Posted on June 24, 2005

Bitter Divide over Plan to Wall in Rio’s Slums

Daniel Howden, Independent (London), June 23, 2005

A row has erupted in Rio de Janeiro over controversial plans to erect high walls around the city’s sprawling slums to protect motorists from the stray bullets of increasingly violent gang wars.

State legislators recently approved the construction of the 7ft-high walls along a number of main roads, citing frequent shootouts that have killed people in passing cars. But critics say that the project is a form of economic segregation.

Rio, famed for its beaches and the hedonistic carnival, has one of the biggest wealth gaps in the world and soaring crime levels, aggravated by poverty. There are more than 600 slums, known as favelas, and about a million people live in them.

Death rates through violence are among the highest in the world and more than 1,200 people have been killed in the first three months of this year.

Fighting between two gangs in the Vidigal slum over the weekend forced the police to close roads near Ipanema beach. Last month, a gun battle between police and drug traffickers in the Mare slum, which lasted several hours, caused chaos as frightened motorists abandoned their vehicles or reversed away.

Luiz Paulo Conde, the deputy state governor, caused controversy last year by suggesting that the slums be surrounded by 10-foot-high walls. His proposal, with its uncomfortable echoes of Israel’s West Bank “separation” barrier, has since gained a number of powerful supporters. But this week the immediate prospect of a favela barrier was delayed after Rosinha Matheus, the state governor, exercised her veto and stopped the project, saying the barriers “would be a form of discrimination of good citizens who make up the infinite majority of these communities”.

A majority of state legislators support the barrier and the plan is unlikely to disappear. Paulo Melo, the head of the assembly’s justice commission, said the barrier would not distancefavelas but would “prevent acts of banditry”.

Police have so far opposed the construction of slum walls, saying that they will not prevent attacks on motorists stranded in Rio’s lengthy traffic jams. They are instead talking up Brazil’s new rapid deployment anti-crime force as a solution to violent crime. The hand-picked unit of 2,740 officers, many from outside Rio, faces the doubly difficult task of reining in crime and restoring public faith in a force disgraced by entrenched corruption. Already 600 officers have begun urban guerrilla war training in one of Rio’s hillside slums.

Rights groups have also voiced concern over the number of killings by police, which reached record levels last year with at least 1,000 deaths. The administration of President Luis Inacio Lula Da Silva was shocked into action after one of the bloodiest incidents made international headlines in March — 29 people were shot dead in one slum in a conflict over protection money. A number of police were found to be among the shooters.