A shameful Brazilian legacy

Why hosting the World Cup and Olympic Games is bad for Rio de Janeiro.

For all its golden beaches and panoramic hillsides, Rio de Janeiro is a dangerous place. Homicide is the number one cause of death in “La Cidade Maravilhosa” and its numerous favelas have gained global infamy as the crucible for the city’s endemic drugs problem. Recently, Brazil became the world’s largest market for crack-cocaine, largely due to the rampant network of drug-traffickers that tyrannize the country’s cityscapes.
 
For a country scheduled to host both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, this is an enormous issue.

On Sunday, over 1,300 military policemen swept through two of Rio’s most notorious favelas – Manguinhos and Jacarezinho – in a substantial pre-dawn operation. Flanked by a phalanx of armoured vehicles and with helicopters hovering above, military policemen armed with high-calibre assault rifles poured into the slums. 60 kilograms of cocaine was seized and three suspected traffickers were arrested.

More importantly, control was restored to a portion of the city once lost to drug barons.

Sergio Cabral, Rio’s state governor, hailed the operation as “another step toward peace, for reducing the number of homicides, car thefts, and home break-ins”.

These operations have become commonplace in Rio as part of a wider security initiative to install “Police Pacification Units” (UPPs) – semi-permanent police forces – in the city’s most troublesome favelas. With the World Cup and Olympic Games fast approaching, UPPs have become the centrepiece of the city’s campaign to clean-up its image and tackle its perennial drug issues.

Beginning in December 2008, 6700 military police have installed 29 UPPs to reclaim territory lost to drug-traffickers, with 11 more planned before the World Cup’s opening fixture.

The brainchild of the initiative, Rio's Security Secretary Jose Beltráme, hailed the success of the UPPs as a “major victory for society, for the people, for public service”.

However, many of the city’s residents aren’t convinced.  

“It’s not guns that are going to make things better: It’s services. Things like running water, sewage, and shoring up unstable hillsides that can slip when it rains. And those aren’t here”, Jose Martins de Oliveira, a local resident of Rocinha, told the Associated Press.

Others protest that the measures serve only to displace the violence, with drug gangs simply upping sticks and moving to the city’s north-western favelas that lie beyond the reach of the UPP programme.

But this is the very essence of the initiative: redirecting the flow of crime away from wealthy areas set to host the mega-events and towards Rio’s more peripheral shanty towns, far away from the hordes of FIFA/IOC delegates and far away from the camera lens. In some cases, the government has even erected enormous walls to hide its shame.

And while these communities are forced to cope with an influx of drug traffickers, the residents in Rio’s “pacified” favelas don’t have it much better.

Rio’s police force has a nefarious reputation for brutality. Human Rights Watch reported that the rate of civilian deaths at the hands of Rio’s police was a staggering 57 times higher than in the US. This predilection for extra-judicial assassination is further encouraged by the chronic failure of the state’s justice apparatus to hold policemen accountable for murder, as courts rely almost entirely on police investigations for their inquiries.

The end product is a police force with almost total impunity and officers routinely opting for bullets instead of dialogue.

As Beltráme admitted himself: “In Brazil, the law is dictated by assault rifles”.

To make matters worse, the complex relationship between favela residents and drug traffickers has blurred the boundary between the two. Often, favela communities who are provided services by drug gangs are seen as complicit in the criminality. 

“We were so hopeful”, Martins de Oliveira told the Associated Press.

“But now it seems we’ve traded the guns of traffickers for the guns of the police”.

The UPPs are essentially a top-down approach to a bottom-up problem. Instead of instilling martial law, the state must address the chronic lack of investment in vital services such as housing, public health, and education to confront the systemic failures of Brazilian capitalism.

What it has done instead has created a dual city: an Olympic city of opulence and a non-Olympic city plagued by the tyranny of unfettered crime and banalised police brutality. Ultimately, Rio's favela communities find themselves wedged between the iron fist of the law and the merciless violence of turf wars. 

Undeniably, the UPPs have produced results: homicides are down, robberies have fallen sharply and real estate prices have soared.

But this has come at a cost: growing social dislocation, urban militarisation and the erosion of civil liberties.

The World Cup and Olympic Games will certainly go some way towards cementing Brazil’s reputation as an emerging global player, but it will leave its people with a far more sinister legacy.

A policeman salutes the Brazilian flag after conquering Complexo de Alemão . Photo: Reuters

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle