Olympics

Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Police called in reinforcements in favelas (slum areas) in the north of Rio de Janeiro earlier on Wednesday, despite the area having been previously ‘pacified’ as part of the city’s policy of ridding poorer communities of armed criminal gangs and integrating them into the wider city.

Military police have ramped up their presence in the Complexo do Alemão (see photo gallery), a sprawl of favelas in the north of the city, after unrest in the area on Tuesday, which included a protest by residents following the arrest of two young men on Monday.

Police say the pair had arrest warrants issued against them for drugs charges, but around 100 residents took to the streets to protest, defending their innocence. Police used non-lethal force – including tear gas and pepper spray – to disperse crowds, and are now investing whether there were criminal factions behind the protests.

Local media reports that, during the unrest, at least on man took out a gun and fired into the air, and a group of ‘activists’ threatened to set fire to a fuel tanker being used a barricade along with burning tyres and trash cans, further increasing the tension.

Later on Tuesday, the Nova Brasília Police Pacification Unit (UPP) – part of the Complexo do Alemão – came under attack in what appears to be a reprisal, and police battled gunmen into the favela. Investigations are ongoing to establish who the gunmen were.

On Wednesday both military and civil police forces searched vehicles in the favela complex, including those from the local UPP.

Rio’s 38th UPP

Meanwhile, in the west of Rio, police are preparing for the city’s newest UPP in Vila Kennedy – the 38th of the forty UPPs that Rio security secretary José Beltrame announced in 2011, and only the second in the west of the city.

The city has traditionally prioritised areas frequented by tourists and close to new sporting venues, but is now reaching areas located further away from the center.

Police previously announced they would occupy Vila Kennedy, planned for tomorrow (Thursday), due to the high levels of violence seen in the area: 29,372 cases were registered in 2013 alone – up over seven percent on the previous year.

Local media say the region is now calm afte criminals set to be flushed from the area shot at electricity transformers, leaving parts of the district without power. The wider area has since seen a significantly-increased police presence.

Correspondents say that although some UPPs have been successful in bringing greater security to favela communities, there is often still an overwhelming sense of distrust on both sides and armed battles have occurred sporadically.

Some 22 percent of Rio’s population, estimated to be around 7 million people, live in favela communities.

Police, which have faced running battles with armed gangs engaged in both drugs and arms trafficking, have been accused of brutality against local residents – and the notorious case of favela resident Amarildo Dias da Souza, who disappeared from the city’s largest favela, Rocinha, in July 2013, remains fresh in the minds of Rio’s poorer communities.

Investigators say, along with drugs gangs in the area, the main suspects in the bricklayer’s disappearance – and suspected torture and murder – remain police officers from the local UPP.

Extended version of article written for Anadolu Agency

Brazil’s Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo said on Tuesday that the country would focus efforts on tackling common crime, as opposed to larger-scale terror attacks during this year’s FIFA World Cup, which Brazil is hosting along with the Summer Olympics in 2016.

Rebelo admitted that Brazil knew less serious crime would be a possible issue for the country when it took on the responsibility of hosting the sporting mega-events:

“We [the Brazilian government] knew that we would have to live with being exposed to this risk. Not to the risk of terror attacks of a political of religious nature, which occur throughout the world,” he said, citing the Munich Massacre in which eleven Israeli players were murdered at the 1972 edition of the tournament in Germany.

The sports minister said Brazil was instead at risk of “social violence, common crime, which can be found in Brazil’s largest cities”.

Rebelo added that all football squads would receive support in terms of security, and that “additional preventative measures” would be taken to protect delegations, Brazil’s Agência Brasil news agency reported.

The comments were made as officials met in São Paulo to thrash out operational plans for the city’s hosting of the World Cup.

Officials have been quick to play down concerns of security, particularly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro where many crimes are on the increase.

In São Paulo, the notorious PCC (First Command of the Capital) criminal gang last year said it would unleash a wave of attacks, directed against police officers, during the World Cup if its members were moved to harsher maximum security prisons – known for their severe overcrowding.

