Rio Crackdown—Cleaning Up Drug Gangs to Create the Olympic City

Rio Crackdown—Cleaning Up Drug Gangs to Create the Olympic City

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RIO DE JANEIRO—They are calling it: “D Day for the war against drug trafficking.” “Rio’s War.” “Elite Squad 3.” Rio de Janeiro residents are used to living with low-intensity warfare in their own backyard, as gangs and police duke it out in the city’s favelas (slums). But the last couple of weeks have been like nothing residents have ever seen before. They say it’s the largest such operation in Rio’s history and there is likely more to come.

While massive city-wide violence may be the immediate reason for the crackdown, just as important are two events still several years away: the World Cup, which is coming to Brazil in 2014, and the Summer Olympics, set for Rio two years later.

On Thursday, November 25, after days of violence thought to be incited by imprisoned gang leaders, 500 officers from Rio’s police force pushed their way into the Vila Cruzeiro, one of two major narco-trafficking strongholds in the northern part of the city. The officers were backed by six armored tanks lent from the marines—the first time this type of high-powered machinery was used in such an operation.

Knowing they couldn’t hold back the tanks, hundreds of gang members fled from Cruzeiro into the neighboring Complexo do Alemão, actually a mass of 15 favelas with 57,000 residents that has been under the control of drug gangs for three decades.

Three days later, some 2,600 military troops and police officers pushed into the Complexo do Alemão. Although there were small skirmishes, the police took the favela with little resistance, arresting at least 20 gang members and confiscating 13 tons of marijuana, 200 kilos of cocaine and 10 kilos of crack.

Analysts say these sort of police actions could become more common as Brazil’s leaders try to assure the rest of the world, and especially World Cup and Olympics officials, that the country is safe and stable.

Praise for Police—and Concern for Harsh Tactics

The police offensive—like something out of the wildly popular Elite Squad 1 and 2 movies (Tropa de Elite)—earned praise from the mainstream media. In Vila Cruzeiro and Complexo do Alemão, residents offered water to the arriving soldiers and made a record number of calls to the city’s gang hotline, providing tips on the whereabouts of gang members and drug and weapons caches. The overwhelming community support led one BOPE soldier to say that he had “never seen anything like it.”

Yet it seems that many innocent bystanders were also caught up in the raids. Isabel Cristina Jennerjahn, a member of the Network of Movements and Communities Against Violence, confirmed the sense of relief felt by the majority of was Vila Cruzeiro’s residents, but she told the Brazilian weekly Brasil de Fato that many people have also decided to move out. According to Jennerjahn, the BOPE ransacked several homes and prevented family members from collecting the bodies of traffickers killed during the action.

"I have never felt so humiliated," one Complexo do Alemão resident, who asked not to be identified, told IPSNews.net. She said that during the operation, the police smashed homes and mistreated "honest" workers like her cousin, who she said had nothing to do with "the crooks."

Some see a link between the harsh tactics and the fact that 60 percent of the forces involved in the favela occupations have spent time with the Brazil-led U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti. “We’ve been warning that this would happen for a long time,” said Sandra Quintela of the Jubilee South Network, who has denounced the “constant” repression and human rights abuses carried out by the Brazilian force in that country. “They train there to practice here.”

In Rio, the day after the Vila Cruzeiro action, Amnesty International called on Rio’s police to act within the law.

According to the human rights group, Rio police have killed more than 500 people so far this year in so-called “acts of resistance.”

“This [narco] violence is totally unacceptable, but the police response has put communities at risk,” said Patrick Wilcken, the organization’s Brazil researcher. “The authorities must ensure that the security and well-being of the broader population comes first and foremost in any operation carried out in residential areas. The current wave of criminal violence is symptomatic of wider failures throughout the criminal justice system.”

