I came across The Rio Blog by way of Julia Michaels, a really interesting Tumblr by Michael Jerome Wolff, a political science doctoral student living in Rio de Janeiro and Recife. The blog depicts life in each city's favelas and an on-the-ground perspective of the favela pacification process. I spoke to Michael about his blog and his time in Brazil, as well as his take on Rio's security policies.
What brought you to Rio and Recife, and what are you working on while you're there? Had you already lived in/visited Brazil before?
I first came to Brazil in 2008 and stayed two months, with the objective of learning Portuguese. The following year, I returned, and that time stayed for eight months, splitting my time between Rio de Janeiro and Recife. As crime and violence are a particularly ubiquitous concern in both places—and in Rio the situation is cinematographically dramatic—I succumbed to the woeful intrigue of studying it. In 2011 I received a Social Science Research Council (SSRC) fellowship to sponsor a year of research in both Rio and Recife, and that is what I am currently doing.
What is the idea behind your blog and what are your goals for it?
The idea for the blog came from two English friends of mine whose wedding I photographed just days before I left for Brazil. Both artists, they have been publicizing their work for years via blogs. Knowing that I love to write and photograph, they forced me to open my own blog, which almost immediately became my most pampered hobby. At the time I had no expectation that anyone would read or view it, but the remote possibility of an audience created an incentive to structure my photos and reflective writings about my research in an attractive and meaningful way. Originally I intended it to be simply a matter of personal expression, but as I realized that people out in the web world actually read it from time to time, I focused also on its informative aspect.
That said, it is far from a news blog, as I never intended it to closely follow individual current events. I see it more as a structured reflection on the nuanced politics of public security in Rio de Janeiro and Recife, oriented by, but by no means beholden to, the research norms and goals of social science. And, of course, it is a focused outlet for my photography obsession.
Why is photography an important part of the blog, especially showing what's going on behind the scenes in Rio's favelas?
The invention of the photograph in the mid-1800s dramatically changed journalism and historical documentation by immortalizing and making “real” far off phenomena that would otherwise be lost to the futile abstraction of wordy concepts. Whether a photograph portrays the “truth” or emboldens a shady stereotype, the sure thing is that it has the capacity to humanize events and situations for the far-off viewer in an immediate and emotionally powerful way.
This is, in essence, what I am attempting to do with my photography in the blog: humanize and make “real” all that is happening behind the scenes in Rio and Recife’s complicated drama of crime and violence and public security. Who are the winners and losers? The perpetrators and victims? The innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders? Where is all of this happening? What is the visual “feel” of the stage upon which all these actors play out the ineffable tragedy?
You've been on the ground during Rio's favela pacification process. What's your take on the UPPs and the effect they're having on the local communities?
To begin, I would emphasize that the UPPs should in no way be treated as a panacea for the public security problems of Rio de Janeiro, nor should they be understood as a serious assault on drug trafficking and consumption of illegal drugs. To be sure, serious crime and violence will continue in Rio de Janeiro until the city’s obscene social inequalities are reversed. And illegal drugs will be sold for as long as they are illegal and as long as popular demand remains high.
What the UPPs are first and foremost intended to do, and for the most part have done so successfully, is to dismantle the armed territorial authority structures of drug trafficking gangs. This represents a dramatic change both for favela residents and for outsiders who visit or work in favelas. Although there may have existed a relative peace under the domain of well-armed and organized drug gangs, there were previously no institutionalized guarantees of security for anyone. The stability of gang governance, too, was always fragile and prone to violent conflict that threatened the community in a random and deadly way. I think it is fair to say that in most of the smaller favelas of Rio’s wealthy South Side, the UPPs represent a predominately positive change, having brought greater security (from violent conflict) and greater commercial and social integration with formal neighborhoods.
That said, there are some serious challenges that cause doubt about the overall success of the program. A few issues merit special mention:
- None of the large favelas thus far pacified are particularly pacific or free from the competitive power mongering of drug gangs, putting to question geography as a barrier to effective policy implementation.
- Pacification is often accompanied by an increase in property crimes and interpersonal violence in areas where drug gangs had been particularly effective guarantors of community security.
- Other State institutions have been slow to follow suit, putting the onus of public security solely the police while leaving the myriad other social problems unattended.
- If the pacification program remains incomplete geographically—and it very well might, due to a lack of political will to expand the policy to the greater metropolitan area—the structure of crime, violence, and corruption will spread to other areas and create an even greater monster than that which the UPPs hoped to confront in the first place.
How does all of this affect favela communities themselves? On one hand, it is a repressive affront to the unique culture of communities that for decades have lived under the laissez-faire dictatorships of drug gangs. On the other hand, it allows for a much greater social integration and, by consequence, a social mobility that had previously been blocked by the duality of legitimate and criminal governing authorities. In any case, the program’s future, I believe, is still up in the air.
Some argue that one of the biggest threats to security in Rio are its militias, which you've also written about. What's your view on the militias and how the state and city are addressing them?
The common argument that militias are the greatest threat to security in Rio de Janeiro comes from the fact that they are highly professional organizations deeply infiltrated into the security, judicial, and electoral institutions of the State, making them impervious to prosecution while eating away like cancer at the heart of Brazil’s young democracy.
My personal view, however, is that the threat of militias is somewhat exaggerated. Notwithstanding uncertainty, my studies of organized crime and recent history in Rio suggests to me that the territorial expansion and the ultimate extension of political power of these paramilitary-type groups are limited by the logic of the type of crime committed. In the tune of science (or political) fiction, it is completely plausible to foresee a complete criminalization of the democratic process at the hands of militias in Brazil. I don’t predict that, however. In fact, I fully expect drug gangs fleeing from pacified favelas to overwhelm most of those communities succumbed to militias during the last six or eight years.
How does the security situation compare in Recife to that of Rio?
Recife’s homicide rate is nearly twice that of Rio de Janeiro, and the city has won the title as the most violent of Brazil’s state capitals. Muggings, car-jackings, bank robberies, and other violent assaults are rampant, and this violence has seriously affected social and commercial activity here. To compare Rio and Recife in a heartbeat, I would stay that while Rio’s security situation is characterized by a much more sophisticated and cinematographic type of violence, Recife is by and large a more dangerous city to live and work in for almost anyone. That said, since violent crime is less tied into local political structures here, intelligent and integral public security policies may have a greater chance at success than in Rio.