Police backed by tanks and helicopters occupied Rio de Janeiro’s biggest slum yesterday to take control of the neighborhood from drug traffickers as part of the effort to begin securing the city before it hosts the 2016 Olympic Games.
A 3,000-strong security force faced no resistance as it advanced into Rocinha, a maze of dwellings that house an estimated 100,000 people on a hillside overlooking some of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods. They searched the area for drug dealers, guns and drugs in preparation for the establishment of a so-called Police Pacification Unit, or UPP, which will allow the state to reclaim control of the community. Neighboring areas of Vidigal and Chacara do Ceu were also occupied. There was no conflict and no shots were fired during the action, which was backed by 24 armored vehicles and seven helicopters.
“We returned to society areas that for 30 or 40 years were in the hands of a commando, a parallel evil empire,” Jose Mariano Beltrame, Rio de Janeiro state’s security secretary, said. “Our triumph was the combined action of all the institutions that have been working together and the breaking of the territorial paradigm, without spilling a drop of blood.”
About 1,000 troops will remain in the community over the next few weeks and will gradually be replaced by a permanent pacification force, the secretary said. A thousand more troops will continue to scour other slums in Rio where drug gang members may have moved to set up new operations, he said. Five suspected drug dealers were arrested in yesterday’s action, and police seized 15 assault rifles among other weapons, according to an e-mailed statement from Rio’s security secretariat.
Police helicopters flew over the area distributing flyers calling on residents to denounce criminals and to inform authorities about drug and weapon hideouts.
“Help the police help you. We guarantee anonymity,” says the flyer.
The drive took place three days after police captured Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, known as Nem, leader of the drug gang that has controlled Rocinha for more than a decade. Members of the gang, called “Friends of Friends,” were among Brazil’s most-wanted criminals. Last year they raided five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Sao Conrado, where Rocinha is located, and held dozens of guests and staff hostage for several hours after fleeing a gunfight with police.
Rio aims to make Rocinha the 19th shantytown in the city to receive a pacification program involving a stronger security presence, plus infrastructure investment and improved social services. The program is seen as critical to reducing crime and boosting the city’s image before the Olympics, said Ignacio Cano, a sociologist and professor at Rio de Janeiro State University.
“There’s symbolic value in Rocinha because of its strategic location,” said Cano, who directs the university’s violence analysis program. “It also confirms that the police’s priority is to secure areas near the high-class neighborhoods and those near where the Olympic events will take place.”
Beltrame said the pacification efforts will now move on to other neighborhoods, including the Mare complex of slums that surrounds a highway linking Rio’s international airport to the downtown area. The road was often the target of armed bandits who prey on business travelers and buses with tourists.
Quality of Life
Authorities in Rio initiated the UPP model in 2008 to improve the quality of life in the city’s 1,000-plus slums. The security initiative has been celebrated across the country, and made one violent neighborhood, Cidade de Deus, safe enough to host a visit by President Barack Obama in March. The late singer Michael Jackson filmed his music video for “They Don’t Care About Us” in Santa Marta, the first slum to be occupied. The state government plans to establish about 20 more units across Rio’s greater metropolitan area.
Members of Rio’s black-clad special police force known as Bope flew the Brazilian and state of Rio flags at a high point in Rocinha yesterday, while local residents clapped and cheered, cable news channel GloboNews showed. The special operations troop, nicknamed “The Skulls,” are featured in the 2007 film “Elite Squad,” which tells the story of Captain Nascimento, Bope’s commander, and his officers as they struggle to control slums riddled with drug gangs and murderers. “Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within,” the film’s sequel, is Brazil’s submission for a 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
While Rio’s violent-crime rate has been declining, it is still steep by world standards. There were 4,767 murders last year in Rio de Janeiro state, which mostly consists of the capital city and its environs, down from 5,793 in 2009. That compares with 536 murders last year in New York City.
Police said on Nov. 9 they caught Nem trying to slip through the cordon they had established around Rocinha. He was found hidden in the trunk of a car, arrested and taken to the high-security Bangu prison in the city’s outskirts after he was interrogated.
“Drug trafficking will still occur in the pacified neighborhoods, but in a less aggressive manner,” said Cano. “They won’t carry around machine guns in the open and exert territorial control, but the drug trade will continue.”