Fairly full days running around Rio have somehow let updates fall by the wayside, but today was too much to pass up: What had been feared since before the Pan-American Games finally occurred. Today, the police invaded Rocinha.
I awoke to the sound of firecrackers and helicopters. The former are a typical warning signal–the police are coming–while the whirlybird overhead left no doubt that the police had their eye on Cachopa. I exited the door of my apartment to head upstairs and inquire with my host family about the situation. As I climbed the stairs, I looked out onto the Rua da Raia, where a squad of 6 or 8 polícia militar (not what we think of as "military police" that guard military bases, but rather police with military training) was conducting house-to-house searches. They made it to our place, demanded that we open the front door, and proceeded to search upstairs, but did not come into the apartment I share with the other Two Brothers volunteers.
Later, still hoping to leave Rocinha for the day, I stepped out again. One of the police, who must've heard about me from upstairs, asked about my roommate and me. When I told him the roommate is from San Francisco, he lit up. "Ahh, já conheço São Francisco três vezes. A Califórnia é muito bonita." So, I can go? "Sim, sim, tudo tranquilo aqui."
Down on the Estrada da Gávea, business seemed to look roughly as usual. As I neared the bottom, I saw another squad of police with binoculars and sniper rifles, peering up into the Vila Verde area, trying to get a bead who knows what or whom.
Simply put, these were military tactics. The notion that Rio is a city at war, while easy to discuss in the abstract or via the media, has never been clearer.
Of course, my first-hand experience of the event pales in comparison to its media coverage. Down in Leblon not too long after, I mentioned to somebody that I had just come from Rocinha, where it was "muito quente," and I wasn't talking about the weather. The person already knew, having seen live TV reports. It was on the nightly news, the mental confusion of seeing streets I know, streets I had just walked, that 12 hours before were under police lock down. They were back under ADA authority, bocas-de-fumo in full swing, by nightfall.
I was going to wait until the papers came out tomorrow, but curiosity killed the blogger, and so the Globo article linked to above probably gives the standard account. I say standard rather than accurate, because reporters generally follow the police line. They aren't trusted by the favelas, especially after 2002's Tim Lopes disaster, and now seem to prefer a variation on the embedded reporter routine.
The 6-hour "mega-operation", according to the article, consisted of entering Rocinha from all its principle access points simultaneously and generally rounding up suspected traffickers, seizing arms & drugs, and going after one particular location of guns & munitions, which turned out to be empty. A few individuals were arrested, including a certain "Betinho da Cachopa," who I don't know, but who I suspect may have been busted by my San Francisco-loving uninvited house guest.
Of particular interest is the high-tech aspect: logistical support via a laptop with satellite imagery, abetted by the helicopter's bird's eye view. The police, in so many ways, were attempting to penetrate Rocinha, to control it in 3-D space, on the ground and from the air. But I suspect that satellites and helicopters aside, the dense layer of becos still proves to be a strong defense, many having run for the alleys as soon as the firecrackers started up. The Estrada da Gávea is easy to control–it itself is a kind of asfalto space, running city bus lines like any normal street–but the deeper into the becos, the deeper into the favela architecture, the harder their tactical manoeuvres become. The structure itself is a kind of self-defense, as I've maintained for some time.
The same concern has also made it to the U.S. military, where the urban slum/shantytown is seen as the key battleground of the 21st century. A choice quote: "'Rapid urbanization in developing countries,' writes Captain Troy Thomas in the spring 2002 issue [of Aerospace Power Journal], "results in a battlespace environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned.'" From Captain Thomas's perspective, this represents a threat. From my perspective, this represents Rocinha's most fascinating innovation. An unknowable space, it still remains closed to me in many ways.
I give the Globo article credit for at least paying lip service to the effect of the operation on Rocinha, mentioning the numerous schools closed and commercial strips shuttered. Two Brothers canceled classes tonight, even though firecrackers hadn't gone off since almost noon.
But as Rocinha settled down, I began to wonder, what does such an operation accomplish? Sure, they seized a small quantity of drugs and guns, but there are plenty more when those came from. A temporary incursion, temporary establishment of official authority over the illegal space. A continuation of promises from pre-Pan to take back the favelas. There nonetheless seems to be a Sisyphean aspect to it all, rolling an armored car up a hill, only to see it tumble back down a few hours later. While I was seized by a mild terror, especially when the police came for my house (suddenly I'm the enemy), it seemed to be greeted with a kind of wearied resignation elsewhere. The cycle continues, ad nauseum. Dona Josirene showed me bullet holes in the wall at the end of our alley on my way out after the coast was clear.