Marco Werman: There were violent clashes in Rio de Janeiro last night, just weeks before the city and the rest of Brazil play host to the World Cup soccer tournament. The clashes in Rio were between police and protesters in one of the city's slums, a favela right next door to the famous Copacabana beach. Residents in that favela were protesting the death of a 25-year-old local dancer who they say was beaten by police who thought he was a drug dealer. An official report claimed the dancer died in a fall fleeing a shootout between drug gangs and police. The World's Jason Margolis is joining me now here in the studio. You were in Rio last year, Jason, reporting on so-called pacification efforts in the city's favelas. Lay out, first of all, for us the geography of Rio and the favelas, because if you're in this favela we're talking about, you're just a stone's throw from the tourist areas, right?
Jason Margolis: Yes, exactly right. The city of Rio is right on the water and it's very flat and then the land juts up dramatically into the sky with these steep hills, it's incredibly beautiful. At the end of the 19th century, soldiers who were coming back from war had no where to live in the urban area, so they started building a neighborhood on the steep hillside. It's incredible, they just built a little community there, and for more than a century, this is how Rio develops. The poor people live on the hills. The problem is that these favelas are very haphazard, they don't have modern, urban planning, they don't have sanitation and garbage collection, etc. and that's the favelas.
Werman: And they draw more poor because they are slums, they attract drug traffickers because there are few cops and they can work with impunity, more or less. Take us into the 21st century, explain this pacification program, what it's supposed to achieve.
Margolis: So the 21st century comes, Brazil of course wins the World Cup and the Olympics and then they announce this "pacification" program. So here's how it works: the authorities say "We're coming into this favela guns blazing in two days. Drug dealers, you have two days to get out of here." They do this to prevent violence and it works. After the police come, the engineers come in and the social workers and they make the favela a more liveable place.
Werman: Where do the drug dealers go?
Margolis: They just go down to the next favela down the road or a few miles down the road. I met a young man who was living in one of those favelas and he was not happy about the pacification program. Here's what he told me.
Young man: We're suffering the impacts of pacification. As police units move into favelas, drug lords run away and then they move into our favela.
Margolis: That said, I followed up with him and I asked "If the police were to come into your favela, would you welcome them?" and he said "Oh, absolutely."
Werman: So there seems to be some kind of value, at least with residents. This violence that's been happening, do you think it's cause for alarm with the World Cup just weeks away now?
Margolis: The favelas have always been violent places and firefights and protests like the ones that are happening now happen all the time. When I was there in Rio a year ago, there was a shootout. Nobody outside of Brazil much cared or paid attention. But now that we're a few weeks away from the world coming to Rio, this is getting a lot more global attention. So no, I don't think the pacification program has been a total success but I don't think it's fair to say it's been a failure either. There are hundreds and hundreds of these favelas throughout Rio. An estimated 1.4 million people live in these favelas. You're never going to have all these places violence-free but a lot of the favelas, life is a lot better for the residents. It depends on who you ask, it depends on who you are. Has the program worked? Are people going to be safe during the World Cup? It's a difficult question to answer.
Werman: The World's Jason Margolis, thank you very much.
Margolis: You're very welcome.
Werman: This is The World from Public Radio International.