The following is a response to the reader’s questions and comments posted a few days ago. I want to thank Anonymous for her very thoughtful reaction to reading the blog. Thanks :)
Pacification and Social Exclusion
The film City of God (2003) does do an excellent job of portraying life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro circa 30 years ago, tracing their modern development from the 1960s through the early to mid-1980s, although it puts excessive attention on the centrality of drugs and violence in community life. The novel by Paulo Lins (1997) that inspired the movie, which is essentially a fictionalized composite of hundreds of interviews recorded under the direction of anthropologist Alba Zaluar in the early 1980s, is also an essential read to further contextualize the violence that overwhelmed Rio de Janeiro in that era. Neither work, of course, tells the whole story, especially since the actual history and structural organization of the Cidade de Deus district is quite unique in relation to other favelas.
Incidentally, City of God was the first Brazilian film I ever saw. It was Valentine’s Day of 2004, at a beer-serving theatre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that no longer exists. I had gone to see the film alone, which was a bad idea, especially on lovers’ night. But it did inspire me to learn more. When I finally visited the real Cidade de Deus on the west side of Rio de Janeiro, it was nothing like I had imagined. The main part of it is an enormous complex of government-built high rise apartment buildings surrounding dingy, broken plazas. Unlike most other favelas, interpersonal trust seemed extremely low. Most people avoided conversation with me altogether, for there was a sense that nefarious eyes combed the grounds from the mold-darkened high rises above. This tense silence was finally broken by gunshots, which temporarily united all in a bizarrely gleeful (adrenalin-induced) run for their lives that resembled the spontaneous joy of a multitude caught in a sudden rainstorm.
As you mentioned, many of the students I worked with in Rio (nearly all of whom lived in favelas) were concerned that the construction of schools and placement of local businesses within favela communities was in essence a political conspiracy to isolate and segregate the poor from the wealthy. This fear is based on a long history of blatant attempts by the economic and political elite (almost everywhere in the world) to hide the social eyesores born out of severe labor exploitation while continuing to benefit from that exploitation. Incidentally, Cidade de Deus was originally created in order to relocate slum dwellers from the wealthy south side of Rio to the far away west side. Many had lost their homes to severe flooding in the mid-1960s, but a great many more were forcefully removed at the behest of wealthy families unhappy with the proximity of the poor.
All said and done, however, the concerns of my students regarding the placement of schools and businesses in favelas today, I believe, amount to an empty and hyper-politicized conspiracy theory, popular among youth. While public officials are arguably more preoccupied with creating a perception of public security and social development rather than actually correcting deep social inequalities, it is wrong to think that placing schools and businesses in any community will increase its isolation from surrounding areas. While a superficial logic might suggest that these new institutions will create self-contained communities, any type of social and economic development will in fact increase interconnectedness with the rest of the city, not decrease it.
I have not been back to Rio de Janeiro since April 2012, but my understanding is that very little has changed since then. A few more favelas have been pacified, and several more are expected to be occupied by the police during the next two years, but general trends as described in earlier posts of this blog remain strong. That is, pacification seems to be working very well in a number of small favelas, particularly with respect to the significant drop in homicides and shootouts in those areas. In the larger favelas, like Rocinha and Complexo do Alemão, the police are far from usurping the de facto authority of drug traffickers, and are perhaps already entrenched in patters of coercion and corruption that threaten to undermine much of the progress made until now. Further, it appears that the installation of UPPs (Pacifying Police Units), while expelling the kind of high-profile violence often characterized in contemporary Brazilian film from many favelas in Rio’s south side and downtown/port area, it has pushed this very same “system” of violence into a great many new areas previously unexposed.
It is quite possible that political will to maintain current UPPs in Rio’s wealthiest and most touristic areas will exist beyond the 2016 Olympics, but I believe it very unlikely that much will be done to stop the problem from spreading to new areas off the radar of media and politics. Considering the typical “balloon effect” of repressing drug production and distribution, any policy of police saturation is likely to have similar consequences that ultimately will reveal its serious limitations.
