The scene was impeccably staged. The Special Operations Police Battalion (commonly referred to as BOPE and famously depicted in the film Elite Squad and its sequel) had set up a temporary command center on the edge of the plaza. More than a hundred of their police, armed to the teeth, with bulletproof vests and helmets, were milling around in the sweltering heat with nothing to do after taking control of the area without a shot being fired. Sky, the television company, had set up a small table under an umbrella and was hoping to sign up residents for their cable package. A helicopter made low passes over the plaza. City sanitation workers pushed around piles of garbage, pretending to work. In the midst of all of this, BOPE police were giving rides to kids on several horses as dozens of journalists snapped photos of the delighted children. Later in the afternoon, BOPE raised their flag alongside the Brazilian national flag in the middle of the plaza. With much pomp and circumstance, Complexo da Maré, the largest group of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, had officially begun the pacification process.
Located in the sprawling, industrial northern zone of the city, Complexo da Maré is a cluster of 16 favelas with a population of roughly 130,000. It is a public security concern because it is home to several non-state armed actors (two separate gang factions and a militia) and is located at the intersection of three of the major traffic arteries that connect the international airport to the rest of the city. I have been residing in Maré for the past year conducting dissertation field research. This has allowed me the opportunity to witness BOPE operations first hand and interview residents and community leaders about the tenuous and shifting public security situation. I will argue that BOPE’s pattern of abusive tactics and violence comprised an overall strategy to threaten and terrorize these communities into submission in an effort to “retake” these favela territories. And while such a strategy may have produced more effective tactical operations and short-term results, it is counter-productive to the pacification process in the long run and requires a major reassessment by the public security apparatus moving forward. Continue reading