Violence Rocks Rio as Brazilian Police Pacify Favelas

Keeping the peace in Rio de Janeiro has never been a job description for the faint-hearted. But the mayhem that swept the streets of South America’s fairest city this week has been extreme even by outsize Brazilian standards. In a span of 72 hours, bands of outlaws with assault weapons staged a series of random assaults, machine-gunning police outposts, setting up roadblocks on main thoroughfares, and torching cars and buses.

Rio’s chief of public safety, José Mariano Beltrame, asserts that the rampage is a sure sign that the criminal gangs that have held this metropolis of 9 million people hostage to drugs and violence are losing their grip. The Cariocas, as the city’s residents are known--not to mention the international community that this emerging nation has so aggressively courted--would be forgiven for wondering.

This week alone had (by late Thursday) left a toll of 23 dead, more than two dozen wounded, entire neighborhoods shuttered, and hundreds of thousands of commuters wondering if their bus or car would be the next to be doused in gasoline and set ablaze. The toll was almost certain to grow Thursday night after several hundred regular police and special-operations forces, backed by helicopters and a fleet of armored cars, swept into the Complexo do Alemão, a cluster of slums harboring 300,000 people north of Rio, where some of the city’s worst drug lords are holed up.

Yet in an odd way, the police may be right. Though no one issued a manifesto, authorities have interpreted the criminal romp as a “terrorist” backlash against the police campaign to “pacify” the favelas, the slums and shanty towns that cling to the city’s hills and ragged fringes. Rio has nearly 1,000 favelas, Lego-block jumbles of cinder-block and raw-brick homes and shops that are home to nearly 2 million people, the vast majority of whom work honest jobs, as bricklayers, maids and messengers. But the favelas are also headquarters for Brazil’s busiest criminals.

In the last two years, under Beltrame’s steady hand, the police have “pacified” 12 favelas that are home to some 213,000, including the notorious Cidade de Deus (City of God), a chock-a-block sprawl west of Rio that is the setting for the eponymous drugs-and-thugs film, directed in 2002 by Fernando Meirelles. 

Though the police campaign started well before Rio won theright to host the 2016 Olympic Games and Brazil the 2014 football World Cup, pacification has become perhaps the most visible symbol of this nation’s rise as a regional powerhouse and the weight of global expectations that comes with it. Though few doubt that Brazil can safely shepherd such mega events--as it has in the past--the nation’s bid for lasting prosperity and global recognition may well ride on its ability to stop the blood-letting that is by now as familiar as the Art Deco Redeemer on Corcovado mountain.

Time and again, Rio has fallen down on the job, sending troops into battle with favela bandits, who lie low while the heat is on only to return when the flatfoots are gone. Too often, the politicians and bent cops were part of the problem, pocketing a cut of the lucrative drug trade, or godfathering the sale of cooking gas or cable TV service, then looking the other way when violence got out of hand.

Beltrame’s job is to bust up the slumlords and their sponsors, and train a new generation of police dedicated to stopping crime--not cashing in on it. The promise now is that Rio’s keepers follow up each police raid with brick and mortar, setting up permanent police posts, community centers, and football fields in communities where the highest authorities wore flip-flops and bandoliers. “How long will you stay this time?” one frightened woman timidly recently asked Beltrame in the Morro do Borel, a newly“liberated” slum in Rio’s north zone.

That question resonated as the police tourniquet tightened and drug lords fled pacified communities to the Complexo do Alemão, a one-time farm that was swallowed by urban sprawl and has become a tropical Waziristan. Given the neighborhood’s size, its treacherous terrain and its formidable stockpile of weapons, taking back “the Alemão” was not on the security agenda this year. But the outlaw rampage ended up forcing the government’s hand. “This operation is not going to end,” Beltrame vowed, even as the hulks of charred vehicles were burning.

Rio’s keepers are showing they have gained the upper hand in the battle against crime. Now they have to win the war.