Tuesday, January 06, 2009

war on drugs or war on squatters?

As The Washington Post reports, Rio's police have occupied Santa Marta, a favela overlooking the upper-middle class Botafogo neighborhood. Among the police strategies: banning moto taxis (the unlicensed motorcycle taxis that many residents depend on to get up and down the community's steep slope), depriving residents of pirated cable tv and internet service, and imposing curfews.

The reporter compares this strategy to the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. But this is not a war zone. Rio may be a violent city, but most of the shootings actually involve the police. Indeed, many favela residents (and some government officials) find the drug dealers more honorable than the cops. And, anyway, the police have done these kinds of occupations many times--invading favelas and terrorizing residents, all justified by the claim that they are trying to root out drug gangs--and they have always failed. Their actions, while temporarily preventing shootouts between rival gangs, actually kill the community in order to save it. As the article notes, so few people are out on the street that stores are closing in some favelas. And, though walking may be safer, there's nowhere to walk to. Here's a description of Santa Marta now:
The paths snaking among the houses were nearly deserted on a recent afternoon, unusual in such a densely packed community. As the search continues in the neighborhood and surrounding jungle for stashes of drugs or weapons, police regularly question residents about their activities. The neighbors don't like being outside for fear of getting hassled, said Alan Basilio, 27, a student on his way home.

"At this time of day, you'd normally see many more people outside, sitting around and talking," he said. "Daily life has changed a lot."

"Of course, since the police arrived there are no more gunfights, no more shooting," he said. "But the way it was before, we had freedom to go where we wanted, to do what we wanted, for as long as we wanted. I'm not sure how long it's going to be like this, but it seems like it could be a very long time."

And there's another, more sinister angle to the story: Santa Marta is controlled by the Comando Vermelho--the Red Command--one of three drug gangs operating in Rio. But from what I have heard, the police have historically been cozy with another drug gang--Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends.) A cynic might say that the police are simply doing their friends in AdA a service by cracking down on the CV.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Neuwirth,

I'm a long time reader of your blog and I think it's fascinating how you cover squatter cities and the their context in the world of today. Living in an industrialized society one forgets that there are other worlds in which people live outside the norm. Not just in 'third world' countries but also in Europe and North America people are creating these communities organically. If you're interested here's a link to a journalist who made a documentary about squats in the San Francisco bay area. http://www.killnormal.com/shelter/


rn said...

Dear Anon:

Thanks for your note. Yes, there are squatters here on the home front (and in Europe, too.) And they are subject to paramilitary action just like the favelas (see http://www.thepraguepost.com/articles/2008/11/26/squatters-rights.php for a recent article on a squatter eviction in Prague). There have been similar moves against squatters in Copenhagen (ejecting residents from the famed Cristiania neighborhood) and Geneva (where squatters who had lived in buildings for several decades were evicted last year on order of the Attorney General.)

I have the 'squatumentary' you mention, but, with deadlines and such, haven't yet watched it all the way through. My apologies.

In your comment, though, you allude to one of the important differences between squatters in the 'third world' and squatters here: your concept of 'other worlds in which people live outside the norm.'

Most squatters in the developing world are not seeking to live outside the norm. They come to the cities seeking work. And they can find work. But they can't find homes they can afford. So they take over land and build for themselves. Theirs is not an ideological stance. Just a practical one.

If you have any info about other squats in the U.S. or elsewhere, don't hesitate to send it my way.