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Brazil Is Already Fighting the War of the Future

As Brazil prepares to host this year's World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, soldiers and police invade its crime-ridden shantytowns.
March 14, 2014, 5:15pm
Photo via VICE

“Brazil is the country of the future and always will be.”

There are doubts about who's originally responsible for that quote, but more than 80 years after the words were first uttered, they shed light on what Brazil hopes to accomplish by hosting both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. Brazil wants to prove that the quote no longer holds true. It wants to be the country not of the future, but of today.


Brazil is certainly a regional power, and it is seeking to emerge as a country of consequence on the world stage. But jumping headlong into the 21st century also means paying the tab for a century’s worth of neglect in its poorest neighborhoods — the favelas.

As we see in "The Pacification of Rio," a segment on tonight's season premiere of VICE on HBO, favelas are an example of what happens when poor folks are shunted off to shantytowns and left to their own devices. About 6 percent of Brazil’s 190 million people live in favelas, which translates to about 11.4 million citizens who in reality are all but stateless. The favelas, or more accurately, the threats to prospective tourists that arise due to criminal activity in the favelas, are causing the Brazilian government increasing agitation as the World Cup and Olympics grow closer.

While the favelas are of course within Brazil’s borders, they have few legal, economic, or social ties with the rest of the country. Police have been reluctant to so much as fly helicopters over the neighborhoods since a helicopter was downed in 2009 after taking ground fire. Police won’t enter most favelas except in force — and usually with armored vehicles. Entire neighborhoods exist outside the influence of the government, and answer only to local drug lords or paramilitary militias. There are failed states like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the favelas are something like failed states on a far smaller level. They exist as failed micro-states, outside the rule of law and largely cut off from infrastructure, public utilities, and civil society — but nestled in the shadows of skyscrapers.


Since these failed micro-states are all but beyond the reach of Brazilian government, residents have either taken matters into their own hands or are now under the control of strongmen who have moved in and taken over. Paramilitary milicias control some neighborhoods, enforcing a rough-and-ready version of the rule of law. While they have driven out drug dealers and crime thanks to merciless punishment of law breakers, they maintain the status quo largely through the kind of violence and coercion that themselves would be criminal activities elsewhere.

Favela Rocinha, the largest in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Julio Aguiar

Many other favelas are under the control of drug gangs, which can be similarly ruthless but have, at least in some cases, moved beyond the simple business of selling drugs and taken up more traditional roles of government. Sometimes this ramshackle governance takes the form of providing basic services, utilities, or a quasi-judicial system, other times it takes the form of throwing huge, all-night festivals and dance parties. It is unlikely that this is something most gangs actually want to do, but nonetheless, they are now responsible for providing bread and circuses to the citizens of the favelas over which they rule.

Both the paramilitary groups and the gangs share one thing in common — they are able to keep a lid on the favelas because they live in the neighborhoods they control. In other words, they're both a kind of indigenous armed force. In comparison, a police sweep through a neighborhood can never hope to permanently assert control because their opponents temporarily disappear like insurgents do anywhere else. And so the Brazilian government has had to go beyond simply finding and arresting criminals and has instead started waging what amounts to a classic counterinsurgency campaign against the lords of the favelas, driving them out of their lands.


Brazil’s main instrument in this campaign is the Police Pacification Unit (known by its Portuguese acronym, UPP). Established in 2008, UPPs storm in and occupy a neighborhood after elements of the Brazilian police special operations battalion (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, or BOPE) have swept through — often with support from the military — clearing out gangs and drug traffickers. This in theory eliminates organized armed resistance to government presence.

UPPs, like BOPE, have badges and guns, represent the government, and establish control over the favelas; in so doing, they hope to drive down crime in advance of the influx of tourists. Unlike BOPE, UPPs move in to stay, bringing both social programs and other more ordinary trappings of regular life. UPP social programs are intended to support three main objectives: promoting the peace process and engagement of the local population; social, urban, and economic development; and full integration of the neighborhoods into the rest of the city. Some of this involves fairly prosaic things, like starting garbage and recycling programs, or getting residents to pay for electricity instead of stealing it off the grid. Other UPP efforts are more proactive, such as improving disaster preparedness, helping residents to start businesses, or increasing access to health care. The UPP development efforts exist at the intersection of debates about the effectiveness of soft power and the extent to which alleviating poverty eliminates crime.


This approach hasn’t met with uniform success. In some of the largest favelas, BOPE has been repeatedly deployed with military backup, sweeping through neighborhoods to break organized gang resistance. Meanwhile, activists level accusations about human rights abuses, violations of civil rights, and heavy-handed police tactics. On March 12, the Brazilian government cleared another favela, Vila Kennedy, raising the Brazilian flag and declaring the neighborhood pacified. The 38th UPP was then installed as a local garrison. The government hopes the UPP presence won’t be seen as a force of foreign occupying troops, but instead will be come to be viewed as simply “the police."

When the kind of social and development activities conducted by the UPPs are carried out overseas by international organizations and NGOs, it's called “development” and “capacity building." When they're carried out by the government and military in foreign countries, it’s called “soft power." The UPPs point to an emerging reality — over the coming decades, the distinctions between these activities will grow smaller and smaller.

Drug gangs are running their own microstates not just in Brazil, but in Burma, Mexico, and elsewhere. Drug cartels are building their own submarines and tanks, sending new recruits out for what is essentially basic training. Elsewhere in the world, existing insurgencies are finding that narcotics trafficking, extortion, racketeering, smuggling, and other criminal activities are typically the only ways to keep an insurgent movement funded and equipped. Gangs and insurgencies look more and more alike with every passing year.

These two sets of converging activity — development and crime — are going to be dominant factors in conflicts throughout this century. This type of future conflict is already happening in favelas around Brazil. Even if the World Cup and Olympics aren’t enough of a boost for Brazil to break out and finally deliver on its unfulfilled promise as the country of the future, what happens in the favelas over the long haul may very well give the rest of the world a glimpse into wars of the future.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan