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Reclaiming Brazil’s ‘favelas’

Rio de Janeiro is home to around 6 million people, 1 million of whom live in the 1,000 or so ‘favelas’ (shanty towns) which have grown up around the city. Populated mostly by economic migrants from the north-east of Brazil, the favelas have for many decades afforded their poor residents limited access to health and education services because of their lawlessness. As strongholds for drugs traffickers, the favelas have been virtual no-go areas for public sector workers. Lacking systematic health care, high numbers of residents suffer from diseases such as tuberculosis and there are high rates of maternal and child mortality, with children particularly vulnerable to diseases spread by unsanitary conditions.

Some favelas have seen developments in basic sanitation, education and health-care, particularly with help from non-governmental organisations who have been prepared to forge working relationships with the drugs gangs. However, as Brazil prepares to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, the government is anxious to improve the situation still further.

Since 2008, under orders from the state governor Sergio Cabral, the authorities in Rio de Janeiro have embarked on a programme of ‘pacification’ across the city. This involves issuing an ultimatum to the drugs gangs to leave certain areas, followed by months of patrols and then the sending in of army and police units to evict any drugs traffickers who remain. ‘Pacifying Police Units’ (known as UPPs) are then established to keep law and order. 13 favelas so far have been occupied under the programme, covering around 200,000 people. And it is planned that another 27 will be taken over in the next four years.

Though drug dealing is not eradicated entirely, what remains is more discreet and dealers no longer carry large weapons. In areas policed by the UPPs, other serious crimes, such as child prostitution, are also reduced. In a worrying trend, Brazil has recently been rivalling Thailand as a popular destination for child sex tourism, with UNICEF estimating there could be as many as 250,000 child prostitutes in the country. By introducing better schools, health care and other facilities, the authorities hope to provide a safer environment for the city’s children and through better policing, to eradicate the gangs who prey on vulnerable youngsters.

The latest district to be targeted by the authorities is the ‘Complexo do Alemão’, a cluster of a dozen favelas in the north of the city. At the end of last month, a battalion of marines, armoured vehicles and police moved into the area and at least 37 people were killed in the clashes. Despite the loss of life, most residents and citizens of Rio were glad to witness this latest siege. Now the army is to remain in the area as ‘peacekeepers’ for six months while new police recruits are trained. And the mayor of Rio has announced that he wants to pay NGOs to extend health-care programmes to all the Complexo’s residents, around 400,000 people. If the authorities can retain control of this newly recovered territory, favela-dwellers may finally believe that the time of lawlessness is over and they are now fully-fledged members of the Brazilian state, entitled to the kind of services other citizens take for granted.

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