A Change of Tone
As you noted, there was a substantial change in tone when my research shifted from Rio de Janeiro to Recife. Part of this change reflected a substantial shift of environment. Recife continues to be a much more lethally violent city than Rio de Janeiro at the per capita level, and just three years ago was considered the most violent city in all of Brazil. It is also a city cursed by a particularly obstinate retention of colonial social norms and class divisions, struggling to reconcile this with modern capitalist economic growth. My change in tone, at least in part, reflected both this violence and my inability to fit in, or find my place, in such a conflicted social milieu.
[section deleted by request of anonymous.2]
Regarding rape, I wanted to thank you for sharing your own story. I fear there are so many stories untold, but that it is extremely important for society to start paying attention, and for anyone who has suffered such aggression to simply talk and release his/herself from any sense of shame she might carry inside.
You ask what can be done to prevent rapists from acting out and why rape happens with such astonishing regularity. Laws expressly forbidding rape and proposing serious punishment for the crime or rape are present in written form in most countries. Indeed, a quick look at New Mexico’s rape statutes might quite easily deter a naive man from ever touching a woman or child sexually against their will and express consent. But alas, rape laws are normative rather than positive. That is, they reflect the behavior we as a society think people should conform to in the most abstract sense, but not what we actually conform to in any concrete way.
In the eyes of society, rape is extremely rare, and because of this perception, we look at most rape cases and assume that they cannot possibly be “legitimate” rape, but rather a regrettable intercourse that is the consequence of female foolishness, irresponsibility, promiscuity, and immorality. And as a consequence of this perception, rape laws are, in fact, at least 85 percent unenforceable (see rape post in Albuquerque blog).
Being unenforceable means impunity. Impunity is tantamount to legality. Legality is suggestive of condoning. Condoning is akin to suggestive. Suggestion leads to action. And culture, in turn, becomes one characterized by pervasive rape and complete denial that of. Rape culture, that is ours. How to stop it, I believe, is a matter of conscientious cultural transformation. But like an individual plagued by pathologically self-destructive behaviors, society too would have to actually want to change in order to do so. Or perhaps I am just wallowing in pessimism, a sort of shield against the pain of hope.
The Political Scientist
Political science is fundamentally a philosophical pursuit, insofar that we attempt to identify and make sense of patterns of human and political behavior for the mere sake of knowledge. As a study of politics, it is often far removed from the actual practice of politics, which concerns the concrete organization and distribution of power in human communities. That said, many political scientists certainly are attracted to the field primarily for the desire to make the world a better place. Such altruism is plausible, I think, considering the very miniscule financial rewards associated with most social sciences. Whether we are effective in this regard is another question entirely.
One of the most important differences between Brazil and Mexico is their relative proximity to the United States. The simple geographical fact that Mexico shares a 2,000-mile border with the largest drug consuming country in the world means that it was inevitably to become enmeshed in a problem of transnational organized crime. While Brazil is also a transnational hub for drugs originating from Colombian and the Andean countries bound for Europe, these shipment lines are no where near those of Mexico to the United States. In Brazil, local drug consumption drives most criminal violence, while in Mexico transnational cartels infiltrate the larger political system much more thoroughly and fight for dominance over much larger territories. It is my opinion that the problem in Mexico is far more intractable and dangerous because of this.
There are, of course, a great many more differences, but that is for a volume of books :)
 Many people in Rio de Janeiro, and especially in the Cidade de Deus district, sharply criticized the movie for unfairly portraying their city as if it were a war zone. The resident’s association of Cidade de Deus complained that people stopped coming to the community (particularly foreign NGO workers) in response to fears sparked by the movie. Similar to how many Indians protested the portrayal of inequality, violence, and corruption in the film Slum Dog Millionaire (2008)(walking out en masse from movie theatres all over the world), many Brazilians were angered at the trend begun with City of God: that is, the film industry began exporting a singularly biased portrayal of national culture to the rest of the world, one of brutality, violence, and chaos. Prior to City of God, the Brazilian film industry was known internationally for its pornography, which was no less frustrating to the proud citizens of such a diverse and beautiful culture.