A hillside covered entirely in multi-story ramshackle homes.

View of Favéla do Prazères from Santa Térésa HIll. Photo © dany13, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

This week, eyes all over Brazil are upon Rio de Janeiro where a showdown of cinematic proportions is occurring between police and military forces and the drug trafficking gangs that for years have controlled the city’s favelas.

It’s estimated that Rio has over 700 favelas, in which around 1.6 million Cariocas (close to a fifth of the city’s population) reside. Although the classic definition/conception of favelas involves poor (mostly black) migrants who occupy hillsides and reside precariously in self-constructed shacks, often without electricity, plumbing, and sanitation, in truth, over the years, many favelas have become quite organized and residents have succeeded in getting by with more than just the basics. However, many serious problems exist for favela dwellers including lack of infrastructure, lack of access to basic services, and the fact that favelas are controlled by gangs and drug dealers (traficantes), whose rule is not unlike that of feudal war lords.

For a long time, the government and most citizens tried to pretend that favelas didn’t exist (on city maps, the areas they occupied were traditionally rendered as blank).

For a long time, the government and most citizens tried to pretend that favelas didn’t exist (on city maps, the areas they occupied were traditionally rendered as blank). However, this head-in-the-sand tactic hasn’t worked out well, especially since favelas – and drug-related crime and violence – have mushroomed over the decades. As such, in recent years, there has been an attempt to recognize favelas by integrating them and their residents into the fabric of the city. A key part of this effort has involved trying to dislodge the drug traffickers whose strength has increased over the years. With this goal in mind, Rio’s state government created the UPP (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora), a special police unit whose mission was to create a presence in the favelas, providing security to citizens (who felt completely abandoned by public authorities) and expelling the drug gangs.

To a modest extent, they have been successful; critics claim that most efforts have focused on favelas closer to the middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods of the Zona Sul. as opposed to the much larger and more dangerous favelas in the poor and working class Zona Norte. However, last Sunday, a series of arrastões – in which criminals with links to the drug gangs shut down important Zona Sul streets, stopping cars and robbing passengers at gunpoint – followed by the torching of cars, buses and police posts, caused Rio’s state and municipal authorities to declare war. This week, civil, military and special operations (BOPE) police forces along with Navy and Army forces launched a major offensive, invading more than 18 favelas, on foot, and with armored cars, tanks and helicopters, in an attempt to hunt down traficantes, who either surrendered, escaped, were arrested, or were shot.

The size and the seriousness of the operation is unprecedented as is the fact that the population (often critical of police aggression, corruption, and negligence) is supportive (a significant number of favela dwellers have overcome their very real fears and provided police with anonymous tips regarding traffickers’ whereabouts). In fact, many see the events of this week as a watershed moment in which public authorities might finally succeed in liberating favela dwellers from the drug traffickers’ rule and bringing a certain measure of peace and security to these communities.

Of course, a major concern – and motivating factor – is that Rio’s drug-related crime and violence be eradicated (or at least severely diminished) by the time the city plays hosts to the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. Earlier this year, when Rio won the bid to host both events, security was a major issue, and since then, municipal, state, and federal authorities have staked their reputations on the promise that it won’t be a problem. Ultimately however, regardless of the motivations behind it, this week’s showdown has transfixed Brazilians who glimpse the possibility of better (or at least safer) times to come for those who live in, and love, the Cidade Maravilhosa.