Rio cleans up its act: Police stand up to the drug gangs
By Helmut Reuter Jan 18, 2012, 9:48 GMT
Rio de Janeiro - The fight against the drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro resembles trench warfare: it is about territory, gaining ground and tactics.
Police are out to 'take the favelas (slums), occupy them and stay,' in their own words. And the strategy appears to be paying off: There is less ground left for drug dealers.
Photographs of police operations in the Cidade Maravilhosa, the Marvelous City, have gone round the world. Thousands of heavily-armed officers and soldiers, backed up by tanks and heavy machinery, were shown as they entered Rio's labyrinth-like favelas.
Last year it was the Complexo do Alemao, in the northern portions of this city of 6 million people. A few weeks ago it was the favela Rocinha, in the south.
Authorities aim to push away the drug gangs and bring back under control the lawless parallel world of the slums. The magic word for the task is UPPs, an acronym in Portuguese for the Pacifying Police Units that are to settle into the favelas.
'Of course, the UPPs cannot completely end drug trafficking. But that is not their primary goal either,' an employee of the Security Ministry of the state of Rio de Janeiro told dpa.
'We are taking away the territory of criminal organizations. The return of the rule of law to these communities ends the dictatorship of guns and their terrorizing of residents.'
The most infamous drug gangs in Rio are the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) and Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends).
Until a year ago, the Comando controlled the Complexo do Alemao, while Amigos ruled Rocinha. Their 'soldiers' patrolled the favelas on motorbikes, with machine guns hanging loosely from their shoulders.
Such was the daily scene until recently. Dealers sold crack, marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy. Drug bosses - like Rocinha's Nem, who was arrested recently as he tried to flee in the trunk of a car - earned good money and lived in luxury with their rooftop terraces and pools in the middle of the slum.
The problem with the fight against drugs in Rio was an open secret, and a crucial reason why the gangs could go about their business almost undisturbed: some police officers were cut in on the drug trade, and they let the gangsters do as they pleased.
The internationally-acclaimed film saga The Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), directed by Jose Padilha, describes corruption up to the highest levels and shows the work of the Battalion of Special Police Operations (BOPE).
For Brazilians, these films look very real. Police hardly have the best reputation among cariocas, as Rio's residents are known.
And yet Rio de Janeiro state Security Minister Jose Mariano Beltrame has managed to earn back trust. He is regarded as one of the fathers of the UPPs. The 19th UPP watch is to be set up in Rocinha, and a further 21 are to be in place by 2014.
'In Rocinha, we have dealt a blow to the drug gangs, by taking away their territory, their safe haven,' Beltrame, 54, said after the raid in November.
'Now we have to stay and show that the police will not go away. That is the only way that we can gain credibility little by little among the population,' he said.
There is a lot at stake for Rio, as the city is increasingly in the limelight.
In June, it is to host the Rio+20 United Nations Earth Summit anniversary. In 2013 it will hold the World Youth Day of the Roman Catholic Church, set to be attended by Pope Benedict XVI, and also some matches of the Confederations Cup.
In 2014, Rio is to host the final of the football World Cup, at Maracana Stadium. And in 2016 the city will be home to the first Olympic Games ever held in South America.
Such global events do not go well with shootouts by gangs which had in the past turned Rio de Janeiro's favelas into no-go areas even for the police.