The PCC, which operates from inside Brazil’s prison system, was responsible for a wave of attacks and counterattacks on police in recent years.

At the time, Rebelo said he did not believe that the PCC would disrupt the games or target tourists.

In Rio de Janeiro, a programme of so-called “pacification” has had some success in driving violent drug- and arms-trafficking gangs from slum areas, known as favelas.

Police forces implementing the policy – which has now installed some 36 police stations, known as UPPs, in favela communities – started with favelas close to areas frequented by tourists or located near venues of upcoming sporting events.

The policy was broadly praised, although criminals ended up being flushed from slum to slum, and some pacified areas have reportedly silently fallen back into the control of gangs.

And even where pacification has been largely successful, crime is still common, particularly given the fact that the areas often border more upmarket neighbourhoods, especially in the city’s Zona Sul region.

Crime experts in Brazil say that tourists are very rarely the victims of the worst types of crime, such as murders, and are far more likely to fall foul of pickpockets and muggers.

They underline that more often it is the poorer members of the community that bear the brunt of serious violence. Police have been widely criticised for the number of deaths of innocent residents during operations in favelas.

Police and security officials acknowledge the shortcomings of the pacification policy and certain police operations, but argue they are training police as fast as possible with the resources available.

Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo today admitted that there would inevitably be issues involving some tourists, and that it was a risk Brazil always knew it had to take.

However, in the run-up to last year’s World Cup prélude, the Confederations Cup, concern was expressed not with regard to the level of petty crime in host cities, but because of the wave of mass anti-government protests, which spread across the country taking Brazil’s authorities by surprise.

It culminated in high riot police presence in many of the host cities and tense standoffs with protesters, of which a small minority engaged in criminal activity, such as violence and vandalism.

Given the Confederations Cup was just a small-scale version of what awaits Brazil this June for the World Cup, Brazil is keen not to see similar scene in 2014. Indeed both President Dilma Rousseff and FIFA have repeatedly said that there will be no repeat of the violence seen in 2013 this year.

Edited version of article written for Anadolu Agency

The Complexo do Alemão is a string of favelas in Rio’s Zona Norte. It was once considered one of the most dangerous places in the city.

However, a mixture of police “pacification” operations and more investment from the outside – including the installing of a cable car, the Teleférico, that unites many of the Complexo’s favelas – is gradually bringing change to the area.

Tourism is slowly trickling into the area, thanks to the cable car and the greater (although not guaranteed) security now present in the area.

The Cidade Maravilhosa, or “Marvellous City” as Rio is often called, has always been a city of enormous contrasts in terms of its population. Since the days when royalty and slaves rubbed shoulders, to now, when those from the favelas – Rio’s shantytowns – head to the city’s glamorous beaches to seek the upper classes and foreign tourists in overpriced hotels, bars and restaurants to scrape together enough coins to feed their families.

(This article was written for Anadolu Agency – a link to the original post can be found here.)

Complexo do Alemão cable car. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Complexo do Alemão cable car. Photo by Ben Tavener.

In Rio, a street is sometimes all that separates the most expensive real estate in Latin America from slums home to the most deprived communities on the continent.

Since the mid-19th Century, the city’s favelas grew massively, many of them into the steep slopes of Rio’s countless hills.

Brazil’s last census revealed that the country now has 6,329 favelas nationwide, and that they are home to 11.4 million Brazilians – six percent of the population.

To this day, the slums – which are home to a fifth of Rio’s population alone – are seen by many as lawless, no-go areas and havens for traffickers smuggling mainly drugs and arms. Until not so long ago, even the police feared to enter these favelas, so fearsome the armed gangs that ruled the roost.

In 2008, less than a year after being confirmed as host for the 2014 World Cup, the authorities in Rio began “pacifying” these vast swathes of the city – meaning police forces and tactical squads went in, rooted out the gangs and took back these areas, very much by force – with many killed in the process, including many innocent favela residents.

