Stranger than fiction: 'Elite Squad 2' opens as politician who inspired movie flees Rio

But is the congressman's abrupt departure from Rio de Janeiro actually a political ploy for the city's upcoming mayoral election?  Just another stranger than fiction event in Rio's struggle with crime.

Felipe Dana/AP
Antonio Bonfim Lopes, alias 'Nem' (c.) is escorted handcuffed by police at the federal police headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday.

Elite Squad 2 will be released in the US on November 11, and those unfamiliar with the plot may think it's just a creative screenplay. But in reality, much of the story is based on fact, because in Rio, truth is often stranger than fiction.

There's been quite a few big news stories on Rio security in the past two weeks, but not everything is exactly as it seems.

Local politician "in exile:" Marcelo Freixo flees Rio

Last week, popular Rio Congressman Marcelo Freixo announced that he was fleeing Brazil after death threats from Rio militias escalated. He found little support for increased security from the Rio authorities, who he claims have failed to investigate the threats against him. Some were even calling his abrupt departure as "exile." Mr. Freixo inspired the character Diogo Fraga in Elite Squad 2, since in real life, he has been going after Rio's militias and politicians with militia ties since 2006. He's made many enemies, including a former policeman/militia member who escaped from prison and was allegedly offered 400,000 reais ($227,000) to murder Freixo.

But here's the catch. Freixo and his family left the country and went to Europe with the support of Amnesty International, and Freixo will be giving several speeches in conjunction with Amnesty while he's gone. He also announced that he would only be gone for several weeks before returning to Rio.

So in reality, he wasn't really going into exile, but taking a leave of absence. On the one hand, making the big deal out of it that he did helped put more pressure on the Rio government to investigate the threats against him and provide more security, especially considering that a Rio judge was brazenly murdered less than three months ago by the same groups that are after Freixo. Considering his life is in danger, he helped frame his departure in a more dramatic fashion in a sort of last ditch attempt for more protection.

On the other hand, it was a bit of a PR ploy to make the mayor and governor look bad, which is convenient considering that Freixo will likely run for mayor next year. It also was something of a slap in the face to José Mariano Beltrame, Security secretary for Rio state. Granted, Mr. Beltrame has one of the most difficult jobs in the city, if not Brazil, but Freixo's so-called "exile" did not do him any favors.

In the end, Freixo is an honest guy working to make the city safer, so hopefully his brief European break will in fact end up helping him get better protection when he gets back, as well as inspiring renewed vigor amongst Cariocas to combat the militias.

Sambando for security: Mangueira pacification unit established

Last week, the Mangueira favela was the latest to receive an UPP, a pacification force of police intended to impose order and drive out drug traffickers. The community of 20,000 is a key component of the government's pacification plan, since it's located near Maracanã Stadium and has a samba school popular with tourists and Cariocas alike. The pacification unit was inaugurated amongst much fanfare, including music performances with samba dancers and a speech by the governor, but few residents attended. Along with supposed greater safety, the Mangueira UPP plan also includes discounted cable TV for all residents and trash collection by city services, which it didn't have before. The day after the UPP was installed, Mayor Eduardo Paes spoke with residents, and he said:

"The idea is to 'New York-ize' Mangueira. Except Mangueira is much better than New York. Here, for example, you have the samba school. Trash collection will be done twice a day, Monday to Saturday, with new machines. That's more frequently than in Leblon [a wealthy neighborhood], where it's done only once a day, three times a week."

While some residents are hoping for improvements, many are still waiting on a number of requests, including better schools, improved water services, better sewage management, more jobs, and more tourism. Whether the UPP will be able to eliminate the drug trade is unclear, since other UPPs have been unsuccessful in that regard. Since violence in this favela is seemingly more "visible" to foreigners (and to Cariocas from other parts of the city), more so than somewhere like Maré, which is also slated for pacification, it will be interesting to see if further improvements are made, or if much of this particular UPP is só para inglês ver.

