Rio slums enjoy first Carnival

2011-03-08 17:12

Rio de Janeiro - Residents of Rio's Formiga shantytown celebrated their first Carnival since police pushed out drug gangs by dancing and singing the praises of law enforcement in an odd twist to festivities usually known for irreverence and uninhibited excess.

The slum hadn't had a Carnival street party in years before police moved in last July to expel gangs as part of an ambitious security programme known by its Portuguese acronym, UPP, which has generally improved living conditions and met with support in targeted communities.

The permanent police presence has allowed Formiga and other slums to organise parties, and composer Gugu da Tijuca's theme song for Formiga's samba group this year celebrates this newfound freedom.

"We're all coming together, Borel, Formiga, Casa Branca, Andarai ... With our UPPs, we're going to raise some dust," the song goes, listing neighbouring shantytowns that will be able to celebrate together after years of not being allowed to cross drug gang boundaries.

There are Carnival groups based in nine of the 14 areas that have police presence. They range from small, neighbourhood parties like Formiga's to the stately samba groups that put on the huge parades watched by millions on Sunday and Monday.

The state pacification programme was launched more than two years ago, and is expected to continue growing. Three new policing units will be implemented after Carnival in communities where territory has already been won back by law enforcement.

Safer for slum residents

A federal programme modelled on Rio's will later be expanded to other states, the national head of public safety, Regina Miki, said in February after touring two areas in which permanent police posts and increased services had driven out visibly armed drug dealers. She called the programme "an example for the country".

The presence of permanent posts in slums has also made the Carnival safer for Rio residents far from the slums and for the nearly 1 million visitors who poured into the city for the celebration.

The contingent of officers in the streets was reduced by 1 000 this year, according to Rio police, because of the security brought by UPPs in slums near the Sambadrome, where the two-day Carnival parades are held.

City residents are showing their approval of police work by making the elite police unit's black outfit one of this year's best-selling costumes. The manager at the traditional Turuna costume shop, Rodrigo Herculano, said the police takeover of the Alemao complex of slums made the cop get-ups fly off the rack.

"It has been a big fetish among women, to get dressed up as police officers," he said. "The men have been dressing as inmates."

Rich mixing with the poor

Bands from posh neighbourhoods are also integrating with long-avoided hillside slums, including them in their parade itinerary.

An Ipanema-based street band, "Friendship is Almost Love", paraded into the neighbouring slum of Cantagalo after 27 years of staying away.

Another group, "Dear, I'll be Right Back", brought their samba beat back to the shantytown of Chapeu Mangueira after a long absence.

"What we want to highlight here is the integration of the city and the overcoming of our problems," said the group's president, Jorge Sapia.

In Copacabana's Ladeira dos Tabajaras shantytown, officers belonging to the UPP offered to join the percussion section of the community's band, "Poke Her and She'll Jump", but were turned down, said the unit's commander, Renato Senna.

"Their playing wasn't really in the same style," he said. "But there is a real spirit of working together, and you can see that this Carnival."

Newfound warmth

Some of these roaming parades originating in the shantytowns themselves are saluting their police officers in the best Carnival spirit - by gently poking fun.

This year's theme song for the street band from Santa Marta, where the first police takeover was implemented two years ago, starts off complaining: "Don't add any pepper, I've got enough spice," in a reference to the pepper spray carried by officers.

But it then goes on to say: "I just want to be happy in Santa Marta."

Their samba also refers to police Major Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo - the former head of Santa Marta's UPP and now chief coordinator of all police pacification units - as "boss woman".

"She's tough, but she's good, she does great work with the community," said the band's director, Antonio Guedes. "So we want to poke fun at her a little, but with all respect."

To Azevedo, this kind of playful recognition of police work was unheard of in previous years, and brings her satisfaction.

"We do our work in these communities - we arrest people who need to be arrested, we are police," she said.

"But we have a presence there, we know the kids. There is a warmth that we hadn't seen before."