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RIO DE JANEIRO, May 22 2009 (IPS) - The police, who used to shoot first and ask questions later in Santa Marta, a Rio de Janeiro shantytown, are now getting on well with the local community – the result of a state government plan that nevertheless has drawn criticism.
Out of long habit, many local residents in the Santa Marta “favela” (the name given to the shantytowns that line the hills of this Brazilian city) do not dare talk openly about the police who have been permanently posted in their neighbourhood for the past six months, as part of what the Rio de Janeiro state government describes as a plan to “pacify” the slums.
They worry that, as in the case of unsuccessful programmes in the past, the police will leave and the drug traffickers will come back “and settle scores with them, because they established a good relationship with the police,” said sociologist Silvia Ramos, coordinator of the Centre for Studies on Public Security and Citizenship (CESC) at the Candido Mendes University.
They also have a deep-rooted fear of the police uniform itself – a symbol of police brutality in the favelas.
But some local residents dared to talk, as long as there were no tape recorders or cameras, and they expressed what Ramos has observed in at least 70 percent of the cases: that they feel safer and calmer since the community policing effort began and the Pacification Police Unit (UPP) moved in.
In Santa Marta, as in the more than 750 favelas that are home to 1.5 million of this city’s 11 million people, things are considered tranquil and safe when no shots can be heard – which is the situation when the drug traffickers are gone, and as a result there are no firefights with the police or among the drug gangs themselves.
Nor do they miss the notorious police brutality of the past. “Things are calmer. Now children can play in the streets without the danger of shootouts with the police,” Antonio Guedes, an adviser to the Santa Marta Residents Association, told IPS.
The UPP pilot plan began in Santa Marta, a favela surrounded by a middle-class neighbourhood, and later extended westwards, to Batán and Cidade de Deus (City of God), which filmmaker Fernando Meirelles made world-famous with the movie of that name.
“The most important thing, due to the history of traumatic relations between the security forces and the favelas, is that this time the strategy is not based on the skill or sensitivity of a few police officers, but is part of a government policy of recruiting and training police specifically for this kind of community policing,” said Ramos.
But the debate on the programme revived this week when police established a permanent presence in two new favelas, Chapeau Mangueira and Morro de Babilonia, which are located in Leme, the neighbourhood next to the famous beach district of Copacabana.
The first step in the process involves the arrival of elite military police units, to crack down on drug trafficking gangs.
In the two Leme favelas, for example, helicopters flew over the area all week long, tracking down fugitive drug traffickers, while land troops combed nearby forested areas, looking for drugs or arms caches.
Once the drug mafias are driven out, the UPP moves in, and social spending in areas like health, education, sports and income-generating projects for local inhabitants begins.
Ramos said the community policing effort is aimed at forging ties of trust, as part of a focus on crime prevention.
The researcher, who specialises in security issues and is an outspoken critic of police brutality, said this is the first strategy applied in Rio de Janeiro to establish a permanent presence by the security forces in specific geographic areas.
One of the aspects of the plan that she praised was the number of troops: 124 in the case of Santa Marta, which she said is enough to deal with any kind of problem and to “dissuade” armed action.
She also praised the fact that the police, who have received special training for the task, act as mediators and are equipped to take complaints about the behavior of the police force itself.
But the most outstanding aspect is that the “occupation” of Santa Marta by the military police, who have long had a bad reputation, has not given rise to complaints of police brutality or extortion.
The community policing programme in Santa Marta is the pet project of Governor Sergio Cabral of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which is allied with the national government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the leftwing Workers’ Party (PT).
Cabral, who underscores the importance of the plan’s social component, claims that drug trafficking activity in the Santa Marta favela has been reduced to zero.
“The main thing with respect to the ‘pacification police’ who are now in the communities is that the people, who had learned to live with criminals, now coexist with the presence of the state,” said the governor.
But Ramos and others say the social component has been weak and slow to implement.
Guedes cited the example of television: when the police moved into Santa Marta, all of the illegal cable connections were cut, and “we still don’t have television since you can’t get clear reception of the free-to-air channels here” because of the hills, he complained.
Ramos, for her part, referred to the controversial measure of banning the popular “funk dance parties,” which the police link to drug trafficking, without making alternative recreational options available to young people.
“The ideal would be for the police to come in, drive out the illegal armed groups that dominate the area, start the community policing effort, and immediately begin to implement a package of social programmes,” she said.
Fiel, the stage name of local rapper Emerson dos Santos, speaks from experience, as his concerts were also banned, even though he has “nothing to do with drug trafficking,” he told IPS.
“All communities in Brazil have their peculiarities, some listen to ‘funk,’ others listen to ‘pagoda,’ ‘hip hop’ or other genres, and the police don’t have anything to do with musical tastes, and should stick to fighting crime and not meddle with people’s culture,” he complained.
The 29-year-old musician questioned, among other aspects of the police occupation of the slum, the stereotypes about favela-dwellers.
“If they see someone with baggy pants and long hair in a ponytail, they arrest him, but if he’s wearing a suit and tie they leave him alone,” says the young man who is taking part in the “Favela Visao” community filmmaking project in Santa Marta.
He added that, although there are “extremely polite” police officers, others “are reluctant to get close” to the people of the favelas because either they never worked in the favelas or “they see us as accomplices of drug traffickers.”
But drug trafficking “is one thing, and the people of the favelas, 99 percent of whom are honest working people, are another,” said Fiel.
Community leaders in the slums where the programme just began have complaints of their own. The vice president of the Association of Residents of Morro de Babilonia, Carlos Antonio Pereira, said no one has come to speak with them to discuss social projects.
“We want the social arm stretched out to the community. Just bringing in police officers is not going to fix things,” he said.
But Marcelo Freixó, a provincial lawmaker with the opposition Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), admits that the programme has made some advances.
“It is obviously better for the police to come into a community with the aim of forging ties with the local residents, instead of killing people,” he said.
Freixó, who is chairman of the human rights commission in the Rio de Janeiro state legislature, wonders why the initiative does not form part of a general government policy in all Rio de Janeiro favelas.
He pointed out to IPS that the statistics show that the Rio de Janeiro police “is the police force that kills and dies the most in the world.” On average, three people a day are killed by the police in this city, in deaths that are classified in the official statistics as “resisting arrest.”
“For the police to be coming into the favela is a concept that is different from war, but it doesn’t mean that the state security policy has changed,” he said.
The legislator said that without a strong social presence by the state, the community policing plan will just be “another form of control” in the favelas.
Describing the situation as a “structural problem,” Ramos said “there will always be something wrong as long as the police are the state’s main presence in a favela.”
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