IN DECEMBER 2008, Rio de Janeiro inaugurated a “pacification” initiative to purge its favelas, or shanty towns, of violence and narcotics. The city’s roughly one thousand favelas are home to poor and working-class Brazilians, and have been run for decades by gangs that, in addition to selling drugs, often extort money from businesses and have power over almost every aspect of economic life. In the absence of law and governance, in many areas the gangs also dispense rough justice while keeping the police at bay. Territorial battles between rival gangs and frequent raids by corrupt and unaccountable security forces mean that violence is a constant threat, deterring investment in the local economy and in public services. The pacification programme, inspired by similar initiatives in other notoriously violent cities such as Medellín in Colombia, envisages breaking the cycle of violence and marginalisation by re-establishing government control over the favelas, one by one. First, gang members are expelled—often violently—before specially trained, community-oriented police units known as Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora, or UPPs, move in to set up a permanent occupation. As advertised by the government, that phase of operations is to be followed by significant investment in public services to improve living standards and boost economic opportunity.
The pacification has targeted almost forty favelas so far. Though violence has decreased in some areas, the programme has frequently divided opinion. Many favela residents complain of delays in the delivery of services, continued police brutality, and recurrent skirmishes between the police and gangs. In April, riots broke out following the unresolved death of a well-known dancer from the Pavão–Pavãozinho favela, who was allegedly beaten by security forces. Protestors started fires in the upscale neighbourhood of Copacabana, and clashed with the police in firefights. For the government, these incidents, the latest of several that have dented confidence in the programme, come uncomfortably close to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which starts this month, and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio—both events that the pacification was, in part, meant to prepare the city for.
Spanish documentary photographer Núria López Torres travelled to Brazil’s second largest city in early 2013. “I wanted to see if the pacification of the favelas had improved the lives of people living there,” she said. López Torres spent anywhere from an hour to a week with each of her subjects, who, while including gang members and police officers, are largely regular people “who work and try to have a better life.” Unlike the bulk of news images of the pacification process, which tend to involve violent encounters between police, gang members and residents, López Torres’s photographs capture the more subtle dynamics playing out in these favelas: the imperatives of economic survival, new efforts towards efficient administration, the establishment of state control, and the tension between residents and the police. In one photograph, a toddler and a young girl walk past two policemen on patrol with their guns drawn, neither side seeming affected by the presence of the other. In another, a house stands partially demolished in preparation for new construction in a favela where the pacification has increased property speculation. Even where violence has decreased, López Torres found that improvements in living conditions had not always followed. With a continued lack of jobs and educational opportunities, López Torres said, residents are often “forced to do whatever they have to do to survive.” “There are fewer guns on the streets,” she said, “but the real problems have not been solved.”
Núria López Torres is a Barcelona-based documentary photographer, focusing on issues related to women, gender, identity and sexuality. She is a member of Gea Photowords, an organisation of photographers, writers and journalists, and of Caja Azul, a photographers’ collective.