Maximum City was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize

When Suketu Mehta, essayist and author of the acclaimed book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found wrote a piece about Brazilian favelas, he joined the ranks of journalists and intellectuals flocking to Rio de Janeiro as the international spotlight grows ever brighter. Too bad he got so much wrong.

In the August 15th issue of The New York Review of Books, Suketu Mehta writes an essay titled, “In the Violent Favelas of Brazil” describing current policies meant to “pacify” the Rio de Janeiro’s favelas in the context of endemic violence made possible by structural poverty, culturally entrenched racism, and government indifference. Brazil has long been in the international spotlight—perhaps beginning with Lula’s ‘populist’ assent to the presidency and continuing through a decade of impressive economic growth figures, the emergence of “BRICS” within the field of popular economics, and the growing political and economic clout of these nouveau riche nations while Europe and the United States suffered economic and political crises. With preparations for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in 12 Brazilian cities (including Rio de Janeiro where the final will be played in the iconic Maracanã stadium) and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the media began to play close attention the governments’ strategies to prepare for the mega-events.

mehta bio pic

Suketu Mehta

Enter Mehta and his essay about the “pacification” of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas as part of a broader government strategy to “integrate” the informal housing settlements into the formal fabric of the city under state regulation and security. Because Mehta’s essay lacks a central claim or explicit purpose, he must be writing to educate readers through a journalistic narrative replete with statistics and choice quotes from high-profile security officials.

The story is rife with factual errors, misguided generalizations, and editorialized descriptions. Both Mehta’s choice of topic and perspective are unoriginal, and his sensationalized examples of the “violent favelas” being “pacified” by caring police “civil servants” have been hashed and rehashed by practically every global English news publication for going on three years (quite a long news cycle). While pacification is the new reporting trend, violence has long been the choice topic for foreign observers reporting from the Brazilian metropolis. English media outlets, foreign researchers (usually men) and international institutions obsess over “violent Brazil,” and particularly its “violent faveals”. The story has been retold so often over so many years that violence and favelas are now indissociable.

We needn’t look beyond the title of Mehta’s essay for the first example of this damning prejudice: “in the violent favelas of Brazil” grammatically implies an inherently violent quality to these neighborhoods. It’s a prejudice that activists, scholars, local residents and civil society have tried to combat for decades. Mehta could have dared to deviate from the story of violence, gangs and drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro; but he chose to do what others have already done: uncritically examine the current state of affairs and endorse a Brazilian government and urban policy that is being fiercely contested by residents even as Mehta was writing his essay.

The title suggests a story about violence within the faveals; but Mehta opens with a vignette of being robbed at gunpoint in a taxi while stuck in traffic near the center of São Paulo. While this short anecdote may serve to explain the banality of armed robbery in São Paulo, it is unclear what this does for a story about favela pacification in Rio de Janeiro. The assault did not take place in Rio, or even in a favela. But Mehta invites the reader to connect the assault to the (generic) favela, plainly by imagining that the criminals live there. Perhaps he himself has already accepted as truth the prejudices of many middle class and wealthy Brazilians: that favelas are places of crime, and that although not everyone who lives in a favela is a criminal, most criminals come from the favelas.

Facts are important when it comes to representing a place, a people, or a culture. I question Mehta’s credibility to explain Brazil and the favelas to a largely uniformed foreign audience. Below I address some of the factual errors in Metah’s reporting or gross misinterpretations of statistics and events.

First to address a half-truth: Mehta claims that the social welfare program Bolsa Familia has created the world largest middle class. This isn’t necessarily false, however the statement hinges on the definition of middle class. Recipients of bolsa familia wouldn’t be considered middle class in any wealthy, industrialized country—not by income, wealth, education, or standard of living. It’s as if these people went directly from hungry to “middle-class”. Socioeconomic class, discussed in contemporary sociology, is a question of social categorization based largely on identity and lifestyle rather than government household income statistics. The uncritical acceptance of “new middle class” terminology by the press is troubling because it relies on the readers’ unqualified and unsubstantiated presumptions about social class in order to interpret what “middle class” actually means. By in large, recipients of Bolsa Familia would still be considered poor in the US as well as by most ‘traditional’ (as opposed to the ‘new’) middle-class Brazilians. Moreover, no definition of middle class in any country would include households that are dependent on government cash-transfers to buy food, clothing and shelter.

Turning to the main focus of the story, violence and “favela pacification” in Rio de Janeiro, Mehta also makes some grave errors.

