*By Eliana Sousa Silva, social activist, academic and founder of Redes da Maré.
Originally published on the biggest newspaper in Brazil, O Globo, in Portuguese. Read here
Armed conflicts resulting in death have become an everyday occurrence in the State of Rio de Janeiro. The scale of the violence perplexes, revolts and overwhelms us with a feeling of collective incapacity that makes it seemingly impossible to find short-term solutions to the traumatic condition we are now in.
As at other such moments, we have to ask questions: what are the historical origins and beliefs that sustain the way in which conflicts are played out between the state security forces and the members of the armed groups in the favelas and peripheral communities of Rio de Janeiro? Why does one section of society support a government strategy which uses the police to deny the fundamental rights of those who live in favelas and peripheral communities? What can be done to establish rights-based protocols that uphold the democratic rule of law for all members of the population?
There are many questions that arise when we look at how we are losing our awareness of the value of life in Brazil as we are distanced by the violence. As a country we register over 61,000 homicides per year, of which 6,200 happen in Rio de Janeiro. The vast majority of these deaths result from the use of firearms. Consistently these murders are characterised by race and ethnicity, age and social class: the majority of those who are murdered are young, black residents from favelas and peripheral communities. Perhaps this tells us why we haven’t really mobilized as a society to demand that the war-like state in which we live does not or should not represent us.
Looking at a specific part of the city of Rio de Janeiro – the 16 favelas that make up the Complex of Maré – we can see a picture that illustrates the critical state of this violence. Data about armed conflicts in the region published in the Bulletin for the Right to Public Security in Maré – published by the Maré Networks organisation – show that in 2017 there were 42 homicides and 57 serious woundings from gunfire. Schools in Maré were closed for 35 days during the year because of the armed violence while the health clinics were unable to function on 45 days. Residents of favelas and peripheral communities are exposed to a level of suffering and denial of basic rights that has to end.
If we created a map of the 6,200 homicides in Rio de Janeiro over the past year, we would see that almost all of them took place in areas that are considered to be on the periphery. It’s in these circumstances that we unhappily conclude that the State’s public security policy is dictated by the idea that we live in a state of war and that the enemy army is made up of the people who live in favelas and peripheral communities. It is undeniable that the public security forces make no distinction between residents and those that undertake illicit activities as part of – in most cases – organised armed groups.
The State justifies the high levels of war-like violence and the constant violation of the rights of those who live in favelas and peripheral communities by the need to repress the armed groups that control the drug sales. What we see in this policy is a constant demand for higher-grade weaponry with ever increased levels of lethal capacity from both the police and the armed groups, thus re-inforcing the infamous logic that we are waging a ‘war on drugs’. Is it not way past the time when we should be looking again at the way we think about drugs? Does this moment not insist that we reflect on the adverse, harmful effects of the failure to prioritize the decriminalization and legalization of drugs? How can we free ourselves from our prejudices in relation to this point which divides us as a society?
If we can begin to open ourselves up to reflection, perhaps we can look more closely at the lethal levels of violence provoked by these guns. The salerooms of the highly profitable arms trade are not located in peripheral communities. The favelas are just the places where these guns are taken. How come we don’t have Intelligence information to take down this arms network? Is it not way past the time when the Federal Police, the Highway Patrols and the Coastguards work together to reduce the entry of arms into the State of Rio de Janeiro?
Without taking into account some of the questions raised here, it is difficult to see how we can change the routine that has been established by the public security forces in Rio de Janeiro. They only undertake sporadic actions in favelas and peripheral communities as part of so-called ‘police operations’. These invasions, which mobilize different structures of the Military and Civil Police, have resulted not only in the escalating cost of munitions but almost always in the death of residents and the police, generating despair, fear and lack of respect for human dignity.
What is the barbarous state we need to arrive at before this violence ends?