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FEATURE-In Rio's favelas lack of property rights can be lethal for young men

by Chris Arsenault | @chrisarsenaul | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 13 June 2016 10:44 GMT

Young men are disproportionately impacted by violence in Rio, which has an average of 11 murders a day

By Chris Arsenault

RIO DE JANEIRO, June 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It is mid-afternoon on a workday in a Rio de Janeiro slum when a young man in a tanktop crouches beside a building, walkie-talkie on his belt and a large black pistol openly drawn on a main road.

As people walk by unperturbed, local residents say he is protecting turf for a drug gang in the Cantagalo favela, a bustling community on a hillside overlooking Copacabana beach in downtown Rio.

With an average of 11 murders per day, violent crime remains a major problem in Rio, according to figures from Brazil's Public Security Institute (ISP), a government body.

In favelas like Cantagalo, where people often lack formal documents to prove they own their ramshackle homes, young men are disproportionately impacted by violence, analysts said.

"There is no clear definition of who owns the land in Cantagalo," said Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho, a lecturer at King's College London specializing in Brazilian politics.

"A population with a sense of ownership of their homes has more direct communitarian ties," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I believe this sense of ownership would reduce the vulnerability to criminality."

Home to more than 20 percent of Rio's residents, favelas first developed as squatter communities. As a result, many favela residents do not have formal title for their homes.

As Rio prepares to host the Olympic Games in August, rights groups are concerned that killings by police have increased by more than 50 percent in the past two years, according to ISP figures.

In Rio state, 645 people were killed at the hands of police last year and more than 100 people have been killed by Rio police so far this year, ISP statistics show.

"Rio's police (are) the most lethal force in Brazil," Maria Canineu, Brazil director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Even by the standards of developing countries with high rates of inequality and crime, the number of killings by Rio's cops stand out, according to HRW.

In South Africa, a nation of 53 million infamous for high crime rates, police killed 396 people last year. In contrast, the state of Rio de Janeiro with 16 million people had nearly twice as many police killings, and a lower crime rate than South Africa, HRW said.

Rio's state police did not respond to phone calls or emails requesting comment, nor did the federal police.


Even though there is no official data linking a lack of official property titles in Rio's poor communities to violence and police killings, many of those killed by police are young men from favelas who are said to be linked to the drugs trade, analysts said.

"It's not by chance that drug dealers occupy these kinds of territories with insecure land tenure," Martim Smolka, director of the Latin America program at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a U.S. think-tank, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cantagalo, with its 30,000 people, is one of the favelas formally "pacified" or brought under state control by police.

But, as evidenced by young men openly carrying weapons, the police's grip has slipped in recent months, two residents said on condition of anonymity due to security fears.

"It's much easier for criminals or drug gangs to occupy areas were residents don't have official, legal (land) rights," Smolka said.

A lack of trust in the state and a poor relationship with police have added to the problem, said Michel Misse, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who studies urban violence.

Improving formal ownership rates would "absolutely" lead to better security, Misse told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as would better government services in poor communities and more training for police.

While favela residents can buy and sell properties in the informal market, a lack of official titles makes it difficult for them to access some government services.

Bringing people into the formal system of governance and ownership would help to improve security, said one long-time resident.

"The state needs to give them (favela residents) property documents," Rafael Azeredo, owner of a bustling youth hostel in Cantagalo, said.


With a flat screen television and hip, modern decor, Azeredo's Pura Vida hostel is hiring local youths and doing brisk business.

A group of tourists from Asia leave the gated home toting surf boards, heading for Copacabana beach.

Azeredo opened the place a few years ago. He grew up in the favela and inherited the property from his grandmother.

Unlike many of her neighbors, his grandmother had a formal title to her home, so it could be converted into a lawful business with electricity, water and other services.

Many other Cantagalo residents do not have that option, even though the community bustles with small businesses.

In one salon, beauticians in heavy make-up sculpt the red nails of local women, while next door a young man gets a trim with an electric razor at a barber shop door with just two chairs.

A busy restaurant nearby, tucked into the ground floor of an unsteady looking red brick building, serves up plates of steak, rice and beans paid for by weight.

"When my family got this house, it was legal from the beginning, but most houses here are illegal," said Alfredo, sitting in the hostel's outdoor bar in a tank top and shorts.

HRW's Canineu said there had been limited progress in improving accountability for police abuses in Rio.

"People complain about how the police treat people, even if they are innocent," said Alessandro Salles da Silva, secretary of the local council in Cantagalo.

Bringing residents into the formal system, and getting them formal title to their homes certainly would not change this dynamic overnight, residents and experts said.

But, added Azeredo, the hostel owner, it would be a step in the right direction. (Reporting By Chris Arsenault. Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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