To Pacify?

Posted: November 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

To Pacify:

1. To allay the anger or agitation of

2. To restore to a tranquil state

3. To reduce to a submissive state


Why did the government of Rio de Janeiro use this word? They were trying to allay the doubts and fears of the Brazilian upper and middle classes, which was their target audience. This word was specifically chosen by the same genre of spin geniuses who came up with such gems as “climate change” and “the death tax”. All of these phrases share the same purpose: to conjure an idea in the mind of the listener that is more positive or negative, depending on the objectives of the word doctors, than the original phrase.

I would argue that the idea that was initially inside the minds of those planning the first pacification in the community of Dona Marta, in 2008, was more closely aligned with the image that is associated with the word “occupy”. I am not talking about this word in the sense that is used by the “occupy wall street” movement or when it is used to talk about the “illegal occupation” of Iraq, both of which are used to also conjure up emotional responses on the part of the listener. I am talking about a military occupation that is intended to replace a pre-existing form of government with a new one that represents the government.

Why is the government of Rio de Janeiro trying to allay the fears of the Brazilian middle and upper classes? Ever since the drug gangs took political control over the informal communities known as Favelas, the middle and upper classes of Rio have been deathly afraid of what goes on here. Due to the fact that their have been areas of the city that have been literally under a different political structure, petty criminals have had a place to stay completely untouched by the law. They live in the stateless favelas and go out into richer parts of the city to steal. I want to reiterate that these people represent an extremely small minority of the population residing in the favela.

The fact that there are havens for petty criminals to rob the richer populations of the city has caused incredible tension between the middle/upper classes and the lower income residents of the favela. The richer areas of Rio are full of apartment complexes and houses, the vast majority of which have guards (who ironically live in the favelas) and large gates. Banks are full of large and intimidating guards who carry shotguns. Understandably, with Rio’s high petty crime rates, the middle/upper classes feel besieged in their own homes. They have countless stories about how their aunt’s friend or uncle’s coworker was robbed in the most dreadful way possible. They eat up movies, such as Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), which depicts an honest and hardworking elite BOPE officer who leads his squad into the favelas to eliminate the murderous traffickers, who are depicted as vermin deserving a violent death.

It is this target audience that the word pacify is marketed towards. The word pacify conjures up images of the peace after a turbulent storm. You do not imagine people cowering in fear of a pacifying force. It does not have the same negative connotations of occupy, invade, or conquer, which brings to mind images of death, destruction, and struggle. The word pacify gives the middle/upper classes of Rio a clean conscience when analyzing what is going on inside there own city. To pacify is to do something positive, to return to the ideal state of peace. For favelas such as Complexo Alemao and its 400,000 residents who are under a military “occupation”, the situation is definitely not one of peace and won’t be until the drug trade magically stops or Brazilian government gets real about its drug policy.

To hear more voices in English coming from Vidigal check out @invasaovidigal and another blog



The Real Danger

Posted: November 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

Sitting here with my roommate, I have been trying to analyse the real risk of staying here. Is BOPE dangerous? Will the traffickers try to rob us before fleeing?

The real danger currently is the fact that the UPP and BOPE are blocking off every exit from both Rocinha and Vidigal and the leadership of the drug gangs have all either fled or been captured. The low level managers and street soldiers are the only traffickers left and they know it. They also know that the enemy that they are fighting is far superior in numbers and skill. They are like rats caught in a trap, waiting for that final judgement. Only three options remain: die, hide, or go to prison. The helicopters and police at each exit are ensuring that the fourth option, flee, is not an option. I imagine most of them will hide, until of course the BOPE finds them during the 45 days that they are supposed to remain after the initial pacification. Some of them will choose death.

The problem with this turn of events, both for us and the other residents of Vidigal, is that up until Sunday there will be armed men who know that their lives as they know them are at an end. I do not mean to scare all of you, but only intend to describe where the real instability with the current situation lies. When BOPE invades on Sunday, it will be quick and relatively clean (assuming minimal resistance on the side of the traffickers). At our current position at the top of Vidigal, we will probably greeted in the wee hours of the morning by intimidating BOPE soldiers in their black uniforms and berets, descending from helicopters. I still have yet to come up with an excuse as to what the hell I am doing at the top of an unpacified favela. I will probably rely on the tactic I have used in other parts of Latin America when dealing with police: pretend that I don’t speak Portuguese and act like a dumb gringo.

