Brazil: The battle for Rio de Janeiro

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The World

Editor's note: This article is part of "Underworld: a global crime blotter," a semi-regular series covering crime and punishment around the world.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Police have planted the Brazilian flag on a hilltop in one of the city’s most violent slums after days of gun battles, claiming victory over the drug traffickers once headquartered there.

The flag raising marked the end of a week-long, escalating street war between police and drug gangs that began with a wave of robberies and burned cars and has so far left more than 40 people dead.

In a city set to host the World Cup and Olympic Games, the moment suggested a measure of victory in the decades-long struggle to control the ungoverned shantytowns where violent gangs have long hidden among the working poor.

As smoke cleared and businesses re-opened Monday in Complexo do Alemao — a vast warren of shacks home to some 100,000 people — the green, yellow and blue banner remained. Like all Brazilian flags, it displays the nation’s two-word motto, “Order and Progress.”

Many here are discussing just how soon this city can reasonably expect either one.

“The operation is succeeding,” Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Monday in a weekly radio address. “Obviously it’s not over. It’s just begun. We don’t know yet whether all the criminals have fled, or if we have many hiding there.”

Last week, this city of 6 million people was thrown into a panic by a growing wave of robberies, each following a similar pattern. Gunmen stopped cars, trucks, buses and even motorcycles on major thoroughfares, robbing the occupants and setting the vehicles ablaze instead of stealing them. The bandits then fled the scene leaving the burning cars to block traffic until help arrived.

More than 100 vehicles were burned and authorities said they believed two of Rio’s biggest drug gangs — known as the Red Command and Friends of Friends — had joined forces to send the city a message: “Back off.”

Boosted police presence in some Rio slums, and plans to send officers into others, are putting pressure on drug dealers who once operated with impunity. Some believe the criminals were attempting to stage a repeat of 2002, when drug gangs repeatedly shut down the city to protest treatment of jailed leaders by torching vehicles and attacking public buildings with gunfire and explosives.

This time around, the city’s response was as aggressive as it was swift. Police and marines, traveling with a fleet of armored personnel carriers, stormed the notorious gang hideout, the Vila Cruzeiro slum, on Nov. 25. The gangs retreated. Aerial news footage showed panicked figures, lugging assault rifles and wounded comrades, as they dashed across a wooded hillside into Complexo do Alemao.

A military policeman takes position during a raid in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
(Jefferson Bernardes/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, more than 2,500 police and soldiers launched the largest slum raid in Brazilian history and successfully took the second, much larger shantytown. While a final tally isn’t yet available, police have reported more than 100 arrests and more than 40 suspected traffickers killed. News outlets have reported on residents wounded in the crossfire, but there are no final estimates of bystander casualties.

“We are already thinking about the next steps,” said Sergio Cabral, governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Speaking to reporters Monday morning, Cabral said security forces are still searching for any remaining suspects, weapons and drugs.

Military and police units will remain in both Vila Cruzeiro and Complexo do Alemao until next year, Cabral said, when units specially trained to patrol slums are set to take over.

Most estimates in the Brazilian press place the number of armed gang members hiding out in Complexo do Alemao in the low hundreds, suggesting many have escaped to other slums.

The state’s public security director, Jose Mariano Beltrame, told reporters police will continue the push into two other huge slums, Rocinha and Vidigal, but he declined to say when.

“Just as we made it into Alemao, we’ll make it to Rocinha and Vidigal,” Beltrame said. “We’re not walking away.”

Public reaction to the operation has been largely positive, with even some aid workers saying the city’s notoriously lethal police force seems to have so far shown restraint.

“We are relieved, but we are still worried,” said Jorge Barbosa, who works for Observatorio de Favelas, an aid organization that operates in the city’s slums. “We have this experience from the past here in the city where militarized actions turn these communities into theaters of war.”

Barbosa said the key to securing a long-term victory will be holding onto the newly cleared communities, and reaching out to them with more than gun barrels.

“Security has to be followed with other important resources,” he said. “Public health programs, education and culture that guarantees young people a way out of the world of crime.”

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