Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Operation Saturation in Paraisópolis: Policies of Overt State Violence

There has been a little flurry of media attention, and not just in Portuguese language sources, about the Military Police occupation of favela Paraisópolis in recent days. As has been done elsewhere, I’ll give an account of this event. But first I want to put it into a context that clearly identifies this act as an oft-utilized tool of government policy towards favelas, and not just an emergency response to extreme circumstances, as news reports or government accounts would lead you to believe.

In fact, a keyword search of “Operação Saturação” on a news or government portal show scanty coverage of these saturation operations deserving a serious and alarmed discussion. Only some instances of saturation have received significant coverage, which often lacks solid information of the events leading up to its implimentation or the negative ramifications for residents. This only further demonstrates the low priority that media outlets and their audiences place on slum dwellers’ quality of life.


A “Saturation Operation,” or the descent of hundreds of police, vehicles, and arms to first lock down and then monitor an entire community for extended periods of time, has been used in the city of São Paulo a total of 12 times since 2005. It is a deliberate response to spikes of violence that are perceived to threaten neighboring areas or the governability of the favela by state authorities.

In a saturation, hundreds of troops will enter and essentially subdue all activity in the community (over 600 troops in one case) – including legitimate business and school functions, and most car and foot traffic. They embark on an intense investigation of all recent incidences of violence (though rarely their own) and perform detentions, searches (over 50,000 personal searches in one instance), questioning, and sweeps for illegal drugs and arms. Once the community is effectively subdued, they continue to occupy and monitor residents’ coming and going - for up to three months in recent cases. In fact the first use of the saturation tactic, at least under the title of “operation saturation,” was in Paraisópolis. So it seems things have come full circle.

Past saturation operations in São Paulo and their duration include:

Paraisópolis (julho/agosto 2005) – 42 days
Elba/Tamarutaca (agosto/outubro 2005) – 48 days
Pantanal (outubro/dezembro 2005) – 53 days
Guarujá (janeiro 2006) – 25 days
Parque Novo Mundo (fevereiro/abril 2006) – 44 days
Jardim Colombo II/Buraco Quente (maio/julho 2006) – 61 days
Morro do Samba (julho/agosto 2006) – 51 days
Taipas (setembro/novembro 2006) – 72 days
Elisa Maria (março/junho 2007) – 81 days
Alba (setembro/dezembro 2007) – 93 days
Rio Claro (junho/setembro 2008) – 99 days
Starting in 2007 with the occupation of Jardim Elisa Maria, the saturation effort has been followed by a project known as a Virada Social. This omnibus package of social service programs by both state and city agencies often includes dental clinics, construction of a new school or nursery, job skills classes, sporting events, tree planting, community center construction, new public lighting, a family planning course, and the list goes on.

I suspect it simply became politically unfeasible, as these operations became larger, for the government to undertake such drastic repressive measures without some kind of positive social outreach afterward. Or perhaps there is a sense that authorities must clean up after themselves, as in the case of Elisa Maria, where the slaughter of 6 local teens, given at the time as just one instance justifying the initial saturation, later proved to be committed by police.

Operation Saturation in Paraisópolis

We’re now entering the fourth week of the most recent Paraisópolis occupation, a community I visited regularly during my time in São Paulo. It is one of the more economically developed favelas in the city, and boasts some of the best infrastructure I saw in a squatter settlement throughout my time there. It is also the second largest, with around 88,000 residents.

The immediate events leading up to the occupation began on February 1st, when police shot and killed a resident and arrested another. Accounts of this story vary – that the dead man was unarmed, that he was armed and fired on officers, that the surviving man was a relative of a famous imprisoned drug lord, and that he is unrelated. Media reports have neglected any serious investigation into the truth of this first encounter.

In response to this shooting death groups of residents clashed with police on Feb. 2nd– residents barricaded roads, damaged businesses, and burned a handful of cars. Once again, the motives here are unclear. The police allege that the famous drug lord ordered the riot from prison, but again, this has not been confirmed. In the confrontation 4 police and at least two residents were wounded.

In response to this encounter authorities began the Saturation Operation on Feb. 4th that has effectively put the entire community under occupation. 300 Shock Troops and 100 local police patrol the streets and houses, 33 checkpoints operate throughout the community to filter foot traffic and stop suspicious looking persons. There are several reports of officers mistreating and firing upon innocents, detaining and questioning residents an excessive number of times, speaking threateningly to local leaders, and entering houses without residents’ permission. Regardless of whether the rioting was ordered by the imprisoned drug lord or was simply a spontaneous response to police brutality, it is hard to argue that a full-scale occupation of the community for an “unforeseeable amount of time” is justifiable or humane.

Accounts of some resident's complaints have surfaced in major media reports, but the complaints highlighted are either paltry, or when serious, presented as an isolated instance. In fact, serious and widespread complaints exist and were recorded by a group of rights activists in the city whose e-mails I receive. Most residents will not speak to outside reporters. This photo comes from such an e-mail and depicts a man's foot, injured by a police explosive thrown at him while looking for his wife. She is employed at the popular chain homegoods store Casas Bahia, which recently opened in the community, and was working when the police operation began.

Photo taken by Joelma Couto

Details of the Paraisópolis Virada Social are just coming out, but the list is extensive. I would be impressed if all the activities mentioned actually take place, though the large majority of them are short-term, quickie interventions that I cannot see having a lasting impact on the community. Thus far, the saturation and promised social programs have not cooled all tensions, as two journalists who recently entered the favela to record day to day life in the community where temporarily held captive and then driven outside favela borders. Their captors took their recording equipment and instructed the reporters not to come back.

Paraisópolis quick stats

unemployment: 20-25%
illiteracy: 15,000 residents
children who cannot attend school due to lack of spaces in facilities: 5,000
median income: R$367-$614, or 1/4 to 1/2 of the city average


Alexandra said...

Hi Laura,
I keep coming to your blog and would love to reference some of your information in a report I am writing about favelas and transportation in Sao Paulo. For this entry in particular, what were your sources?
Thank you, I appreciate your help!

Laura said...

Hey Alexandra, I would be happy to send you more sources on this. Do you read portuguese? They are all in Portuguese.

If this works for you, send me an e-mail at

laura [dot] tompkins (AT) gmail [DOT] com

Anonymous said...

Hi Laura,
I am a student of architecture and am studying Paraisopolis for one of my research studies. I would also love to reference some of the statistics and other information on this page, and was wondering what the sources were.
Thank you for your time, and your insightful article