Cameraman killed during police operation

Gelson Domingos, a cameraman from Band TV, was killed while filming a police operation in the Antares favela in Rio on Sunday. He was wearing a bulletproof vest, but was hit with a bullet from an assault rifle that went through the protective layer. As Julia Michaels points out on RioReal, the Zona Oeste has only one pacified favela, but even so, the UPP strategy and its short term success may have created an "exaggerated sense of safety," so that the cameraman's murder was more of a shock. The West Zone has seen more violence recently as traffickers and militia vie for control: An elementary school in Bangu was invaded by traffickers fleeing police last week, and as Ms. Michaels also pointed out, murders are on the rise in nearby Vila Kennedy.

The case served as a somber reminder of the city's ongoing struggle to combat violent crime, after a period of time with no high-profile deaths (the last was Judge Acioli several months ago). It was also sobering for veteran journalists, since Mr. Domingos was remembered as an experienced cameraman who frequently covered dangerous stories.

Tweaking the numbers: murder statistics under debate

Recent statistics from the Rio government showed falling murder rates, but an economist from the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Ipea) looked at the numbers and claims they don't add up. He found that deaths without a determined cause of death--even violent ones that were clearly murders--weren't being counted as homicides. By his estimates, there were nearly 63 percent more murders in 2009 than the official statistics show. Other experts expressed support for Ipea's observations, and the secretaries of Health and Security agreed to change how they collect data.

Top drug trafficker arrested as police prepare Rocinha for pacification

The Rio state government is preparing for one of its largest military operations in history: It plans to install a pacification unit in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio and in the entire country. Rocinha is a city within a city: With nearly 70,000 inhabitants, it has more people than 92 percent of Brazilian cities. The occupation will be difficult, and authorities are hoping to use a different strategy to avoid a repeat of pacifying Complexo do Alemão, when over 30 people were killed. But successfully pacifying Rocinha will not only be a major success for public security in Rio and the UPP program, but is also a goal of the state government before the Rio +20 next year, the Confederations Cup and the pope's visit the following year, and then the World Cup and Olympics.

In preparation for the military invasion this weekend, last night police finally caught the most powerful drug trafficker in Rocinha, who was hidden in the trunk of a car bound for São Paulo. One of the men in the car claimed to be a Congolese consular officer, and alleged he had diplomatic immunity (police later found no evidence that he was actually from the Congo). Antônio Bonfim Lopes, known as "Nem," offered police a 1 million reais ($568,000) bribe, which they refused. (For perspective, Mr. Nem typically makes $5 million a month.)

Nem is a peculiar guy, practically a character out of a bad action flick. He paid taxes in 2009, even though he was being hunted by police. In 2010, he faked his own death and funeral to try to trick the police. Last year, he invaded the Intercontinental Hotel in São Conrado with other traffickers and held hostages for several hours before escaping. According to The New York Times, he used to wear expensive suits and take his wife on a rented helicopter to tour the city. Before it was discovered by police, Nem's home was essentially a luxury condo hidden in the favela. After his arrest, he called his mother and told her to make sure his children didn't miss school.

So why, after all this time, were cops able to nab the elusive Nem? Above all, he had paid police protection that allowed him to allude authorities for years. But last night, there was a breakthrough. First, the Federal Police (the equivalent of the FBI), arrested ten police officers and drug traffickers that were "escorting" Nem and other traffickers as they quietly fled the favela. The group was paid 2 million reais ($1.1 million) to help the traffickers escape. Second, police were closely monitoring cars leaving the favela, and members of the "shock battalion" of the military police were the ones who spotted the suspicious vehicle and pulled it over in nearby Gávea. Third, the police refused Nem's bribe.

Nem has been cooperating with the authorities, and has provided them with information that could potentially root out even more corrupt cops. He told investigators he was making 100 million reais ($56.8 million) a year, but that 50 percent of his income was used to pay off civil and military police.

While the initial preparations for pacification were a success, many are holding their breath for the actual "invasion" this weekend. According to a local crime reporter, because of the recent murder of the TV cameraman, security officials will likely not allow much press coverage, making it "one of the least transparent UPP operations" so far. The city is shutting down airspace over Rocinha on Sunday, and forces will likely include the army, military police, and BOPE. Time will tell if Beltrame and his team have determined the least violent way to send in the pacification force.

Hopefully, the occupation won't be movie-worthy material.

--- Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog

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