Rio de Janeiro’s Top Cop Resigns as Firefights Roil City

  • Jose Mariano Beltrame led expansion of favela police forces
  • Rio crime on the rise as state government runs out of funds

Rio de Janeiro state’s security secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame tendered his resignation as clashes between police and drug traffickers escalated, casting further doubt on the future of his landmark program to secure the city’s favelas.

Firefights between traffickers and police raged throughout Monday in the Cantagalo and Pavao-Pavaozinho favelas that rise up behind Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. They were among the first favelas to receive one of the 38 pacification units during Beltrame’s tenure. Nearby businesses remained shuttered Tuesday morning as police from other units came to reinforce the area. Cidade de Deus, another pacified favela in Rio de Janeiro, was also the setting for shootouts over the past few days.

Police in Copacabana after a firefight, on Oct. 10.

Photographer: Fabio Motta/Agencia Estado via AP Photo

Beltrame handed his resignation letter to Rio’s acting governor Francisco Dornelles on Monday, according to the governor’s office. His replacement, Roberto Sa, will take over next week.

Beltrame oversaw the so-called pacification of favelas since taking office in 2007, and his resignation had already been widely expected following the Olympics. The promise of reclaiming favelas lost to drug traffickers has been in retreat in recent years, particularly as Rio state approaches financial ruin. In June it declared a state of fiscal calamity, and received a federal bailout exclusively for security ahead of the Olympics. Those funds may dry up as soon as this month, according to the state finance secretariat.

In addition to financial constraints, Rio faces a leadership vacuum with Beltrame resigning and the elected governor out of office since March to receive chemotherapy, according to Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarape Institute, a Rio-based security think tank.

“The various drug trafficking factions are challenging the UPP, testing its vastly diminished capabilities,” Muggah wrote in an e-mail, referring to the pacification program. “Many of the areas once ‘secured’ are now coming under threat. We´re seeing a growing level of open confrontations between factions and police. There is also a heightened level of impunity for street crime.”

Emerging signs of decay in security have left Rio’s residents fearing a return to the bad old days of the 1990s. Drug traffickers fleeing the Rocinha favela on Tuesday provoked a partial shutdown of the course at the Gavea Golf and Country Club, whose patrons include former central bank chief Arminio Fraga, local media Globo reported. Community watchdog Alerta Gavea confirmed the story, citing a resident, while the club itself declined to comment.

More than 40 percent of people surveyed in 20 favelas ahead of the Olympics believed Beltrame’s pacification program would end after the Games, according to a poll released July 5. Half the 2,000 people surveyed by the Getulio Vargas Foundation and the CRISP crime center at the Minas Gerais Federal University said life improved since pacification began.

Homicides had been coming down in Rio in the years leading up to the Olympics, in particular due to the installation of pacification units. In the first eight months of 2016, however, 3,224 people were murdered, up 31 percent year-on-year, according to data from Rio’s public security institute.

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