Prejudice

Second class citizens

11/03/2011 – by Veronika Deffner
The “informal” city is unknown to the outside world: a favela in Salvador

The “informal” city is unknown to the outside world: a favela in Salvador

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Brazil’s favelas have a reputation for being home to the drug scene and to ruthless and violent people. However, the state’s role leaves something to be desired too. The residents of poor districts tend to consider the police nearly as dangerous as drug dealers and militia men. By Veronika Deffner

Drug dealing and organised crime in Brazil’s favelas increased during the eighties and nineties. In the public mind, the favelas have become no-go areas, breeding grounds for violence and criminal activity. Daily reports of delinquency and homicide lead to further stigmatisation of favela residents as “violent blacks”.

Accordingly, it became easy for state agencies to justify their withdrawal from socio-political responsibilities like healthcare, education and security. The government created power vacuums, which forced the residents to organise themselves. This setting made it even easier for the organised drug economy to spread out to the favelas and take control of them.

The withdrawal by the police was particularly harsh for the residents. In many cities, more military police was deployed. Their powers exceed those of the civilian police, which had apparently failed to stem crime, violence and corruption. Furthermore, the low-paid state security forces started to form paramilitary militias that have become an ever-present threat to the poor. Violence perpetrated by the militias has escalated especially in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

It is a healthy trend, however, that state and municipal governments have finally begun to introduce pacification programmes in a number of favelas, for instance the Dona Marta favela in Rio. The goal is to make favelas safer and improve their reputation.

Punishing poverty

Violence in Brazil continues to be closely linked to both poverty and skin colour. As early as during the struggles for slave liberation, dark-skinned people got a reputation for crime, violence and moral corruption. The “colour of violence” (Wacquant, 2005, p. 132) is still clearly defined in Brazil, and racial discrimination closely relates to social status. Unsurprisingly, discrimination of poor and coloured people is evident in the police and the judiciary too.

According to Amnesty International, poor Brazilians suffer the most gun-related deaths. In 2007, well over 1000 people died in confrontations with the police. The Amnesty International Report 2007 states that many of these deaths happened “in situations suggesting excessive use of force by security forces or extrajudicial executions”. The official position by the police was usually “death as a result of obstructing a police officer doing his duty”.

Prison conditions in Brazil tend to be disgraceful depending on social status and skin colour. Human rights violations range from ill-treatment and torture to murder by police officers or other detainees. In contrast, those who are socially better off, who have a university degree or even just the “right” skin colour, are given individual cells and preferential treatment. If they have the right social contacts or adequate financial capital, they are likely to be fined instead of given a prison sentence, or they get early parole. The two-tier system of criminal law is structurally entrenched and increases the vulnerability of the urban underclass. Its members are not recognised as equal citizens before the law.

Daily reality in the favelas

Salvador de Bahia is a coastal city of 2.7 million people. The organised drug trade certainly has a much smaller presence than in the megacities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Nonetheless, young men in particular are easy prey for the drug barons in Salvador. They lack of prospects and social support, so they become susceptible to the temptations of the profitable drug trade, which allows people to prosper irrespective of social background, schooling or professional training.

“When the drug barons from Rio arrive, they look for people who fit a certain profile,” says one young man. They want young people who have few prospects, live alone and are poor. “If you offer money to that kind of person, he’ll do what he is told.” Another man adds: “This is how many people become involved in drug dealing, and then they become addicted themselves. In the end, either the police kill them or their so-called friends do because of drug debts.”

Most violence perpetrated by the organised drug economy is directed inwards, towards people living in the favelas. Accidents and external violence are the most frequent causes of death among men of the ages 15 to 30 (IBGE, 2007). Most killings are not intended to intimidate the residents but occur during fights over the most lucrative drug-trafficking areas or in shoot-outs with the police. All too often, innocent bystanders lose their lives in the cross-fire.

Social and ethnic discrimination by the police are daily occurrences. Innocent victims suffer verbal abuse as well as physical injury. Hardly any such incident is prosecuted under disciplinary law. “In the police’s eyes, black people are always thieves, and thieves are always drug dealers”, says a 22 year old from Salvador who lives in a favela. He points to scars and other marks on his body. He was beaten many times as a mere bystander, he reports: “Once the police apprehended me as I was just leaving a friend’s place,” he says. “They hit us and said they would arrest us simply for hanging around on the street.”

Favela residents have no choice but to band together in the face of such daily violence. In doing so, however, they also protect those who are involved in the drug business. “We know everything there is to know about everyone here,” says a 44 year old man. “But nobody says anything when the police come by. We have to take care of each other.” Another favela resident adds: “Everyone knows who the drug dealers are. But nobody turns them in, because anyone who betrays a drug dealer is his next victim.” Cooperation with the security forces is neither appreciated nor does it bring any rewards in day-to-day life.

Leaving the stigma behind

Favelas are bad places to live in. Police officers, judges and non-favela Brazilians treat members of the urban underclass as second class citizens. That is one of the reasons why favela residents are often caught in a vicious circle of poverty and violence. They experience injustice from many sides, including from the state agencies.

To rise to stem violence in the long run, reforms are necessary, in particular in the areas of education and criminal law. Government-run schools and educational opportunities must be improved. Children and young people must be protected from unfair “law” enforcement. The awful conditions in education and rehabilitation facilities for juvenile offenders must be improved.

The growing number of initiatives to improve living conditions in the favelas gives rise to hope, however. They give favela residents the opportunity to present themselves to the outside world in a more favourable light. Governmental as well as non-governmental ini­tiatives, moreover, are a sign of social appreciation and raise awareness at the same time, promoting a more holistic and positive view of the favelas. There is no other way to change the puplic’s discriminatory stance, which ultimately makes the serious injustices of the criminal and judicial system appear legitimate.

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