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Impoverished migrants who moved to Rio to serve its wealthy elites staked out shelter on the steep hills around the city, leading to the hallmark architecture of the first favelas. Their geography makes them an easy place for gangsters to carve out a redoubt, and difficult for police to control or the city to provide basic services such as sewage. (DADO GALDIERI/Bloomberg)
Impoverished migrants who moved to Rio to serve its wealthy elites staked out shelter on the steep hills around the city, leading to the hallmark architecture of the first favelas. Their geography makes them an easy place for gangsters to carve out a redoubt, and difficult for police to control or the city to provide basic services such as sewage. (DADO GALDIERI/Bloomberg)

Stephanie Nolen

Can Rio gain control of its notorious favelas in time for the World Cup? Add to ...

When the doors were thrown open on four shiny new police stations sprinkled across the hilltops of the giant Rio favela called Complexo de Alemao back in 2011, the moment was “a symbol of liberation of the city from the Nazis,” in the words of one prominent observer. Elite soldiers crashed through the tiny alleyways and drove out the heavily armed drug dealers who had ruled the favela for decades.

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Residents were promised safety, new services, new hope, all to be delivered from the “pacification” centres on the hilltops. Rio was three years into a bold new experiment in urban security, and taking back Alemao was its biggest prize.

Today the prize is looking decidedly battered. Six officers from the new police force have been killed since November, one of them shot at her desk in the station when it was besieged by the supposedly vanquished drug dealers. Six civilians have also died in the fighting. There are near-daily gun battles in the favela; two police were wounded Thursday. Terrified of losing control of Alemao just two months before the soccer World Cup, the state of Rio de Janeiro has sent the elite unit of the military police back in to reinforce the regular police officers, and to train them in counter-insurgency.

The government has also sent the army into the city’s other largest favela bloc, Complexo de Mare, desperate to push back on the drug gangs before a flood of tourists arrives. And so Rio’s evening news is full of images of children playing football in the alleys as tanks and armoured personnel carriers rumble past; the newspapers publish daily death counts from the favelas.

“It’s a deep crisis,” said Ignacio Cano, a leading researcher on Rio’s pacification project and the man who made the Nazi liberation observation. “We’re losing the opportunity to make real change.”

Launched in 2008, pacificação was a bold attempt to tackle Rio’s staggering public-security problem. A fifth of the city’s population was living under the control of drug dealers – not in remote or isolated suburbs, but in the favelas that carpet the hills in the middle of the city and are nestled all through it. Rio’s homicide rates were among the highest in the world. The favelas were no-go zones for the police, and for most other branches of the state, creating bizarre pockets of isolation and lawlessness that sometimes spilled over into the rest of the postcard metropolis. The crime organizations, meanwhile, which are administered by Brazil’s powerful prison gangs, had built up heavily armed bastions where they made money not only on drugs but also by controlling access to services such as electricity, effectively holding their residents hostage.

With the World Cup on the horizon, and a bid in to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, the city decided to embark on a new strategy. First, troops went in to chase out the dealers (after first warning them and giving them the chance to flee on their own). Then came specially trained police, who instead of their usual model of crashing into favelas on bloody raids and then decamping, would move in and stay. These police were mostly new recruits, without any history with the drug dealers, with training in community policing, more limited weaponry and instructions that armed engagement was to be a last resort rather than a standard operating procedure. Instead of having an incentive policy for the number of targets killed (as police working the favelas in the 1990s did), they were now rewarded for lowering the number of people they killed in the course of doing their jobs.

These police were to establish the presence of the state, give residents new confidence and end the invisible borders that set the favelas apart from the city that surrounded them. Hot on their heels came services – garbage collection, and pop-up primary health clinics in shipping containers, and technicians to put in electrical wires and Internet cables. There were limits on what they could do quickly (favela geography makes it fiendishly difficult to install sanitation services, for example) but plenty of scope for them to win over residents and close up the space for lawlessness.

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Globe and Mail Update Sep. 26 2013, 2:11 PM EDT

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