A big step towards reclaiming Rio de Janeiro from the drug dealers
Dec 2nd 2010
IT WAS a moment that residents of Rio de Janeiro thought would never come. For decades many of the city’s favelas have been ruled by drug traffickers or militias. Sporadic flare-ups would see the police go in to these self-built settlements seeking revenge, only to pull back leaving bodies scattered and the gangs to return to business. But last month when the city’s two main drug gangs began hijacking and torching vehicles at gunpoint, this time the authorities’ response was different.
The state governor, Sérgio Cabral, ordered jailed gang leaders suspected of masterminding the mayhem moved to distant high-security prisons. He also asked the federal government for help. On November 25th police, backed by marines and armoured vehicles, pushed into Vila Cruzeiro, which forms part of Complexo do Alemão, a cluster of a dozen favelas in the north of the city. Brazilians were riveted by live television coverage of dozens of gun-toting gangsters fleeing across a hillside to the heart of Complexo do Alemão. The army arrived and encircled the entire Complexo. At dawn on November 28th police and troops went in and, after a firefight, took control. At least 37 people died in the clashes, several of them bystanders.
Many cariocas, as residents of Rio are known, saw these events as a turning point for a city which has suffered decades of misgovernment. Mr Cabral, who recently won a second term, has set out to provide proper policing in the favelas. Since 2008 the state government has set up police stations known as UPPs (“Pacifying Police Units”) in 13 favelas, covering 200,000 people; another 27 are planned by 2014.
Pacification involves an ultimatum to the gangs to leave, followed by months of heavy patrols and then the arrival of new, specially trained recruits who provide 24-hour community policing. Though there is still plenty of drug-dealing in pacified favelas it is discreet and the dealers no longer carry heavy weapons. There are far fewer murders, and other crimes, such as child prostitution, fall too. The plan is that with the UPPs come better schools, health care and leisure facilities. Many gangsters are illiterate teenagers with few other options.
In all this Mr Cabral can count on federal support. He is an ally of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s outgoing president, and campaigned hard for Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor and protégée. Many of the troops deployed this month were just back from peacekeeping in Haiti, which prepared them for close work among civilians. That Rio is hosting the final of the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics has concentrated minds, too.
The violence unleashed by the traffickers looked like a co-ordinated attempt to intimidate Mr Cabral into abandoning his plans. Two rival gangs, the Comando Vermelho (“Red Command”), long based in Complexo do Alemão, and the smaller Amigos dos Amigos (“Friends of Friends”), joined forces. It was a trial of strength that the government could not afford to lose. But all the talk of “liberation” and victory over the gangs will be mere triumphalism unless the authorities now hold on to the vast patch of newly recovered territory, home to some 400,000 people.
The army is to stay for six months while new police recruits are trained for UPPs. Though the drug dealers were clearly taken unawares by the overwhelming response to a provocation no worse than many previous ones, they will doubtless regroup. Their trade is too lucrative to give up without a bigger fight: not only is Rio a point of shipment for cocaine to Europe, but the city’s own drug market is big.
The gangs can still count on allies among corrupt policemen. Although some gangsters escaped the siege via storm-water drains, others are reported to have been ferried out in police cars. Some favela residents complained that police ransacked their homes. And Rio has another big enemy: militias run by retired and off-duty police and fire officers now control as many favelas as the drug gangs.
But the political will to extend the rights and protections of citizenship to the favelas now exists, perhaps for the first time ever. As soon as the siege of Complexo do Alemão was lifted, an army of rubbish collectors was sent in. Eduardo Paes, Rio’s mayor, plans to pay NGOs to extend their health-care programmes to cover all of the Complexo’s residents.
Many in the favelas have long feared and hated the police at least as much as they do the traffickers. Will it be different this time? Undercover police have been sent to deter abuses by their colleagues, and an ombudsman will investigate complaints. Disque Denúncia, Rio’s anonymous tip-off phone line, is receiving record numbers of calls from favela-dwellers who are finally daring to believe that the state is for them, too.