After repeated failures to free its crime-ridden favelas from the grip of gangs and militia, Rio de Janeiro state has launched a controversial new security and social project, but skepticism is rife.

Observers fear the project -- a combination of increased security and social projects that will initially focus on only two of Rio's 1,000-odd slums -- is nothing but a public relations exercise in an election year.

It started Wednesday in the Jacarezinho and Muzema favelas with a massive demonstration of force that left residents cowering behind closed doors.

Some 1,300 police swept through Jacarezinho, with some 90,000 inhabitants, where 28 people were killed last May in the deadliest security raid in Rio's history.

Some 1,300 police swept through the Jacarezinho slum, with about 90,000 inhabitants, where 28 people were killed last May in the deadliest security raid in Rio's history Some 1,300 police swept through the Jacarezinho slum, with about 90,000 inhabitants, where 28 people were killed last May in the deadliest security raid in Rio's history Photo: AFP / Carl DE SOUZA

In the city's north, Jacarezinho is considered a bastion of the Comando Vermelho (red commando), one of Brazil's biggest drugs-trafficking gangs.

On Wednesday, terrified residents holed up at home while heavily armed men patrolled alleys lined with dilapidated constructions and nests of electrical wires that sometimes reach to the ground.

More police were sent to Muzema, whose residents live under the yoke of paramilitary militias which extort fuel and internet access from them.

In June 2019, 24 people died in this western part of Rio when two illegally constructed buildings collapsed.

Terrified residents holed up at home while heavily-armed men patrolled alleys lined with dilapidated constructions and nests of electrical wires that sometimes reach to the ground Terrified residents holed up at home while heavily-armed men patrolled alleys lined with dilapidated constructions and nests of electrical wires that sometimes reach to the ground Photo: AFP / Carl DE SOUZA

The massive operation, which Rio state governor Claudio Castro said was aimed at "reconquering" neighborhoods from criminals, caught everyone -- including Mayor Eduardo Paes, by surprise.

He said he learned of it "the night before."

On Saturday, three days after the deployment, Castro announced the state would spend 500 million reais (about $90 million) in the coming weeks to address social problems in Jacarezinho and Muzema.

The government plans to spend 500 million real (about $90 million) in the coming weeks to address social problems in the Jacarezinho and Muzema favelas The government plans to spend 500 million real (about $90 million) in the coming weeks to address social problems in the Jacarezinho and Muzema favelas Photo: AFP / Carl DE SOUZA

It was part of a program dubbed "Integrated City," which he said had as its aim "to reconquer the territory and return it to its rightful owners: the people of these favelas."

Castro promised efforts to improve sewerage systems, introduce social and educational programs and erect sports and cultural centers.

Work on other favelas would start once the revitalization effort in Jacarezinho and Muzema was "functioning fully," the governor said.

As part of the project, the government would offer 30 million reais in micro-credits to residents to spare them having to borrow from criminal groups at usurious rates.

Brazil goes to the polls in October for general elections, including to elect state governors and assemblies Brazil goes to the polls in October for general elections, including to elect state governors and assemblies Photo: AFP / CARL DE SOUZA

Young mothers aged 16-30 would receive an allocation of 300 reais per month to boost financial independence.

"It may sound like a new program, but we've actually had several experiences of favela (security) occupations," said Lidiane Malanquini of the NGO Redes da Mare, based in the Mare slum.

"What worries me is that this model has historically not promoted security in the favelas," she told AFP.

For Cecilia Olliveira, director of Fogo Cruzado, a digital platform that tracks shootings in Rio, the announcement brought "more questions than answers."

"What does it mean to 'function fully'?" she asked.

"And is it really feasible to extend this program to all favelas?"

Jacarezinho and Muzema are two of about a thousand favelas housing over a quarter of Rio city's 6.7 million inhabitants.

For Julita Lemgruber, coordinator of the Center for Research on Security and Citizenship (Cesec) at Candido Mendes University, "Integrated City" was nothing but a "media show."

Brazil goes to the polls in October for general elections, including to elect state governors and assemblies.

"I do not expect anything from this program, because there has been no consultation with the inhabitants," Lemgruber told AFP.

She said she feared a repeat of a similar security and social project, dubbed UPP, launched in 2008 by then-governor Sergio Cabral, who has been in prison since 2016 for corruption.

She cites the example of the Complexo do Alemao favela cluster, left with a massive cable car installation but with residents still lacking basic services.

"When the announcement was made, the tender had already taken place. But many residents said: 'We need so much here, there is not even a sewer.' No one asked them," Lemgruber said.

The UPP initially claimed a reduction of violence in 40 favelas, but the situation soon deteriorated again, particularly after the financial crisis that hit the state after hosting the 2016 Olympic Games.

Added Malanquini: "The people directly affected, the residents of favelas, were not consulted.

"It is not a new thing -- the government does not listen to the black and slum population."