As he watched military police patrol the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second-largest city, photographer Sebastiano Tomada was reminded of unstable countries he had visited.
“I spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan and other conflict zones, and the feeling that I got was of a series of clearing operations,” he said. “You go into a village, you make contact with the local populace, you try to have them on your side, and then once they accept you, you start patrolling and you start clearing out the bad guys.”
Brazil has been stepping up security ahead of the World Cup soccer tournament, which it hosts in June. The military police, now backed by the army, has stormed dozens of Rio’s slums, known as favelas, to push out drug gangs and “pacify” the neighborhoods.
Rio will be hosting several World Cup matches, including the final, and it is expected to be a popular destination for the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans who will be flooding into the country this summer. Rio will also be hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 2016.
“You have to understand that the World Cup and the Olympics are going to bring a lot of business to the city,” Tomada said.
Tomada visited Rio in February to visit a friend and check out “Battle of the Passinho,” a new dance form that has sprung up in the favelas. When he got there, he was struck by his surroundings.
“I saw this really strong contrast between a booming country, a booming economy, and these communities that kind of surround the city of Rio like outposts almost,” he said. “They aren't necessarily poor, but they are areas of their own. Police is not very involved. The security is what it is. People live in very small quarters. There's a lot of life. There are a lot of colors.”
Tomada turned his camera to the people in the favelas, including gang members and the police who are patrolling their streets.
He found that many favela residents were opposed to the pacification efforts.
“These people have a way of life and their traditions, and they don't necessarily want to be incorporated in the big economical boom of the city,” he said. “Or if they do want to, they leave the community and make a better life for themselves. …
“I've talked to so many locals — in the favelas, but even in the center of Rio — saying, ‘They're raising prices; they're blocking roads; they're making everybody's life so miserable constructing all these facilities. And what's going to happen after the Olympics?’ There was one lady in this favela that was saying, 'They're building this huge cycling stadium for the Olympics. What do I care about a cycling stadium? What are they going to do with that stadium? We don't ride bicycles here. We don't even know what cycling is.’ ”
There has been a violent backlash in some favelas, with a recent wave of attacks on police posts. Tomada sees similarities to the counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan.
“You go in a community blazing weapons, and here and there you have some civilian casualties. And how do you expect the community to react positively to you?” he said.
But the photographer also related to the police who are risking their lives and more for the mission.
“When I embedded with these military police, they were respectful people,” he said. “They're doing their job. I got very close to these men that I was with, and they are hard-working people. What they're doing is very hard and very dangerous considering the fact that they live not far from the favelas they work in. It's dangerous for them and for their families.”
Tomada said he would like to go back to Brazil soon, to follow up with the police and see what’s going to happen after the World Cup. He said the pacification efforts have had mixed results so far.
“One example is the favela Rocinha that was cleared and pacified,” he said. “I've been there, and they have guide tours that take you there certain times of the week.
“But a week after I left, there was a major firefight in there, and the military came in.”
- Kyle Almond, CNN
CNN’s Shasta Darlington contributed to this report.