Brazil’s army sent to clean up slum before World Cup

Soccer fans assured they will be safe after violent clashes in Rio favela

A military police officer patrols Complexo da Maré, one of the largest favelas in Rio. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A military police officer patrols Complexo da Maré, one of the largest favelas in Rio. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Wed, Apr 2, 2014, 01:00

A resurgence in gang violence has led Brazil’s authorities to call up the army to help police slums in Rio de Janeiro less than four months before the city hosts the final of the World Cup in July.

Rio’s state governor, Sergio Cabral, called for the military’s help after a series of co-ordinated attacks in several favelas, or shantytowns, cleared of gang control in recent years which saw officers wounded and police posts burnt. He said his government would not retreat in the face of the violence which he described as “evidence of the weakening of drug traffickers”.

Brazilian marines helped elite police units occupy Rio’s largest agglomeration of favelas, known as the Complexo da Maré, control of which is divided between two drug gangs and a militia formed by corrupt police officers. With the slum strategically located by the main freeway connecting the international airport to the city centre, the troops will reinforce the security of fans arriving in the city for seven World Cup games, the first of which is less than 12 weeks away.


‘Look after tourists’
Announcing the return of troops on to the streets of Brazil’s second largest city, the country’s justice minister was at pains to emphasise that the recent deterioration in security would not affect the staging of the tournament. “The violence will not affect plans for the Cup,” said José Eduardo Cardozo. “You can be sure that Brazil is entirely capable in the area of public security to look after tourists that will come for the Cup.”

The recent spate of attacks constitutes organised crime’s most serious challenge to the city’s policy of taking back control of slums from drug gangs since a wave of violence across the city in 2010 prompted the police and army to invade the large Complexo do Alemão slum.

That operation by 2,600 men backed by armoured personnel carriers was a major defeat for the Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, the largest of Rio’s three main criminal organisations, and was seen as having broken the back of the drug gangs in the city after decades during which they ran Rio’s favelas as their own parallel states.

But now the gang’s leaders are believed to have ordered the latest wave of attacks from their prison cells in a test of the resolve of the state’s so-called “pacification” policy of the city’s slums. Started in 2008, this policy has seen elite forces chase the heavily armed drug traffickers from many of the city’s favelas like Complexo do Alemão and replace them with Pacifying Police Units – community police stations known by their Portuguese initials as UPPs.

The policy was fundamental in a dramatic drop in violence in Rio and allowed authorities to carry out infrastructure and social projects to better integrate favelas with the rest of the city after decades of neglect. However, in recent months there has been growing evidence that the UPP policy is in trouble with gangs seeking to take advantage.

The man responsible for implementing it, Rio’s public security secretary José Mariano Beltrame, has always emphasised its goal was not the elimination of drug trafficking in the state but rather to put an end to the territorial control gangs exercised in poor communities.

But there have been increasing signs of criminals re-infiltrating communities they were expelled from, mounting gun and fire-bomb attacks on police stations.

Residents’ confidence in the policy has also been hit by growing evidence of corruption among some of those staffing the 38 UPP units set up so far, including collusion with drug gangs. Trust between the police and favela residents – already fragile after decades during which policing of the slums consisted of little more than heavily armed and usually violent police raids – was severely undermined last year with the disappearance of a construction worker in the Rocinha favela.

Amarildo de Souza was last seen being escorted from his home by police to the local UPP station. Police claimed he was later killed by traffickers. But more than a dozen officers have since been arrested for involvement in his torture and murder after supposedly mistaking him for a wanted gang member. Investigators discovered security cameras and GPS equipment installed in the Rocinha UPP station in an effort to monitor agents working there had been switched off at the time of Souza’s disappearance. His body has never been found.


Consumer of cocaine
According to a 2012 study by the Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil is the world’s second biggest consumer of cocaine after the US. The country shares thinly policed frontiers with Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, the three main producers of cocaine. Last year, the governor of São Paulo blamed the federal government’s inability to control the flow of drugs across the country’s borders for rising gang violence in his state.

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