In Rio favelas, a wave of post-World Cup violence
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In Rio favelas, a wave of post-World Cup violence

It’s twenty minutes until kickoff at the Maracanã stadium, and there’s weeping in the streets. Handfuls of football fans — Mexicans, Americans, Argentines and Germans — are soaked in tears not of excitement, but of despair.

“They stole my f**king ticket!” wails an American girl — another victim of the World Cup’s most heinous act of petty theft.

Pickpockets in Rio de Janeiro were hardly a surprise, though. More shocking was the near-invisibility of protests, riots, and violence during the World Cup, despite violent demonstrations and brutal police crackdowns in the months leading up to the tournament.

So today, almost four weeks after the final World Cup whistle, what’s happening in Rio?

According to numerous reports, shootings between drug traffickers and police have skyrocketed in some Rio favelas in the wake of the World Cup.

“We’re in a war,” Cleber Araujo, a 38-year-old worker in the Complexo do Alemão favela, one of the hardest-hit areas, told the Wall Street Journal.

“Three months ago, they started happening weekly, sometimes daily,” an anonymous Alemão resident said of the shootings, “but after the World Cup they happen every day, every hour.”

The violence is reportedly at its highest level since Rio began a controversial “pacification” campaign in 2008, in an effort to stamp out drug- and gang-related violence in hundreds of Rio neighborhoods ahead of the World Cup and upcoming 2016 Olympic Games.

Alemão, home to 70,000 residents, was once one of Rio’s major drug trafficking highways. Since military occupation began in 2010, smuggling has largely been sent underground, but at the cost of at least five police officers and dozens of civilian lives.

The latest casualty was an 18-year-old killed in a shootout on July 20. The alleged removal of his body by police was caught on cell phone video.

Recent reports from Alemão claims things have gotten so unstable that 300 members of the Rio police’s Special Operations Battalion, or BOPE, have been deployed to the complex. Many schools, as well as the area’s cable car transportation system, have been suspended indefinitely.

Last week, residents organized a social media campaign to call attention to the situation in the neighborhood, following a 15-day period in which three people were shot and 19 were hit by stray bullet. The campaign’s organizers said they chose to take action through social media because they feel that taking to the streets is too unsafe.

According to Paulo Storani, a former BOPE captain, Alemão lacks the basic infrastructure for peace. “In truth, the area has been like a war zone for 30 years,” he said. Still, “what’s happening today is a serious problem.”

Safer without the police

This recent eruption in violence is a major setback in Brazil’s fight against drug trafficking in Rio’s most notorious neighborhoods, where crime and murder had been on a steady decline.

It has also hurt the already-shaky credibility of the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) – groups of specially trained officers who have replaced the military in many slums, including Alemão. Despite a mission to build a relationship of trust and peace while promoting inclusion, recent reports claim the UPP have turned as abusive as the oft-criticized military.

“I felt safer before [the installation of the UPP] because [the traffickers] warned when police entered the slum, so we knew it was time to hide. Now [shootings] happen without warning,” claimed another Alemão resident.

Despite the setbacks, Rio’s state Public Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame still backs the pacification program. “Dismantling this crime problem, of the size we’ve had in Rio de Janeiro, won’t happen overnight. We will go ahead and we will not give up,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

Although tensions began rising earlier this year, security experts say the World Cup offered a distraction for many residents. But now that the world’s gaze is temporarily off Rio and there’s no football to pacify its most desperate and vulnerable citizens, the cries for help have returned.

Just as Brazil surprised the world by organizing a near-flawless World Cup, it can do the same by stopping the bleeding in Rio’s most wounded neighborhoods.

“Our biggest hope,” said Araujo, “was to see a change here.”

Unfortunately, of late, that change seems to be for the worse.