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stephanie nolen

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

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.

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.

That was the theory. And early on, it seemed to be working. An oceanfront favela called Vidigal now has art galleries, boutique hotels for tourists and sky-rocketing real estate prices. Rocinha, a community of 170,000 people that soars behind the beachfront of Ipanema, became a showpiece, with health clinics, libraries, public transit and streetscapes where children could play with no fear of stray bullets. There are now 36 pacification units, across some 250 favelas, with an estimated half a million inhabitants.

Alemao was the biggest target: The complex of 15 different favelas is home to roughly 100,000 people, jammed into two square kilometres near the heart of the city. It was the headquarters of the Comando Vermelho, the Red Command, the largest of the three main drug gangs. In hindsight, it seems clear that it never fully came under police control – and it is possible to see in the crisis in Alemao much of what has gone wrong with pacification.

When her neighbourhood was pacified, Maria de Fatima Casa Novas recalls, she started going to the market and browsing the fruit for sale, rather than dashing in and out as quickly as she could, as she had done all her life; she and her teenaged daughter signed up for dance classes at the new community centre. But they never learned to dance – because the social programs fizzled out not long after the television cameras moved on, she said. The new pool was drained and all lessons cancelled. "In the beginning it was excellent – on the first day the garbage collector and the streetlight installation people come. But four years later, they've forgotten us."

The scale of the need seems to have overwhelmed the city government, and the holes in its planning seem obvious in hindsight. "There are no jobs, nothing for the people who come out of prison," said Lucia Cabral, who heads a human rights organization in Alemao. The dealers never left, just went a bit underground or down the road, she said – and as the pacification has expanded, and shrunk their space to operate, they are increasingly aggressive.

Prof. Cano, who heads the innovative Laboratório de Análise da Violência at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, says it is not accurate to call pacification a failure: Lethal violence fell substantially in the pacified favelas since it began, he said; the state reclaimed huge swaths of the city. (Reports of other crime went up, but that largely reflects a new confidence in reporting, he said.)

"But in the last seven months several communities started to go back – you can see in the number of police that have been killed, the number of people who have been killed. There were always incidents like this here and there, but not like this. It shows that the change was never deeply rooted. Ninety-five per cent of everything that's happened is not sustainable; if the police leave tomorrow, in three weeks you'd have the same thing back."

Rio has failed to engender real change in its police force. The officers still consider shooting drug dealers "real" police work, he explained, unlike talking to children in the street. They maintain an aggressive stop-and-search policy for men in Alemao, years after they arrived. "They still have the mindset, 'We have to defeat the enemy, we have to torture people,'" Prof. Cano said.

Disappearances have increased sharply in the pacified favelas. One case, in particular, soured many favela residents on pacification: A bricklayer and father of six named Amarildo de Souza disappeared from Rocinha last July, and 25 police officers now stand charged with his murder, after he died in "interrogation" for his supposed knowledge of drug trading. Now frequent gun battles are once again taking place in Rocinha, as public hostility to the police allows the dealers to move back in.

Both police and drug traders need to reconceive the business, Prof. Cano added. "You're never going to have enough police to occupy everything, so you have to induce change on the other side. We need drug dealing to be carried out as it is in Toronto or Denmark: You hide from the police or you pay them off, whatever; [a buyer calls] you, you deliver, you don't have guns, you don't occupy territory, you don't control the population, which is probably a lot more profitable than what the [dealers here now] do."

But police have been trying to conquer instead of encourage that shift. Meanwhile, there is no state response targeted at the militias – made up mostly of corrupt ex-police who push out the dealers and take over the business – that run some favelas.

More than 800 Rio favelas are still beyond state control; the city has nowhere near the staff or financial resources to tackle them. But Rio's top security official, José Mariano Beltrame, insists the program is on track. "We have a few problems in a couple of areas, which are the most populated, with more than 100,000 residents," he told reporters last month. "We are far from ideal, but the occupied communities are much better than they were before."

With only weeks to go before the World Cup, all levels of government in Rio have been in an obvious panic about the violence. Two weeks ago they decided to move on the other huge favela complex, called Mare, which sprawls for kilometres along the road to the main Rio airport. It was frighteningly easy to imagine a tourist taking a wrong turn and ending up in the middle of this: Mare is home to 150,000 people and until a few days ago, its streets were patrolled by gangs of young men in board shorts and flipflops, their bare chests slung with automatic weapons longer than their torsos – the foot soldiers of the drug lords. Crack cocaine and other drugs were sold from plastic tables in the streets. Now those streets are patrolled by tanks and caveirao, a sort of giant armoured personnel carrier. The social service squads have yet to make an appearance.

"For so many years we were desperate – people really supported the project. They still do because they think it will be better," Ms. Casa Novas said.

"Pacification would have been perfect if they'd done what they said. But you can't take back a community with tanks."

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