HAEMMERLE: In Olympics’ Rio de Janeiro, favelas on fire



Matt Haemmerle

At a first glance, God appears to be everywhere. He is in the tiny churches where both the innocent and the sinful alike go and pray. He is hanging from the gold crosses that dangle from the necks of gangsters, drug dealers and the dead bodies they pull from the trunks of their cars. He is tattooed on the backs of young Brazilian boys who run through the hot asphalt shantytown of Cidade de Deus – the City of God – carrying their silver pistols. Present only in name, it doesn’t take long to realize that God left the “favelas,” or shantytowns, of Rio de Janeiro a long time ago.

Rio’s first favelas (the name comes from a fast growing weed) sprouted from the earth in 1888 after Brazil abolished slavery, and the freed slaves had nowhere else to live but on open hillsides and in drained mangrove swamps. Here, they were able to construct their shanties, which quickly grew into the concrete jungles that now fester around the fringes of Rio. The favelas have swelled as unemployed former soldiers and the rural poor have moved in.

Today, the favelas are a violent gangland where the state is almost completely absent. Drug gangs, abetted by the black market which guarantees them military weapons from the United States and Russia, impose their own system of justice, taxation and law and order. The gangs demand protection money from legal businesses, such as bus companies, cable television operators and cooking gas suppliers, .

Unlike Colombia and Mexico’s export-based drug cartels, the gangs of Rio are wholesale importers of cocaine from Bolivia, Peru and Colombia and of marijuana from Paraguay. Their business and retail distribution network mimic the hierarchical structure of the corporate world.

The favela culture instills the youth with a mentality that constantly generates young recruits who are looking for respect, self-affirmation and a quick ticket to “manhood,” as explained in an October issue of the New Yorker.

Brazilian boys grow up wanting to be soccer players but become disillusioned with their childhood fantasy and instead wish to emulate the drug trafficker with his AR-15 assualt rifle and Nike shoes.

About a decade ago, policemen and firefighters wishing to sidestep the law and attack the drug gangs on their own terms formed their own militias, which are gangs in their own right.

Today, these militias operate with the objective to murder gang members until the gang is wiped out. Thanks to crooked officials and the low wages that require virtually all police officers to work a second job (sometimes even as a gangster), Rio has seen the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime. The police have lost all respect. Policemen are seen as rivals, and gangs show no hesitation when faced with the decision to shoot.

Private security forces play an increasingly larger role in Rio. Newsweek notes that whileBlackwater receives all the press coverage for its private security work in Iraq, but many cities around the world have surrendered crime fighting and prevention to private entities. In Russia, private cops outnumber regular ones 10-to-1. Private security militias are also prevalent in South Africa and India. In Uganda, the number of private police officers is equal to that in Iraq during the height of the Iraq War in 2006.

Such is now the case in Rio, where the demographic upheaval of rising prosperity, a widening gap between rich and poor and burgeoning slums combined with the state’s inability to ensure law and order has made private security a necessity.

The trend of violence and gang rule is a dangerous threat to Rio. For one, the city will be hosting the Olympics in 2016, an event for which safety and security will be essential.

What is happening in the favelas is something that needs to be quelled completely, not just temporarily suppressed for the Olympics. If security demands remain unmet, gang rule will spread through the favelas like forest fire, burning any semblance of state control. Whole parts of Rio risk being lost to thug anarchy.


Matt Haemmerle is a sophomore political science and economics major from Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. He can be reached at [email protected].