Truth is always complicated

Posted: November 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

For the past four months I have been living in an unpacified favela, known as Vidigal, located on a hill overlooking the richer parts of Rio de Janeiro. On Sunday, the government will invade this favela, as well as a neighboring one and attempt to establish control over the estimated 450,000 people living in these two areas. Around 2000 troops, with the support of armored vehicles and helicopters, will descend upon Vidigal on Sunday and I will be here.

For those of you that aren’t aware, favelas are informal lower-income neighborhoods that were set up by poor migrants looking for opportunities in the larger cities of Brazil. An unpacified favela is a community that is under direct political control by drug traffickers, not the central government. Almost everyday that I have lived here I see armed men without uniforms. Since Brazil received the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, the government has slowly and surely established its control over these areas in order to convince the world that it is ready to host these events.

Due to the fact that drug gangs control the favelas, the perceptions of people outside the favela are incredibly skewed. Most upper and middle class Brazilians, and many foreigners, associate the favela with danger and violence. While there is some truth in this view, the reality is ever more complex. For the traffickers, the favela is one of the most dangerous places on earth, with casualty rates far exceeding that of many conflicts in other countries. For everyday people unassociated with the traffickers, the favela can be safer than many other places in this crime torn city.

As the cocaine and crack boom in the 1980’s changed the nature of lower income communities in America, the same happened here in Brazil. The difference, however, is that in America the government writ extended to all parts of the city. In Rio, the central government has thoughtlessly ignored the informal communities of the favelas, denying them basic services such as police and sanitation. When it became apparent how much money was to be made in the drug trade here in Brazil, criminals could see no better option for their business than to set up shop in an area that was not under control of any government forces. They invaded these lower income neighborhoods and set up a political system that, to my knowledge, exists nowhere else in the world.

Rio is generally seen as a dangerous city to the outside world, with some justification. My friends living in other parts of the city have been robbed on several occasions and live their lives accordingly; they don’t take out their cell phones in public and never display wealth. My experience in the favela has been completely different. I drive an expensive foreign motorcycle and have no fear of taking out my Iphone or expensive camera. This is because the dono, or leader, of the main drug gangs, enforces his law rigidly, with the help of his managers and street level enforcers. The punishments for theft or rape are harsh and swiftly administered. Unlike the police, who live on $500 a month in the 12th most expensive city in the world, these enforcers and managers are not corrupt. They too know the punishment for inappropriate behavior.

Obviously, living under the whim of a dictatorial warlord, supplied by money from the drug trade, is not ideal. There is no right to property or a fair trial and the Brazilian constitution does not apply. That being said, the alternatives for those living in the favelas are no more ideal. Police in Rio de Janeiro are corrupt. They are viewed by much of the population as criminals themselves; running illegal gambling operations, demanding bribes, and often supporting the drug traffickers in exchange for money. The people living here have few good options.

In writing this, I am trying to witness and describe the disappearance of a unique community that is full of contradictions. I have been lucky enough to experience this unique place and want to share what I know before it disappears forever. I am not trying to excuse the drug dealers or portray them in a positive light. They have chosen the life they lead. I only want to bring attention to the majority of the community who are in no way tied to the drug trade. I have lived, travelled and studied in over 45 countries and nowhere else have I encountered such a warm and charismatic people as the ones I have met here in Vidigal.

The Situation

Posted: November 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

I would like to thank all of you for your kind and encouraging words. It gives me more motivation to write knowing that people are actually reading it.

The leadership of ADA (Amigos Das Amigos) have all either fled shamelessly (with the assistance of corrupt police) or been captured. The number one guy, Nem, was caught trying to flee late last night. The only traffickers left in Vidigal and Rocinha are low level dealers and managers. The Policia Militar and the UPP (Pacification Police) have blocked every exit from Rocinha and Vidigal. All last night there was a helicopter flying at a low level. The government has been making a show of force and it has worked.

These small guys have no formal training and little strategic sense. They are scared shitless and have no escape. When BOPE, an elite military unit, invades on Sunday there will be no major confrontation. Possibly there will be small scale clashes in Rocinha when the macho ones try to resist arrest.