Starting from the beginning, Mehta writes that he has been traveling to “São Paulo and, especially, Rio de Janeiro, observing the process of ‘pacification,’ by which the government attempts to peacefully enter and reestablish state control over the most violent enclaves of the city, those dominated by drug gangs called traficantes, or by syndicates of corrupt police called militias.” There is no pacification program in São Paulo (the only other states to replicate the program so far are Bahia and Paraná), and the police have yet to pacify a militia-controlled favela or develop a plan to systematically expel the paramilitary milicias now controlling more than half of the city’s favelas. Beltrame, Rio’s Secretary of Security has acknowledged as much in public interviews. Mehta also claims that the “enemy” of the militias is the elite squad of police known as BOPE (think of a trigger-happy Los Angeles SWAT team on steroids, add a skull and cross bones as an official state-sanctioned emblem, and you might be approximating the terror that is BOPE). This claim is categorically false. BOPE is devoted to waging war against the drug-trafficking gangs and rarely carries out operations against the militias. Indeed it is in part due to the work of BOPE expelling gangs from the favelas that made room for the militias to move in, take over and expand. Stranger still is that all of this is presented in the fictionalized (yet on-point) sequel to the film based on a book that Mehta sites in the article, Tropa de Elite. He even interviews the author.


Note the official emblem of BOPE is a death sign.

Mehta also describes the process of “pacification” as it is written on paper, rather than how it has happened to date. Here is how he puts it:
Under the UPP program, elite police units—and in some cases troops from the army and even the navy—invade the favelas and stay for up to three months. Then they are replaced by the regular police and squads of UPP civil servants. The UPP establishes schools and garbage collection, brings in public and private companies to provide utilities such as electricity and television, and hands out legal documents such as employment and residency certificates. In the areas under its control, the UPP has set up community security councils, which attempt to mediate conflicts between local hotheads before they spread.

He gets the beginning right: BOPE invades a favela usually with support from army infantry. Those armed forces along with the standard Military Police then dominate the newly occupied neighborhoods, patrolling in fortified trucks, marching in military formation, frisking young men and essentially imposing martial law. The three-month limit to militarized occupation would be nice, except it isn’t the reality on the ground. Complexo do Alemão was occupied with military forces for over a year because the state could not train UPP police officers quickly enough (the academy lasts six months). Calling UPP officers “squads of civil servants” is also deceptively quaint. In a certain sense, all police officers are civil servants; but to use the term in contrast to standard police is misleading. UPP officers carry high-powered assault weapons. They make arrests. They have their own BOPE-modeled elite squad. They regularly practice stop-and-frisk tactics in addition to searching homes and private property at their discretion, and they have recently been embroiled in various murder and abuse of power scandals. They are a police unit with a different logic than the standard Military Police, true. They shoot fewer bullets, they kill fewer citizens, and they make fewer mistakes. But they do not “establish schools and garbage collection, bring in public and private companies to provide utilities such as electricity and television, and hand out legal documents such as employment and residency certificates,” as Mehta claims. Other non-police civil servants handle those tasks as part of the larger “integration” strategy. Such steps are called urbanization by the city government and usually follow after the occupation of a favela during the pacification process. [Added Jan 2016: I should clarify that urbanization is legally and programmatically unrelated to pacification, handled by completely different state offices (for example the police correspond to the State of RJ while the majority of urbanization projects are carried out by the municipal government).]

In the beginning of the essay Mehta uses murder and rape statistics to explain in numbers just how violent Brazilian culture is: lot’s of homicide, lots of rape, he even throws in the violence against the rainforest to get his point across. He sensationalizes violent crime and encourages readers to share the constant socially constructed fear that caused upper-middle class Brazilians to build ‘cities of walls’ described by Teresa Caldeira in her excellent ethnography of São Paulo.

He depicts the steep rise in reports of rape and sexual assault as baffling to the police and experts, and uses this statistic to communicate the ever-present danger and violence of the city, suggesting that violence against women in Brazil is inexplicably high in comparison to other countries (which is not true).

Mehta says that sociologists and police officials are at a loss to explain the increase in reported rape incidents, but all Mehta had to do was Google sexual+assault+statistics+brazil and a number of results on the first page would offer explanations (in English) by everyone from statistician bloggers to Aparecida Goncalves, a sexual assault expert in the ministry of public health. She explains that in 2009 the government changed the definition of rape. Under the previous law, only women who have been the victim of forceful penile-vaginal penetration, verified by a medical doctor, were counted as rape victims. The new law counts other forms of violence as rape (such as forced oral or anal sex) and it began reporting rape accusations rather than just those cases approved by a physician.

There are two more possible reasons that Mehta does not list, which I find baffling as they are directly tied to the pacification programs. The first is that women who were the victims of sexual assault in the favelas went to the gang rather than to the police for justice, if they were going to report the incident at all. Now under UPP occupation, there may be more women who go to the police rather than the gangs. The second reason is that rape might indeed have increased without some gangs’ iron-fisted rule over the favelas. Rape is a rarely convicted crime; and the UPP may be less of a deterrent than the punishments of torture and a bullet to the head that rapists faced at the hands of the gangs.

