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?
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``At first, we thought that tanks would generate the idea of a civil war,'' says Antonio Carlos Castro Neves, president of the Brazilian Travel Agency Association. ``But our research shows that tourists applauded the initiative.''Skip to next paragraph
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``The Army has brought a sense of security to the city,'' adds Rubem Cesar Fernandes, head of Viva Rio, an independent pressure group organized to improve city security.
Policing the police
Most important, Mr. Fernandes and others say the Army has tamed Rio's police, who are accused of much of the violence and corruption in the city.
In 1993, policemen indiscriminately killed 21 residents of the Vigario Geral favela to avenge the death of four policemen, who had been killed by traffickers several days before. Last October, more than 200 policemen invaded the Nova Brasilia shantytown and killed 13 suspected traffickers.
``For an American to understand, imagine what Harlem or East Los Angeles would be like if the police only went there to take bribes, break into homes, or murder people,'' says sociologist Alba Zaluar, a Rio-favela expert.
Since Operation Rio began, there is evidence that police are backing down because of the presence of the military. Police violence in favelas has stopped, and eight top-ranking police officials involved in corruption quit in November after being questioned by the Army.
``Operation Rio has brought a shock of authority to the police,'' Fernandes says.
The Army has also tried to cut the ties of gratitude and fear that bind favela residents to drug lords. Trafficker Aldair Cabral Mangano recently told Pastor Fabio that he felt safer defying the Army and hiding out in the favelas than following most of his colleagues abroad or to other Brazilian states to wait out the military intervention.
The local press had dubbed Mr. Mangano ``Public Enemy No. 1 of Operation Rio,'' since he remained the only drug leader to resist the Army. On several occasions, he ordered his men to build cement speed bumps to impede Army vehicles and fire on soldiers. On Jan. 6, however, the teenage trafficker was killed by a rival drug gang.
Drug lords like Mangano have won loyalty through a mixture of terror and charity. In most slums, crime against property or individuals is not permitted. And if it occurs, justice is swift and cruel. Thieves are shot in the hand and wife-beaters in the foot. Those who collaborate with authorities or refuse to hide arms or drugs are often killed.
Perhaps just as important, however, traffickers have gained sympathy by filling a vacuum of government services. They offer slum dwellers food and school supplies. They sponsor Christmas parties and soccer teams.
Winning the PR war
The Army is well aware that it has to work hard to win over the hearts and minds of favela residents.
The military has erected a 900-foot cross on top of the Borel Hill slum and dropped pamphlets expressing sorrow for any inconvenience. They have even furnished carpenters to repair damage to favela homes done by soldiers and letters to employers for those who arrived late to work because of Army searches.
``They are polite, treat us with respect and don't want bribes,'' says Milton Ribeiro Barboso, president of the Mangueira favela residents' association.
In the meantime, Marcello Alencar, the new governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, hopes to wean favelados away from drug traffickers by creating a new governmental agency whose primary job will be to supply poor communities with social services. And Rio Mayor Cesar Maia plans to allot $303 million this year to urbanize 100 favelas.
Governor Alencar has also placed Operation Rio and the police under the command of the newly created state Secretariat of Public Safety, which is headed by a retired general.
As a result, Army spokesman Col. Ivan Cardozo says Operation Rio is now in a ``transition period'' in which soldiers will slowly return to the barracks as a reformed police department takes over under new management. Alencar has promised to spend about $18 million to increase meager police salaries and purchase new equipment.
Nevertheless, most observers agree that the real battle to return Rio to its former picturesque image of beach, samba, and the ``Girl from Ipanema'' won't be won by the military.
``Sending in the Army is absurd,'' says Carlos Amorim, author of a book on the Red Command. ``Why don't they ever send in teachers and doctors? Violence and drugs will never end until there is real development in the favelas.''