New Lords of the Slums
Rio is safer today, but only after troops entered crime-infested slums, or favelas. But can military force really solve deep social problems?
RIO DE JANEIRO
WHEN several thousand Brazilian soldiers ``invaded'' this coastal metropolis more than two months ago to halt a crime wave that had gotten out of control, many here hoped that this display of force could restore Rio to its namesake: the ``marvelous city.''Skip to next paragraph
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Famed for its dramatic mountain scenery and luxurious beaches, Rio had also become notorious its for extreme poverty and violent crime.
As of last fall, Rio's police were having little or no effect on drug-gang activities in the city's vast slums, and many claimed the police were in cahoots with the criminals. With the local government paralyzed, then-President Itamar Franco decided last October to send in the troops.
And if recent polls and official proclamations are any indication, the attempt at stopping crime through military force has worked. Rio is on its way back to its former beauty - but, some say, only if the military remains.
Eight-nine percent of Cariocas, as city natives are known, want military operations to continue throughout 1995, and 59 percent of those polled believe they are safer, according to polling firm Datafolha. City Hall-sponsored billboards declare ``Rio Has Changed,'' and radio spots from a well-orchestrated publicity campaign proudly announce ``Peace in the Marvelous City.''
But critics say ``Operation Rio'' - the largest military and civilian government joint operation ever carried out in Brazil against organized crime - has been little more than a short-term morale booster.
``It's a circus for the middle class,'' says Caio Fabio, a Protestant pastor who works in city slums. ``They haven't identified any drug networks or captured any major trafficker.''
The military took over responsibility for policing Rio's 6 million inhabitants from the state's 40,000-member police force on Oct. 31, 1994. By then, the Red Command and the Third Command - the two largest criminal groups - had taken over most of the city's 548 favelas, or slums, setting up parallel governments in their occupied territories.
Drug lords had imposed curfews on residents, forced schools to close because of nearby shootouts with police or rival gangs, and sealed off traffic tunnels to rob trapped motorists.
Now, on most days, soldiers can be seen surrounding some of the favelas, erecting barriers at slum entrances and checking everyone coming and going. Nearby, special units listen on tapped favela telephones or answer a 24-hour hot line, which callers can anonymously use to give tips on drug gang networks.
The Army, under strict orders not to engage drug gangs in an all-out assault, has killed only two people: a motorist who attempted to smash through an Army barricade and an alleged gang member during a shootout.
Critics, however, fault both the method and the results of Operation Rio, which they believe are insignificant for a combined federal-state action. The Army has seized only about 256 pounds of cocaine, 190 weapons, and released most of the 500 people they had detained. Traffickers sell 2,866 pounds of cocaine a week in Rio's favelas, according to a survey by police intelligence. Many in drug gangs move from favela to favela, staying one step ahead of police.
Too much force, not enough result
Interviews with favela residents, or favelados, indicate that many are worried the military will break into their homes, damage property without giving compensation, and arrest the innocent.
Some residents have threatened to sue the military for the 30-day detention they received for not carrying identification. According to Jose Roberto Batochio, the president of the Order of Brazilian Lawyers, it is unconstitutional to imprison anyone for not having identification.
More seriously, five residents from the Borel Hill slum claim they were tortured by soldiers seeking information, who allegedly dunked them in water and used electric shocks. That case is now under official investigation.
Despite the criticism, Operation Rio can claim credit for:
* Closing down ``Robauto,'' the 20-year-old flea market specializing in stolen automobile parts.
* Reducing homicides from 20 to 11 a day, according to the city coroner.
* Recovering 150 stolen cars, and reducing auto theft by 19 percent.
* Jailing at least three alleged drug traffickers: Carlos Alberto da Costa Monteiro, Pedro Gilson Dias de Araujo, and Adilson Camargo.
* Increasing occupancy in Rio hotels, which were 100 percent full over the recent holidays, mostly with Brazilian tourists who no longer fear the city.