A Security Framework
The next four years will be a busy time for Brazil. Fifa’s Soccer World cup in 2014, quickly followed by the Olympics in 2016, will keep the country under the spotlight. And at least for now, that attention seems welcome. Global sporting events, like the World Cup or the Olympic games, often become catalysts for policy initiatives that might otherwise not see the light of day. Introducing “police pacification units” (UPP) into some of Rio de Janeiro’s most emblematic favelas is one such policy. The UPPs are an initiative of Rio de Janeiro’s Public Security Secretary. Implementation of the units follows large-scale operations carried out under BOPE (Special Operations Battalion) to wrest control of the slums from drug gangs. The units are tasked with both providing intensive policing and delivering social services that had generally been unavailable to the areas in question. An estimated 30 favelas have been occupied to date, with an additional ten planned to follow suit by 2014. The degree of coverage and public attention each of the operations has received has varied, but there seems to be general agreement on the policy’s effectiveness in bringing down violent crime rates within the occupied areas. Such success has turned it into a source of inspiration for other state governments, and similar initiatives have begun to take off elsewhere.
Looking at what UPPs have achieved within occupied slums reveals there has been a remarkable decrease in lethal violent crime, but whilst this is an achievement in itself, it should not prevent a more careful consideration of the initiatives’ broader effects. The fact that the work that UPPs carry out includes both intensive policing and welfare provision perfectly illustrates the idea that a security framework organizes contemporary social life (Goldstein 2010).
The idea that security increasingly asserts its grip over the crises and contradictions brought on by neoliberalism is not new. As Daniel Goldstein (2010) has noted, security seems to have usurped all discourses of the present. In the Rio of UPPs, security is said to be the very stuff that “public interest” is made of—a precondition for economic growth, a vehicle for the distribution of social services, a mechanism to enable democratic inclusion and improve the practice of citizenship. The close association with this notion of public interest has enabled the policy’sproponents to denounce critics for failing to acknowledge UPPs’ role in making communities safe.
The role of UPPs in pacifying some of Rio de Janeiro’s most emblematic favelas has made headlines since the operations took off. From the beginning there had been concern about their potential to engender a new geography of violence and (in)security. News that the decrease in violent crime in the city of Rio has been accompanied by a rise in violent crime in neighboring Niterói was not entirely unexpected. There was always a risk that remapping may occur. That new geography of violence is not confined to the state of Rio de Janeiro. In fact, if we scale up, a distinct pattern emerges. Throughout the last decade, as the country witnessed substantial economic growth, drug traffickers began to seek new markets in regions that had hitherto been mostly left to their own devices. The adoption of a more forceful approach to security in the southeast encouraged the migration even further, to the point where a majority of the most violent cities in the country by homicide rate are now located to the north of Rio de Janeiro.
Salvador, capital of Bahia, is no exception to the rule. In 2010, greater Salvador had 60.1 homicides per 100000 inhabitants, up from 11.6 just a decade earlier (Mapa da Violência 2012). This represents a staggering 418% increase within a ten-year period. By the end of last year, Simões Filho, a satellite town 22 km from Salvador, came top for number of murders in the whole of Brazil. A town of a mere 116,000, Simões Filho counted 146 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants—a number that partly reflects its use as a dumping-ground (ponto de desova), casting a shadow over the data for Salvador as a whole. To understand what impact such numbers have on public discourse about (in)security, it is important to distinguish the role they perform in public security policy from the role they play in attempts to make sense of everyday life in contemporary Salvador. Doing so does not reveal irreconcilable difference, but it casts light on the way numbers can make room for security interventions in the name of a general public interest, where the notion of a general “public has been eroded beyond recognition.
A Pact for Life
Inspired partly by the UPPs’ perceived success, the Bahian government has created a program for improving Salvador’s security provision. The program, suggestively called Pact for Life (Pacto pela Vida), promotes the establishment of special police units within especially violent neighborhoods. The units are known as Community Security Bases (Bases Comunitárias de Segurança), suggesting a more cooperative approach. Like in Rio de Janeiro, the units will simultaneously do police work and manage social services. Ten such units have already been put in place, and here again the first official reports speak of a dramatic decrease in homicides. Positive reports notwithstanding, data from the Public Security Secretary showed that by mid-2012 the homicide rate for Salvador as a whole had increased another 13%. 2012 was unusual in that Salvador was the stage of a general police strike, during which more than 150 people were killed. Yet the 13% figure excludes the month of the strike, without which the increase would be in the order of 27%.
From the viewpoint of my Bahian interlocutors, the data churned out by government and media alike is less significant than the very real sense that the city is in a critical state. This sense permeated my last visit, during which I was repeatedly warned that I must not trust my previous knowledge of Salvador’s urban milieu, even if I felt that I had earned the right to feel like I knew the city. Salvador was said to be in the midst of an epidemic of violence. The main problem might be the gang violence that had engulfed areas in dispute, but violence related to drugs, and particularly to the spread of addiction to crack cocaine, was potentially everywhere. Stay within reasonably safe areas, avoid walking home after hours, never wander down particular slopes—this was all advice I had heard before. What was new was its tone and urgency, as well as the frequent reference to common acquaintances or relatives who had experienced some form of violence—sometimes fatal. Yet, at points, that sense of urgency seemed to vanish, giving way to irony regarding the sophisticated data-gathering, well-meaning policy and effective police work. At specific times, the irony was further compounded by allusions to Salvador being one of the cities chosen to host World Cup games. The World Cup turned discourse on security into an object of intense cynicism. Tied to the cup, security became either a marketing strategy or a prelude to a more exclusive city.
Future of (In)security
In 2011, the governor of Bahia was asked about claims that Salvador’s epidemic of violence had become so critical as to cast doubt on the city’s ability to host the World Cup. His reply was to shrug off such pessimism, noting that every year the city is able to host one of the world’s largest Carnivals with hardly a fatal incident. Strictly speaking, the governor is right, but this is precisely why my interlocutors express a certain cynicism about initiatives to make the city more secure. They are all too used to “security”—they say it is ever present in the fortified enclaves of the upper classes, and special measures are often put in place. But special measures are not for everyone’s benefit. What my interlocutors often told me is that there is no “public” in “public interest,” not in a general sense. There is a public in the more specific sense of a “paying audience,” where those that have to inhabit the city learn to treat security as an event in itself.
In contemporary Bahia, security has usurped all discourses of the present, but therein lies the problem. When institutions in charge of public security tie policing to the provision of welfare, they do so in recognition that security should address not just the symptoms of (in)security, but attempt to tackle its causes, minimizing risk. The temporal horizon of security thus understood is both the present and the future. What so many of my interlocutors seemed to express was a sense that the security they were offered was only palliative and that it addressed mostly the present. The numbers that my interlocutors knew told them someone in Salvador is murdered every three to four hours, which left them with no option but to think of security always in the present. In other words, on a good day, for however many hours, life could almost feel perfect. As I was once poignantly told by one of my closest informants, it’s a charming thought, but no way to live.
Marta Magalhães Wallace is a research associate in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests include political economy, violence, cities and space, ethnography of the state, crisis, gender, and social theory in Latin America and Europe.