What if you were standing in line at the store to buy meat and when a drug courier came in you had to give up your place and wait for the butcher to weigh the man's cocaine? The prettiest girls were forced to be gang leaders' girlfriends? Seniors walking home from church had to navigate past young boys brandishing assault rifles who had been recruited by drug gangs as child soldiers? Yet as terrified as residents were of the criminals, they feared and hated the brutal police even more?
For decades, drug lords ruled Rocinha, a sprawling favela (squatter town) of 100,000 people in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Rio, a city of 11.8 million, has historically struggled with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Much like people who live in Oakland neighborhoods under constant assault by violent thugs, Rocinha residents felt powerless and abandoned.
On a recent trip to Brazil, I visited the favela perched high in the hills to see what I could find out about a government crime-fighting plan that had dramatically reduced killings there and in 24 other favelas.
Rocinha residents said that for the first time they are free to move about without fear. Many drug criminals have fled, gone underground or been captured by authorities.
It took a massive police and military invasion. It also took real leadership which means a willingness to make unpopular decisions. Rio State Public Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame enlisted the help of the military, which many civil rights activists opposed. The governor of the state, Sérgio Cabral, went to the business community to raise funds to help pay for the crime plan.
The Police Pacfication Unit program combines a strong law enforcement presence with bringing social services into communities that have been so neglected by government many did not have proper sanitation and electricity. Since 2008, homicides in the targeted favelas have dropped 78 percent, according to a study by the Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro. (The study was conducted before authorities "pacified" Rocinha.)
Why did businesses suddenly care about crime in poor favelas? Several are close to wealthy neighborhoods.
But the main reason is the South American country is hosting the Soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. Some of the most dangerous favelas are near the airport. It's hard to put your best foot forward for international media when drug lords are shooting police helicopters out of the sky.
The government's goal is to pacify 40 favelas by 2014. But hundreds more remain controlled by gangs.
Law enforcement first gathers intelligence from the targeted favela. Police and government representatives hold community meetings with residents to explain the program. Residents are informed that the police will conduct door-to-door searches for arms and drugs. Authorities then issue a warning through the media to drug gangs that an invasion is imminent.
On Nov. 13, 2011, 3,000 police, Brazilian Army and Navy officers conducted a pre-dawn raid on Rocinha. They came with helicopters and tanks. BOPE, Brazil's elite police squad, stormed the maze of narrow alleys, seizing heavy weapons and drugs. Most of the gang members had fled. Not a single shot was fired.
Rocinha was fortunate. Drug gangs have fought back in other favelas leading to bloody battles with the cops.
There are still killings in Rocinha but far fewer than before. Gang members are no longer killing people by encircling their bodies with tires, dousing them with gasoline and then setting them on fire, which served as a warning for other residents not to cross them.
After the initial force left, new civilian police trained in community policing took over.
There are 700 civilian cops for 100,000 residents. More than we have in Oakland for nearly 400,000 people.
"We have a sensation of safety," says Bruno Schvidah, who gives tours of the favela to tourists "But what happens after the Olympics are over?"
Some Rocinha residents complain the new civilian police are just as corrupt as the old cops and treat everyone like criminals. People must pass checkpoints to enter the favela. A police officer with his hand on his gun stopped my car and questioned the driver.
BOPE Capt. Marlisa DE O. Amorim Nevessays police have made it a priority to build community trust. Police officers volunteer at favela schools, teaching activities like ballet and karate.
Favela residents have started providing police with valuable tips about criminal activity.
Gradually, a partnership is building between the police and the community.
It's time for people in Oakland to partner with the police and stop acting as though they -- rather than violent criminals -- are causing all the mayhem in the city.
"We need to recalibrate," says Alameda Sheriff's Deputy Jinho Ferreira, who is half Brazilian and first told me about Rio's crime plan. The Oakland resident performed a one-man play about violence in Oakland.
"All cops aren't good. But who is going to remove murderers from the street?"