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.''
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.
``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.''
``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.''