Rio de Janeiro, just days after the world-famous Carnival parades, saw another type of parade on Sunday night. Some 200 residents of the favela, Mare, marched in protest of what those residents describe as escalating human rights violations by the Army troops assisting with the war on the favela’s drug gangs.
Some of the signs being carried in Rio de Janeiro read “We Want Respect,” “No More Genocide of Black Youth,” and “Peace Without Voice Is Not Peace, But Fear.” The march was primarily peaceful, with some of the participants chanting along with tambourines and drums. A brief sit-down disrupted traffic on the Red Line, an important artery between downtown and the airport. Independent video showed the Rio de Janeiro military police dispersing demonstrators with teargas and at least one protester was overcome by the gas fumes. Later in the evening, in what appeared to be an unrelated confrontation between soldiers and drug traffickers, three soldiers were wounded, a reminder that the traffickers remain a force in the area.
The Mare Complex is one of a number of linked favelas in a large area of northern Rio de Janeiro, far from the tourist friendly southern zone. In recent years, it has been ground zero for heavily armed drug gangs whose internal warfare has made daily life nearly impossible for the area’s mostly working poor. In some of the favelas, the Rio de Janeiro drug gangs have become a law unto themselves, with shootouts and abductions becoming an everyday occurrence. Trafficker defiance in Rio de Janeiro has reached a level where no law enforcement was even allowed into the favelas under their control.
With the approach of the 2012 Soccer World Cup looming, the government of the State of Rio de Janeiro launched an aggressive campaign of “pacification” of the favelas, in effect an occupation by the Army. Mare was one of the first areas to receive this treatment. The strategy was to oust the drug gangs of Rio de Janeiro, and establish permanent police stations within the favela to maintain safety for the citizens. Although a special force of the military succeeded in uprooting some of the traffickers, they continue to be a significant threat as evidenced by the violence of last night. In addition, some of the Rio de Janeiro protesters voiced that the military occupation, in their search for traffickers has targeted many innocent citizens for arrest and interrogation, resulting in arrests without warrant and even deaths.
As one Rio de Janeiro protestor said, “They [the soldiers] don’t live here, we should have the right to come and go. They kill us.” Another resident, arriving from work into the middle of the confusion, pointed out that the soldiers appeared to be firing tear gas indiscriminately into the residential area. “I have three children there,” he said.
Luiz Fernando Pezão, Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, told reporters that the army soldiers were being transitioned out of Mare during the next months and would be replaced by July with a newly created police force of two thousand. He also said that the long-term strategy of occupation of the favela as a means of containing the Rio de Janeiro drug gangs was still in the planning stages.
With the Brazilian economy facing possible negative growth rate in the next year, significant challenges to already sparse resources and unemployment at very high levels in the favelas, it is probable that the drug trade will remain a factor in the underground economy. It is also probable that Rio de Janeiro’s working poor will continue to face a daily, deadly squeeze between an oppressive police presence and the violence of the drug trade for some time. However, demonstrations such as this, albeit small, demonstrate a tenacious struggle to make their voices heard and included in policy decisions.
By Evan Margetson