent.
The shooting at the protest has been the subject of debate. A local news site posted a video taken by a bystander of police officers shooting into the area where Silva had been killed.
Other local reports say that UPP claimed that the shooting started from inside the community, noting that an officer’s car had been targeted.
So far, no one has been held responsible for Silva’s death, and Alves says she is still waiting for an officer to be charged.
“More today, friends and family await justice, and still nothing happens,” Alves said. “More still hope that something is done because his death was a senseless thing.”
“Unfortunately, he was a victim.”