An “Ethnographic Walk” around Army-Controlled Maré

I spent most of last Saturday in Maré. Maré is a region formed by sixteen favelas in the North Zone (low-income working-class region) of Rio. Since March Maré has been occupied by the army. I mentioned to a local friend that I would like to see the favela with the presence of the army. I have wondered how it has affected the everyday life of the place. So she took me around for what she called an “ethnographic walk”. These are some perceptions I had during and after it.

In  the past years, I have frequently been going to Maré to meet community journalists, activist photographers and check out on local NGO projects.

Most of the times I went there before I walked around and hung out with the people I met.

In these situations, the open-air presence of heavily-armed drug dealers has always been somewhat disturbing.

I always wondered and asked the dwellers I know about how people managed to live in a context of absence of public security and the constant risk of armed conflicts.

Now that Maré has been occupied by the army in preparation for the “pacification” process, I have wondered what has changed.

So when I left the bus on Avenida Brasil (one of Rio’s main roads), I decided to pay attention to what could characterize as difference from my previous visits.

For that reason, I decided to walk into the favela rather than taking the moto-taxi as I used to do.

On the way, I felt the place was a bit quieter than I remembered. It was about 10 am. In the last times, people were walking with grocery bags and hanging out at the gates.

There were much less people out this time. Differently from last year, I saw no armed drug dealer on the streets either. Neither did I see army soldiers or police officers.

But I felt a bit restless when I saw a group of men in the spot I had seen drug dealers before. So I put my head down and kept walking to the place I would meet my friends.

After our meeting was over, I decided to walk with one of my friends from the favela where we were to the one where she lives.

Right after leaving the place we met, I saw some youngsters talking in the corner where drugs used to be sold, but I didn’t dare to stare to check whether they were dealers (often quite young).

The army soldiers were already on the street at this time. They were about 200 meters away from where dealers used to stay last year.

The fact that I am a social scientist who is very critical to the “pacification” program may have affected my judgement of the local mood.

But the impression I had is that people were tense when the soldiers were there. I looked at the faces of some people who were on the street. They looked apprehensive.

The bars also looked quieter than they usually are at that part of the favela. I asked my friend if I was being paranoid. She said I wasn’t.

Instead of crossing the favela from inside by walking the area called divisa (the conflict-prone area separating two areas each controlled by rival gangs), we walked outside from Avenida Brasil.

Minutes later we got to the famous feira (open-air market) in Maré. They sell everything from foods to electronics, clothes and construction tools.

“I think I will walk through the feira“, I told my friend. That’s when she offered to walk the ethnographic walk with me.

The feira felt much more lively than the street we met earlier, but this doesn’t come as a surprise since the feira is the heart of Maré especially in weekends.

The noise of the people selling stuff, the loud music and the variety of food smells amazed me.The feira was way bigger than I thought.

Strolling through the feira demands time and patience since the alleys are very narrow. But people in general sounded calm, happy and cheerful.

As we walked through the feira, I wondered if the cheerfulness related to the absence of army soldiers.

I saw none of them. My friend explained the soldiers stayed elsewhere at the other end of the feira.

I wondered if that happened for mobility reasons (it must be difficult for soldiers to move fast in the feira) or if it was a decision to leave the most popular market untouched in respect to the local culture. I am still not sure.

Things looked quite normal to me (I had seen the feira in previous years, but during weekdays).

But the perception of dwellers about drug trade and security came as my friend met some people she knew along the way.

At some point, my friend met an acquaintance. They talked about the newly-elected board of a local cultural association. The person is part of the new board.

The person invited my friend and I to participate a lunch event to introduce the new board. My friend whispered she was happy that finally the board was formed by people with no connection to the tráfico (drug trade).

“We had a talk with them [dealers] to make things clear: we are in charge of the cultural activities. The physical space is one thing. The cultural events are another”, the person explained.

I understood the dealers used the physical space of the cultural association (maybe for parties). Their talk indicated to me that the dealers are still powerful in the favela.

Their conversation also showed me the dilemmas of people who live in the place to organize cultural events independently without sounding like a challenge to the drug dealers.

We kept walking and talking about the diverse local culture, food and police violence. That’s when my friend met her brother.

As they agreed to meet later, he said “Bye and cuidado…” He meant to advise her to watch out. I asked why he wanted her to watch out.

She explained me that the presence of the army makes things tense in the favela. Since the drug dealers are still there, it is difficult to feel or predict conflicts.

Soon after that, we heard loudspeakers announcing some cultural event. It sounded like the regular announcement of shops, but it approached us.

When we looked back we noticed the announcement came from a truck of the army.

They announced a state-sponsored event. On the truck, heavilly-armed soldiers checked the people on the street.

My friend grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the way. She looked surprised with the truck.

“This is bizarre”, she said. It really felt awkward to see the army announcing a cultural event.

“Did you see the guys sitting at the corner?”, she asked me later. In fact, I had smelled marijuana when we passed by them. “That is a boca [drug trade spot]”, she said while explaining how it is weird to see the soldiers and the dealers so close.

She told me that is why she pulled me back. It is not smart to be close to the truck of the army when one is aware that the dealers are around watching them.

I wondered if the army soldiers knew about the dealers being in the area. I guessed they did. I noticed it even not living there.

Then I wondered what kind of deal they must have not to be in conflict all the time. If they do have a deal, how is it closed? Do they actually meet and talk or is it an unsaid thing?

I didn’t ask my friend. It is definitely tiring to talk about crime, violence and conflict all the time. So we talked about childhood, family and how in favelas and my hometown the street is an extension of the home.

After a couple of hours, I decided to give her a break and leave. She walked me back to Avenida Brasil (I would probably have gotten lost in the narrow alleys otherwise).

As I waited for my bus, I remembered how we know very little about Maré even though we pass by it all the time when commuting from my hometown to Rio.

We just read the news, see the police cars in the entrance corners, now the army trucks rushing on the main roads and imagine how dangerous it must be inside there.

Little do we outside know or in fact care about the social and cultural dynamics in a place where the idea of “peace” has historically been connected to armed-conflicts.

Being there sporadically in the past years has made a big difference in how I perceive the favela and its people. How I think favelas have a lot in common with my hometown.

It has also shaped my perception of the “pacification” program. Despite its potential, I don’t believe it will work.

The “peace” is not really meant for the people living there, but for those outside. As long as violence is controlled inside favelas, the administrators and the non-favela population will be satisfied.

Meanwhile, favela dwellers live with intensity an array of contradictory and dangerous situations while hoping for the day when they will be able -as a classic local funk hit says – to walk calmly in the favela where they were born.

The “pacification” process with its heavy weaponry and tough military control of spaces is definitely not the way to reach the peace dwellers want.