It’s been interesting watching the evolution of the City of God and of the favelas (slums) in general since the first time I was in Rio in 2008. At the time, pretty much every single one of the over one thousand favelas in the city was controlled by organized crime; either drug gangs made up of heavily-armed teenagers or militias of corrupt former police officers whose rule featured violent enforcement of rules and extorting residents for basic services (think the Mafia). Today, these two groups still exist and control many favelas as they always have, but a new armed force has arrived on the scene: the police! Yes, the military police, the armed wing of the State, who in the past would swoop into these vast urban shanty towns to kill, arrest, confiscate and then leave, have now begun the massive process of taking over and “pacifying” (their word) the favelas known as UPPs (Units of Pacifying Police).
The City of God was one of the first to be wrested from the control of the drug traffickers, and most residents here are overwhelmingly happy with the result: cops in the street and no more shoot-outs, no more open market-style drug dealing, and many improvements in the community, including newly paved roads, a 24-hour health clinic, a government-subsidized cafeteria with super cheap (and pretty decent) hot meals, and more… Of course, there are down sides to this new development; there is an obvious focus on favelas near wealthy areas of the city while other areas remain neglected, and some places have actually become more violent and drug-ridden as gangsters have fled to neighborhoods without the UPPs. Also, corruption and violence on the part of the cops continues as much as ever, with the human rights of poor people of color being routinely thrown out the window in favor of a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach. To put things in perspective, consider this: the police kill many more people every year in the city of Rio, population 6 million, than in the entire country of the USA, population 300 million.