A boy in Rio's Palmeiras favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

A boy in Rio’s Palmeiras favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

One of the first to undergo this process was the favelas immortalized in the famous Brazilian movie “City of God”, which was based on real events from Rio’s Cidade de Deus favela. It was only the second favela to receive a Police Pacification Unit, known locally by its Portuguese acronym – UPP.

Once pacified, the idea was to reintegrate these areas with the city, introduce “civilization” through newly-installed public services, and break down the long-established dividing lines that kept the favela populations under-developed and with little chance of improvement.

The poorest region of Rio

In 2011, police went into one of the biggest and most complicated areas they had had to pacify to date – a great swathe of favelas in Rio’s North Zone known as the Complexo do Alemão, long considered one of the most violent parts of Rio, which is also blighted by malnutrition, disease and, as a result, high rates of infant mortality.

As the areas were cleared of gangs, a major breakthrough for the area’s outward integration came in the guise of a cable car uniting the hilltops of a string of favelas, following by the inauguration of a series of UPPs.

Daily life in Itareré favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

Daily life in Itareré favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

Two years after that initial battle between the area’s ruling gangs and police, the cable car is well used (it’s free for residents) and has allowed tourism to come to the area for the first time. Those whose houses were destroyed during its construction have been moved into low-cost housing.

Sailing high above the rooftops, the view from pods allows passengers to look directly into the lives of those living in the favelas below: children flying kites, sellers putting out their goods, old men playing cards in the street, teenagers riding two to a bike, and women hanging out close to dry in the fierce Rio sunshine.

However, leaving the cable car and entering the winding pathways that lead through Itareré, the smell of human waste, stagnant water and weeks of piled-up refuse hits you – wave after wave.

The people are welcoming, but many bear the signs that only basic health and sanitation services are available.

Rio guide Fábio Mendonça highlights parts of the favela that have seen steps taken to bring in public services, security and a sense of urban “normality” into the area for the first time.

Community centres have sprung up to give children activities for when they are not in school, which typically only give classes for three or four hours a day. Children are allowed to draw and paint, as well as being engaged in more dynamic activities – samba, circus tricks, dance and capoeira.

Rubber bullets for some, real ones for others

The favelas are one area that has seen improvements in Brazil – with lives being changed, albeit slowly for some, and new facilities are being brought in.

Views from Itareré favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

Views from Itareré favela (Complexo do Alemão). Photo by Ben Tavener.

High streets banks have shown their confidence in the areas now by moving in and opening their doors. Things are tangibly better, Mendonça explains, but there remains much to be done – particularly with schools, and although there is now a police presence in the favelas, residents are still highly suspicious of their new guardians.

And with just cause, it would seem. Last week, an operation by military police in the Maré favela left at least nine people dead.

Human rights activists say tens of thousands of people have been killed by police in Rio, who they say often act with impunity and in cahoots with the criminals. One NGO in the Maré favela – Redes da Maré – questioned why rubber bullets had been used on protesters in upmarket areas of Rio, and real ones in the favelas.

The incident happened at the height of the recent mass protests. Protesters had already taken up the favela residents’ cause after a series of enforced evictions, but soon turned their attention to the case in Maré, accusing police of opening fire on innocent people – an accusation leveled time and time again.

Brazil’s recent protests, although predominantly attended by the country’s “middle class”, have sought to highlight the major social injustices ongoing in Latin America’s biggest country and most successful economy, and the plight of many of the country’s poorest people.

Although years of work, particularly by the leftist Workers’ Party of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his protégé, the incumbent president Dilma Rousseff, have given rise to social programs that have lifted 35-40 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty, the 2011 census showed 16.2 million Brazilians remain officially below the breadline, and recent World Bank data showed 10.8 percent of the country’s population live on less than US$2 a day.

Brazil’s new middle class?

Headlines about Brazil’s “booming middle class” also need a crucial footnote, as this percentile of the population is not the same as might be understood in North America or Western Europe.