I don’t find fault in everything that Mehta writes. He does well to recognize entrenched racism in Brazil. Despite overwhelming evidence, some middle class Brazilians flatly refuse to admit that Brazil suffers from deeply rooted racism, and even on the Left many would rather focus on class and territorialized oppression (against favela residents) than on racial identity, ignoring the tightly woven history of racism and classism in Brazil.

Again, however, Mehta seems to lack a nuanced understanding of social structure in Brazil. Considering what young gang members will do post pacification, he writes, “it’s not that the young traffickers lack alternatives for employment, such as in Rio’s booming tourist industry. It’s that they won’t have the same level of luxury: ‘a gold chain as broad as a baby’s arm’ ”. The territorial and racial stigma attached to young black and brown men from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro is stupefying. At a protest in August my friend rushed home when he realized he was without his identity card, explaining “It’s not a good idea to be without my ID with all of the police around. Me being black… they could easily mistake me for a thug and shoot me.” He said this with banal seriousness at 3 pm in the afternoon with thousands of people in the public square. While Mehta is capable of recognizing systemic and institutional racism, suggesting that young “traffickers” could easily find work in the tourism industry calls into question his understanding of how racism plays out against young men of color from the favelas in Brazil on a daily basis on the street, in public transport, in private businesses and especially in the private job market.

calling for an end the to genocide of black youth in Brazil.

calling for an end the to genocide of black youth in Brazil.

Mehta heads in the right direction when he writes, “What’s happening in Rio’s favelas is not so much pacification as it is legalization,” although he doesn’t take the idea far enough or think critically about government policies. The pacification of Rio’s favelas is part of a larger strategy referred to as “favela integration” that purports to deconstruct legal, economic, physical and social barriers that have sustained the “divided city” for more than half a century. Mehta also acknowledges this when he mentions garbage collection and education programs although he falsely attributes the programs to the police. The big questions to ask are what does an integrated Rio de Janeiro look like? What is the best logic to follow while designing and implementing government programs? And who benefits from “pacification” and other state programs mean to “integrate” the favelas? These are questions with contested answers.

A man holds a sign reading Rocinha asks for peace, healthcare and education prior to the start of a protest. Photo by author

A man holds a sign reading Rocinha asks for peace, healthcare and education prior to the start of a protest. Photo by author

If Mehta had dug a little deeper into the demands of the protestors, he would have come across the story of residents from favela Rocinha protesting the construction of a 350 million dollar gondola transport system, which many residents insist they don’t need. They would like advances in basic sanitation, for example, as boring as that might sound. The fact that favela residents insist that they were never consulted about urbanization projects that the government claims are participatory should also have been included in Mehta’s story (opinion editorials charging as much have already run in the New York Times). Here is my earlier take on resisting novel and expensive transport systems within the faveals of Rio de Janeiro published on this blog in 2011.

A banner calls for more sanitation projects and no gondola. Photo by author

A banner calls for more sanitation projects and no gondola. Photo by author

As the pacification of Rio’s favelas continues along with large-scale regeneration projects meant to reinvent the landscape of Brazil’s most majestic city, the contradictions between the state’s rights-based discourse and their market-driven actions become increasingly evident. While I do not expect Mehta to have the knowledge necessary to substantiate such a claim, I would have liked him to interview one of the dozens of high profile Brazilian researchers who can. But he chose to write a different story in which the problem is the “violent favelas” and the solution is better police and more security. He uncritically endorses the state logic of pacification; and without looking beyond the political discourse he claims that the Pacifying Police Unit brings democracy to the favelas, which he says continue to live under a dictatorship (of the gangs) decades after the fall of the Brazilian Military rule. It’s funny, though, how Brazil returned to democracy through largely peaceful mechanisms, whereas in the favelas democracy is imposed at the barrel of a gun.

Mehta’s misrepresentation of Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian culture, and the integration of the favelas through pacification is problematic beyond questions of journalistic integrity and due diligence. First, in Mehta’s essay Brazil is a violent place. Brazilians kill each other left and right, they kill the environment, and they rape their women with seemingly increasing frequency. Favelas are violent drug-fueled places. This type of narrative decouples violence from the many historical social forces that led to current levels of violent crime. This results in the mentality of ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’, which justifies a form of state repression that would be unthinkable outside of the favelas. What’s more, this intense governance through militarization of space is all in the name of liberty and democracy (sounds a bit like US foreign policy).

Second, Mehta is correct to note that Rio de Janeiro will serve as a model to other Latin American cities with “violent slums”. But the evaluation of the “integration” campaign must go beyond state rhetoric, easily manipulated crime statistics, and anecdotal stories of success. Those interested in the remaking of Rio, even essayists writing for foreign intellectual magazines, should think critically and strive to present the facts from the experiences of ordinary people. In Mehta’s case however, perhaps he just shouldn’t write anything at all.

Follow my on twitter @yosoytucker for more about my research, urban politics and Rio de Janeiro

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