In nearly every Rio favela, drug dealers rule.

And it's no wonder. The labyrinthine alleyways and dense population make these shantytowns an ideal fortress.

The Red Command, which controls most of Rio's drug traffic, has 6,500 members and 300 major favela bocas-de-fumo, or drug-selling sites, according to Carlos Amorim, who has written a best-selling book on the gang.

Their major rival, the Third Command, controls about 30 percent of the trade, according to the Rio daily newspaper, Jornal do Brasil.

The Red Command originated at a maximum security island prison near Rio during the 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship. Convicted bank robbers were thrown in the same cell during the mid-1970s as political prisoners, who taught them how to organize and the art of urban guerrilla warfare.

Upon their release, the bank robbers began buying cocaine directly from the Medellin and Cali drug cartels in Colombia. Before the government sent troops into the slums last year, United States narcotics official estimated that the favelas' residents consumed up to a ton of cocaine a week.

After gang wars erupted in the late 1980s, resulting in most of the older leaders being jailed, a younger and more violent generation took over. These youthful chieftains are known by such nicknames as ``Half-Kilo,'' ``Mutant,'' ``Russian Pig,'' ``Insect,'' and ``Robocop.''

Experts say the majority of the ``soldiers'' working in the gangs are between eight and 17 years of age and usually make more money than do their parents legally.

Their work ranges from lookouts and money collectors to distributors and fireworks operators. (A lookout's duties include blowing off firecrackers to alert traffickers when police have entered a favela.)

``We know that for every bandit and weapon we capture, another one takes his place the next day,'' says Gen. Roberto Camara Senna, the first commander of Operation Rio, which sent Brazilian troops into the favelas on Oct. 31.

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