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Crime in Brazil Could Derail the World Cup

The fate of this summer's World Cup in Brazil may depend on the country's favelas, gang-run slums police are desperate to get under control.
February 21, 2014, 7:50pm
Photo by Simon du Vinage

The tense security situation at the Sochi Olympics has proven once again that gigantic international sporting events aren’t all fun and games — and organizers of this summer’s World Cup in Brazil are no doubt painfully aware of that fact. Because just as Russia presented its own unique security challenges due to the threat of internal terrorism, Brazil is worrisome because of the threat of poor people.

“Hosting these events provides a platform for Brazil to showcase the economic success it has achieved within the past decade,” Carl Meacham, Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News. “But after years of being venerated as the ‘Country of the Future,’ Brazil’s security, social, and infrastructure concerns have created serious doubts about whether it is truly capable of performing on the global stage.”

A central part of Brazilian preparation for the massive influx of tourists involves efforts to combat crime. Part of the country's strategy involves tackling one of its longest-running and most deeply entrenched social and economic issues: the presence of favelas, the enormous shantytowns in and around major urban areas.

These lawless settlements, some more than 100 years old, have been effectively run by drug gangs and their militias for years. The gangs now even manage utilities, infrastructure, and other mundane domestic concerns of governance. Despite police efforts to drive the gangs out of the favelas, they are still widely regarded as havens for petty criminals, including those who prey upon tourists.

In 2008, the Brazilian government instituted a new program to tackle this issue in the form of Police Pacification Units (known by their Portuguese acronym, UPPs). These units have employed a number of new approaches to reducing violence in the favelas beyond traditional police raids. Some of the services are extremely innovative and unusual, at least when compared with police beatings, and involve providing medical and educational services, and helping people start small businesses.

The rate of violent crime, and in particularly homicides, in the pacified favelas has dropped significantly since UPPs were introduced. That said, other recently released statistics indicate that the total number of murders throughout all of the favelas may have crept up overall. How is that possible? Observers say that the pacification campaigns have simply driven the gangs out of some neighborhoods and into others.

There has been an uptick in violence in recent weeks, linked both to the resurgence of gangs forced from pacified favelas but not completely eliminated, and a more recent scandal involving the death of a favela resident. The man, a bricklayer named Amarildo de Souza, disappeared last July; a body was never recovered. Some reports claimed he was tortured and killed by UPP personnel, and many favela residents say that this has destroyed the bond of trust between them and the UPP. In turn, that has led to a resurgent gang presence in the neighborhoods. Nonetheless, supporters of the UPP hope that they will be able to integrate the favelas into Brazil’s larger civil society, changing the neighborhoods so much that the gangs and militias won’t return.

Many people agree that in order for Brazil's World Cup to be successful, its new approach to policing and bringing societal benefits to the favelas must also be a success. “This is Brazil’s chance to establish itself not only as a leader within the ranks of emerging markets like China and India, but as an example on the world stage," Meacham said. "Success has important implications for the image of South America as a whole: It can help rewrite the narrative of the region and showcase South America as an up-and-coming powerhouse for economic competitiveness and development."

A month of World Cup games will begin on June 12, whether Brazil is ready or not. Visitors to Brazil will be treated to the spectacle of an international sporting event whose scope is arguably second only to the Summer Olympics. It remains to be seen whether they'll also be forced to endure the explosion of a socioeconomic time bomb.