Carnival In Rio: Beneath the Flare, There Are Major Social Issues

Tuesday marked the last day of Carnival in Brazil. The holiday draws around 500,000 foreign tourists to Rio de Janeiro alone. But underneath the revelry, the country still grapples with serious issues like drug violence and official corruption.

As Brazil has become more prominent on the world stage, it has sought to clean up its image and indeed, things have gotten better. The percentage of Brazilians who who are considered middle-class has gone from 34% in 2004 to 54% as of 2011. Having the majority of the population qualify as middle-class is a new development and a major milestone for the country.

Despite the gains, however, drug violence, police corruption, and poverty still form an iron triangle in Brazil. Youths born into poverty are drawn to drug gangs for lack of better options. Corrupt police form symbiotic relationships with the gangs. The resulting violence between factions vying for control of the drug trade hinders economic development, reinforcing  the poverty that encourages further criminality and corruption.

The country’s slums, or favelas, make up fiefdoms for Brazilian traffickers. Within the favelas, gangs like the Comando Vermelho or Amigos dos Amigos are the government. The gangs have been known to protect social workers providing community services, host street parties known as Bailes Funk, and even provide transportation. This, of course, is alongside selling narcotics and enforcing control over their territory by force of arms.

To put the size of these territories into perspective, the largest favela, Rocinha, is home to 69,356 people according to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE). Other favelas easily number in the tens of thousands as well.

The gangs that control these territories are well staffed, well armed, and as well-organized as any corporation or government bureaucracy.

In anticipation of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the government has embarked on a program of "pacification." Pacification involves invading a favela with paramilitary forces and, after the traffickers have been ousted, putting special community police in place. These police are meant to maintain an official presence while services like electricity, sewage, and garbage disposal are brought in. The official hope is to have generations of favela dwellers grow up without the traffickers’ influence and thereby break the cycle of violence.

But there are a number of criticisms.

If the structural causes that make life as a traficante attractive aren’t addressed, all the government’s efforts will be for nothing. Cyclical poverty and social exclusion of the favela dwellers will inevitably breed more gang members. Recent trends in the war on drugs look to make matters worse as Brazil becomes a global hub for narcotics.

Official corruption will also get in the way if police continue to facilitate the drug trade or simply take it up themselves. Fifty-nine police officers were recently arrested in Rio de Janeiro for aiding the city’s drug dealers. This wasn’t the first time officers have been brought in on corruption charges, and it most likely won't be the last.

Just as simply rounding up drug dealers may be ineffective in the long-term, periodic corruption probes will find limited success as well. Structural causes make it easy to fall into a life of crime for anyone.

Brazil’s problems are less about the gang members or corrupt police officers themselves and more about the circumstances that create new examples of each.

As long as these perverse incentives remain, so too will the cycle of poverty, violence, and corruption.

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Jeff Fong

Jeff covers the intersection of politics, economics, and technology. He currently lives in the SF Bay Area where he works at a start up focused on urban transportation.

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