RIO DE JANEIRO — A robotic snowman danced on the tailgate of a pickup truck strung with Christmas lights as it passed two shirtless boys holding handguns and short-range radios. Inside an evangelical church a few steps away, children played “Noite Feliz,” the Portuguese version of “Silent Night,” on their violins, flutes and trumpets.
It’s a bittersweet holiday season for the 130,000 people who live in Complexo da Maré, the front line of a battle between drug gangs and police who want to pacify the largest and most violent of Rio’s favelas, poor urban communities that began as shantytowns. Until June, thousands of federal troops occupied the 16 communities in Maré, at a cost of $444,000 a day, to prepare for the installation of a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP), raising the prospect of a future without the ruthless drug gangs that have ruled the area for three decades.
But after the army left, “the gangs returned to business as usual within two hours,” according to one community leader, whom Al Jazeera America is not naming to shield him from possible repercussions. The UPP never arrived. Now police cars sit at the entrances to Maré, but inside the traffickers are undoubtedly in control. Tension abounds, and many inhabitants are reluctant to talk.
In the Nova Holanda district of Maré, the residents’ association president, Gilmar Rodrigues Gomes, chose his words carefully. Last year a counterpart was killed, apparently by a gang, after repeatedly speaking out in favor of the occupation.
“Pacification cannot do anything for us,” said Gomes. “The community does not accept pacification. We would prefer basic services like sanitation and reliable electricity and water.”
The mood is noticeably tenser than when Al Jazeera visited in April 2014. Then, many residents were cautiously optimistic, although all were well aware that the traffickers still lurked in the community.
“It’s been a tough end to the year,” said Ricardo Mirapalheta, 53, who runs a local children’s orchestra. “The economic crisis has also hit many people here hard. For everyone, there is a long road ahead.”
Senior police commanders have admitted that the army occupation of Maré achieved little, and some commentators now doubt the state can ever control such large favelas where gangs are so deeply embedded.