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Civil War in Rio de Janeiro Shantytown
[Analysis] Battle between police and drug dealers ongoing for 22 days
Alan Mota (al0021)     Print Article 
Published 2007-05-22 13:27 (KST)   
Recently, Rio de Janeiro has been setting one new low after another in terms of its struggle against violence.

Out of the many surprising episodes, we have seen drug gangs burning buses with people inside, a child being dragged around four blocks by carjackers, and the appearance of an Iraqi-inspired Rio Body Count Web site. However, as if all this was not enough, now the city witnesses, amazed, the strength of the criminals cloistered in the lawless favelas (or shantytowns) of the city.

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In an attempt weaken what is considered to be the headquarters of the largest drug dealing gang in Rio -- one of the largest in the country -- named Comando Vermelho, or "Red Commando," the Rio police went strong on the complex of favelas named Complexo do Alemao, a group of several slums that engulfed one another and formed one gigantic shantytown with a population of tens of thousands.

The response came as expected, and the gangs not only fired back -- heavily -- but resorted to war strategies such as forming barricades in the entrances, to impede the armored police vehicle of going in, obligating the dwellers of the favela to block the surrounding streets with fake protests and riots against the officers and, as mentioned by locals, shooting randomly chosen people in the feet or hands and sending them to nearby hospitals, to say that they were shot by the police.

On the other hand, the Rio police, under the helm of the new governor -- who said that Rio was indeed facing a war and that the state would act accordingly -- have no intention of backing off, in what became a landmark operation for them, and according to them, the goal is to inflict unrecoverable damage on the criminal organization.

The outcome of this stalemate is, so far, 22 days of shootings, confrontation and deaths, in what can be called a typical civil-war-like battle, something one would expect to see in Baghdad, Beirut or Gaza.

This operation is particularly important for the Rio government and also for the police. It originated after one episode that caused an uncommon revolt in the police force. Two of them were gunned down by two gang members in the neighborhood of Oswaldo Cruz, and the thugs were suspected to live in Complexo do Alemao. The payback served as the perfect pretext for the police to do what they have wanted to do for a while, particularly after the new governor took the office: Invade what became a fortress for the drug dealers.

The operation was also an opportunity for them to achieve a remarkable success while having all eyes on them, lowering the morale of the gangs while raising theirs.

Another reason why this invasion is so important is the Pan American games that will take place in Rio de Janeiro in a few weeks. Winning the competition to host the games, which was considered a remarkable feat for the state and the city, was seen by many as a wrong-headed decision given the deteriorating situation in the city.

On the government's side, this is the time to prove the critics wrong, as well as to use the event to trigger a social revolution in the city, a spiral of investment, revitalization, increased media attention and tourism that would ultimately bolster the city on every level, something like what happened in Barcelona after the Olympic games of 1992. (The Barcelona example was heavily used by the media and the organization.)

However, the organization faced many problems such as construction delays, corruption and waste, as well as escalating gang violence, with bolder and bolder demonstrations of firepower, causing fears in the coming athletes and spurring promises from the authorities that, in the end, everything is going to be alright.

With all this at stake, the outcome of the operation was surely not what they wanted. Over the past 22 days, 16 people were killed and over 50 were wounded; the routine is of shootings, with one or another unusual day of "peace." Schools remain closed and an unofficial curfew -- where people won't leave their homes for their own safety -- remains active. The streets are completely deserted, with only sporadic movement by armored police vehicles going in to tear down the concrete barricades put up daily by the thugs.

As soon as the officers show up, the shootings start.

People's daily lives have become little adventures: going to work, or the bakery, can be interrupted at any moment by the familiar sound of gunfire, to which the dwellers immediately respond by hiding against a wall or running while ducking into the nearest open shop.

The term "civil war" has been used by some people to describe this peculiar situation in Rio de Janeiro, but in general it has always been rejected by the mainstream, for the fact is that it hasn't deteriorated -- yet -- into what we see on Baghdad or in the rural zones of Colombia. However, this episode sets a new record for the Rio conflict and it might change the way in which the government, the media and above all things the population sees the relationship between gangs, cops and the city.

Perhaps what let the situation escalate to the present stage in the first place was the mindset of the population. We kept telling ourselves that it was not a war, looking at more unfortunate places in the earth, pointing to them and feeling better about ourselves; we associated drug use with gang violence, as if they were two things that would always walk together, and deemed the situation unsolvable.

As in every war, a resolution will involve some sacrifices -- and some inevitable casualties -- but ultimately the outcome will be positive. This 22-day conflict might be the one that will wake people up, on the streets as well as in the administration, and Rio might rise from this all-time low as a stronger city.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Alan Mota

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