The term is used in a broad sense, and its lowest rung, the so-called “Class C”, earns just US$790 a month – enough to pay a modest rent, just about feed the family and perhaps make a payment on a TV or domestic appliance bought in ten installments – purchases which the government tout as signs of the country’s economic emergence.

One major difference between the wider middle class and the “Class C” is that this lower middle class cannot afford to bypass the country’s poor public services and pay for private education and health services.

Despite Brazil’s recent economic success – driven by booming commodity exports and consumer spending – and successive governments’ bold social welfare programs, a cooling-off of the economy has left many people dissatisfied as, while incomes improved, public services did not.

At the heart of the problem, many feel, is the political apparatus – a multitude of ministries (39 at the last count, compared to the fifteen used to run the United States) and a long list of self-serving and corrupt politicians coupled together has meant that not enough of the R$611 billion (US$274 billion) spent on running the country – excluding investments – has actually reached to its final destination, instead going on administration and entitlements.

The result is that Brazil invests far less directly into its public services than any other major economy.

When taking into account the US$25 billion that Brazil is spending on hosting the World Cup and the Olympics, justified by promises of improvements to public services, infrastructure and urban mobility, the reasons why so many people have taken to the streets in the past month becomes all too clear.

Instead of those brought out of poverty in the football-mad country heading to their nearest Confederations Cup stadium to watch top-flight matches, many instead decided to voice their dismay on the streets.

Few benefiting from Brazil’s marquee events

Protesters have voiced their opposition to Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup and Olympics because, despite promises of a long-lasting legacy that would improve millions of lives, only a privileged few are benefiting from the events – including corrupt politicians.

Rio’s hotels, eyeing an opportunity with the string of major events coming to the city, have profited by bumping up their prices significantly, making them the most expensive in the world in 2012.

Property prices have also expanded dramatically, given growing demand and limited space in the most sought-after areas. The latest reports show that the average square meter of real estate in Rio costs US$4,100 – five years ago, it was under US$2,000.

However, the city’s South Zone beach favourites of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon can command far higher prices – indeed the highest in the whole of Latin America. Leblon property prices have shot up to US$11,000 per square meter.

The result is that even people rich enough in the past to live in such prime locations are having to move out and find cheaper places to live.

Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue in Rio. Photo by Ben Tavener.

With the FIFA Confederations Cup and World Youth Day (WYD 2013) set to arrive in Rio, the city has seen pacification operations in favelas at the base of Corcovado Mountain.

Rio’s 33rd Police Pacification Unit (UPP) will establish a permanent presence in the area and should improve security not only for local residents, but for tourists visiting the world-famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue.

On Monday, 420 special forces and military police, including elite BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) tactical teams, entered three favelas under Corcovado, site of the thirty-meter-tall Christ statue.

Police say they occupied the Cosme Velho communities of Cerro-Corá, Guararapes and Vila Cândido quickly with no gunfire or arrests. The new UPP, with 190 military police, should be operational within a month.

Rio Governor Sérgio Cabral said the communities would no longer become a refuge for criminals and that the new UPP would “offer security and peace to residents.”

Police had monitored Cosme Velho for information about traffickers and other criminals that had been flushed there from previously-pacified favelas.

Cosme Velho is the location of the Trem do Corcovado (Corcovado Train), which takes tourists to Christ the Redeemer, and military police were at pains to show that the occupation would afford tourists visiting the statue greater safety, particularly during WYD on July 23rd-28th when Catholics from around the world will gather.

“The Pope’s visit and the increased influx of tourists are why we went in. Intelligence showed that criminals were sheltering here. Now they’ve lost the territory,” military police spokesperson Col Frederico Caldas said.

WYD 2013 will be the first major overseas mission for Pope Francis; it is the first time the event has been held in Brazil and only the second time in Latin America. Special police training exercises have been staged to represent a number of scenarios, including the well-trodden tourist route to see the statue.

Read the full article on The Rio Times website.

TAM Airbus A330-223. Photo by Flickr CCL/lrargerich.