From Drug Gangs, to Milicias, to UPPs


For many years, the fight between the gangs and police was at a relative, albeit violent, standstill. Payoffs. Skirmishes. Low-intensity warfare. The narcos knew their territory. Where the Police Battalion of Special Operations (BOPE) was able to kick the traffickers out, clandestine milicias sprouted up. Organized largely by plainclothes police and firefighters, these paramilitary groups took control of their areas, charging their own bribes in exchange for service and protection. By 2007, according to an Amnesty International report, milicias controlled 92 of Rio’s 1,000 favelas, and the following year,
a massive investigation by the Rio de Janeiro State Legislative Assembly sent 275 people to prison, including police and elected officials. The investigation reported that milicias controlled 171 communities throughout the state.

A year after Brazil was selected to host the 2014 World Cup, and only months before it was granted the Olympics, police went on the offensive, working to “pacify Rio” by eradicating the gangs from the favelas. Special operations ran the narco-traffickers out of Santa Marta and set up the first Pacifying Police Unit (or UPP, for Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora) just up the hill from the middle-class neighborhood of Botafogo. The UPPs are essentially police units tasked with ensuring that the gangs don’t return.

There are now 13 UPPs across the city, many adjacent to the middle and upper-class neighborhoods in the Zona Sul in southern Rio de Janeiro. To an extent, they have been a success, ridding the neighborhoods of the gangs.

But real estate prices in the areas with UPPs have soared—almost doubling in Santa Marta, for example—which means that many renters who stuck it out through the worst of the gang era are being pushed out by gentrification.

Meanwhile, gang members from the UPP-patrolled areas lashed out by taking their violence to the streets. Some traffickers traveled north, to the poorer end of town, where both Vila Cruzeiro and Complexo do Alemão are located.

More UPPs on the Horizon

The violence that erupted across the city on November 21—precipitating the police assaults—was apparently ordered by jailed gang leaders, in retaliation for creation of the UPPs. Several cars were hijacked and buses torched. The incidents ignited a wave of violence across the city, which, according to O Globo, resulted in 34 deaths and 192 arrests in just four days.

Despite predictions by residents in the Complexo do Alemão that the “circus” would soon be over, the security forces aren’t going away. Rio state governor Sérgio Cabral announced this week that the BOPE and armed troops would occupy the favelas at least through next October, when the city plans to replace them with UPPs.

Meanwhile, with Rio's narco-traffickers on the run, there is enormous pressure on President-elect Dilma Rousseff, the onetime Marxist guerilla who takes over from President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on January 1, to establish UPPs elsewhere around the country.

Many believe the creation of the UPPs is based entirely on the upcoming international sports competitionss. “This is not done to eradicate the drug trafficking— it is to have military control of some strategic areas for the Olympic city that they envision,” Marcelo Freixo, the human rights lawyer largely behind the milicia investigations and a Socialist and Freedom Party (PSOL) member who represents Rio de Janeiro in the state legislature, told Agencia NP.

Freixo and others see a correlation between the UPPs and 10-foot-high containment walls that were built around several poor neighborhoods last year, under the pretext of environmental preservation. Brightly colored sound barriers have also been erected along the major highway from Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport to the city center, obscuring the view of the poor communities on the other side.

“The UPPs, as well as the acoustic barriers and the walls around the favelas, are part of the Olympic project,” Freixo said. “A project for a city that is going to be very exclusive, a city for the few. We know that Rio is going to go through these problems,” he added, referring to the recent violence and the likelihood of more in the future. “Where you build an Olympic city, you are also creating non-Olympic cities around it.”

This reality was further confirmed on December 2, with the WikiLeaks disclosure of a U.S. State Department document on Brazil:

"The SENASP (the National Secretariat for Public Security, Ministry of Justice) has been put in charge of security for the Olympics and will be coordinating the GOB's overall on-the-ground security efforts. Rio authorities, meanwhile, expressed confidence in the impact the Favela Pacification Plan (Ref d) will have on the city's overall security. The Plan - which involves evicting drug traffickers, establishing a sustained police presence, and providing basic services to favela residents - envisions the "pacification" of over 100 favela communities by 2016."

Michael Fox is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Brazil. He is co-author of Venezuela Speaks: Voices from the Grassroots. In February, he will be touring the United States with his most recent documentary on the financial crisis, Crossing the American Crises. To find out more, or to arrange a presentation, visit www.crossingthecrises.com. His work can be found at www.blendingthelines.com/, where a version of this piece appeared.