Although each of these traficantes chose the life that they lead, there is more to it than just this. The people who grow up in the favela have few opportunities. What opportunities that do exist are in menial jobs, sweeping streets and collecting garbage. Of course not all residents in the favela are poor, but most are. Most of these guys are just young underemployed men who find themselves in a difficult situation. What complicates the situation even more is that most of the gang members come from the community and have friends and family among the community.

The traficante who I see most often has a post near to the area I have been living in. The first time I met him was watching the sunrise over RIo after a party I had gone to in Vidigal. As the sun slowly rised over the neighboring city of Niteroi, I asked him why he chose the life he did, my tongue lubricated by the previous night of moderate drinking. The gun in his hand did not deter me. I will never forget his response. Several years ago, he needed an operation to fix something in his stomach (my Portuguese wasn’t good enough to find out exactly what it was). He did not have the right documentation or resources to receive the operation. The only people he could turn to for help were the traffickers. They gave him what he needed and in return he started working for them. Although anecdotes are an inadequate form of formulating truth, my intuition tells me that this type of tale is not uncommon.

I am not excusing the traffickers choices. There are always other options and the other residents of the favela who did not pick up guns are a testament to that. I just want to remind everyone that when Sunday comes around and the police come in here and put the traffickers in a cell or in a casket, these small guys are not faceless drug dealers, but real people with hard lives and difficult decisions. They should not escape punishment, but the punishment should reflect the reality of the lot they have been given.

Live From Vidigal

Posted: November 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

I know that the following blog might likely result in an expulsion from my exchange program at PUC University in Rio de Janiero, if not my expulsion from University of California Santa Barbara. I write this with full knowledge of this regulation and am prepared to accept the consequences. All I ask is if those responsible for this decision are reading this blog, that they remember that education is about more than just classrooms and lectures. Hopefully, the following piece will convince those reading it that my learning has been enhanced by my decisions. If I am to choose between a degree from a university and the visceral experiences that I have had the fortune to take part in, I can now say that I prefer the experiences.

I have been participating in an exchange program here in Rio de Janeiro. One of the regulations of this exchange program is that I do not live in a favela, under government control or not. Contrary to those regulations, for the past four months I have been living in a favela known as Vidigal. For those of you who do not know, Vidigal is a vibrant lower income community that is not under the control of the central government. Instead it is under the control of a drug gang known as Amigos Das Amigos (ADA).

Although I studied the favelas before coming to Rio, I had no intention on living here. My primary motivating factor for moving to Vidigal was the affordable rent, as Rio has become extremely expensive. After living here for a few weeks, I realized that Vidigal and its unique existence offered me a window into a part of Brazil that middle and upper class Brazilians, as well as many foreigners, ignore. I quickly fell in love with the easy smiles and “Bom Dias” that greeted me at every turn. I have travelled all over the world and I have never encountered such charismatic and kind people as those living here in Vidigal.

Last Saturday, the government of Rio de Janiero made it clear that they would be setting up a permanent police presence in the favela by this coming Sunday. What this means in reality is that they will be occupying the favela and forcing out the drug traffickers, at the same time as trying to establish government control over the entire favela. The roar of helicopters blades over my head tells me that they are not waiting until Sunday.

Obviously, this is a complicated situation. My eyes are surrounded by shades of grey everywhere I turn. My purpose in writing this is only to report what I am seeing and relate this with my previous experiences of both studying and living in the favela, not to make moral condemnations of the groups involved.

Unfortunately the residents of this community do not have the advantage to speak about their experiences in such a way. Most are poor migrants from the North East of Brazil, who have come here in the search of better economic conditions and a better life. Some are general criminals who deserved to be locked up far away from society. I do not have the arrogance to say that I can speak for these residents. I only want to let the world have access to a side of a story that they will not hear anywhere else.

I intend on staying in Vidigal until Sunday, when the government plans to pacify the favela. I know that many of my friends and family will think I am crazy and will want me to leave. I am aware that there is danger in staying here. I am also aware that if I do not take the unique opportunity that I have been given to speak (in English), I am afraid no one else can or will. I will be posting regular updates to this blog, as well as attempting to use Twitter and Facebook to let people know what I can see and hear in real time. You can find me on Facebook at, and Twitter @offthetrackrio.

Hello world!

Posted: November 2, 2011 in Uncategorized

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