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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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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