TAM Airbus A330-223. Photo by Flickr CCL/lrargerich

After months of waiting, I have finally been granted a permanent visa and now have a date for my return to Brazil.

From 10 May I will be living in São Paulo, a city that I’ve visited but never lived in. I will probably be located in the Butantã area, near the city’s world famous university, USP – often ranked the best in Latin America.

I will be continuing as a freelance journalist, with a three-month hiatus later on in 2013, when I will be heading to the southern part of the Amazon, in Mato Grosso state, to work as a wildlife guide at Cristalino Jungle Lodge – an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up, and one you’re going to hear lots more about.

Excitement from international news outlets for Brazil and news there is now growing even faster, with the run-up to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The FIFA Confederations Cup this June will certainly help warm things up.

UPDATE: My new local mobile (cell) phone number in São Paulo will be +55 (0)11 987778890.

Leblon is most expensive place for real estate in Rio, photo by Alexander Shafir (www.shafir.info)

Leblon is most expensive place for real estate in Rio, photo by Alexander Shafir (www.shafir.info)

The rate at which average Rio property prices have risen over the past five years is four times greater than that at which average wages have gone up, according to a report by O Globo newspaper.

Industry experts say wealthy Brazilians have encouraged skyrocketing prices, which have outpaced financing options for many and exposed a widening gulf between the richest and the rest.

In January 2008, a square meter of real estate in Rio cost R$3,851 (US$1,975) on average; five years on, it costs 124.2 percent more, R$8,636 (US$4,429). In the same period, the average monthly salary in Rio has increased just 24.2 percent to R$1,902.80 (US$971), according to the IBGE.

As a comparison, online surveys show a square meter in New York City costs approximately US$14,000 (US$1,295 per square foot), with average salaries of around US$4,000.

Renting in Rio has also increased, up over 65 percent on average since 2008 – double the rate at which incomes have increased. Some rents have increased by over 230 percent in Rio’s most sought-after areas.

Industry experts say the boom in prices stems from it being undervalued in the early 2000s and that an overdue “correction upwards” was made, leading to a sharp increase in prices to the present day.

Other factors also stoked prices, including the boom of the petroleum industry, greater access to credit, political stability and a reduction in violence. But it was the prospect of hosting major international events, particularly the 2016 Olympics, that gave many the green light to seek wildly high prices for their property.

Read full article on The Rio Times website.

While Brazil has made effort to entice highly-skilled foreign workers to the country, it has a natural interest in keeping well-paid professional jobs for Brazilians.

IT consultant Leonardo Bittencourt

IT consultant Leonardo Bittencourt is part of a growing number of Brazilian workers who want to head abroad to gain experience, but then bring that experience back to Brazil.

And with the work visa process already overloaded, a new program to bring Brazilian nationals working abroad back home has gained momentum, according to a recent O Globo report.

Among the main target candidates are the many skilled Brazilian candidates currently are un- or underemployed in other countries, affected by the global economic crisis or other immigration issues.

However, many of these Brazilians are calling for improvements in wages, social services and tax rates before making the move.

It is estimated some three million Brazilians currently work abroad, although this is difficult to calculate and even harder to verify, as some work on an unofficial basis and have outstayed their visas.

A special cross-ministry commission is to be created this month to discuss with proposals. According to the President of the National Immigration Council (CNIg), Paulo Sérgio de Almeida, businesses will reap the benefits of contracting Brazilians, a far simpler process than hiring foreign nationals.

Graduates and other highly-skilled workers affected by the global crisis should be prime candidates for “repatriation,” particularly those from industries currently in such high demand in Brazil: infrastructure, logistics, oil and gas, and technology.

The lack of skilled labour in Brazil is recognized as one of the contributing factors to the so-called “Brazil cost,” which discourages greater investment in the country from overseas. Its repercussions have been felt with the array of multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects planned and underway in Brazil in the run-up to the World Cup and Olympics.

Read the full article on The Rio Times website.