NEW YORK – Two days after warning drug traffickers of an upcoming incursion, Rio de Janeiro’s security forces occupied nine slums of the São Carlos Complex, on February 6. By 8:30 a.m. police officers had raised the flags of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro atop Morro dos Prazeres, signaling their effective take over of the territory.
The operation was part of the government’s ambitious campaign to pacify and regain control of Brazil’s Marvelous City ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. Since 2008, nearly 40 communities have been wrested from criminal groups.
Drug trafficking gangs, which have controlled most of Rio de Janeiro’s 1,000-odd slums for the past three decades, contribute significantly to the city’s high murder rates. According to government figures, there were 4,631 homicides in the metropolitan area in 2008. That is nearly thirteen people a day.
In less than two hours, 846 policemen and marines assisted by 17 armored vehicles swept through the complex. Not a single gunshot was fired and one minor and an outlaw were arrested, along with 650 bags of cocaine, 1.5 kilo of cocaine paste, 235 crack stones, a homemade grenade, weapons and ammunition, the authorities said.
The communities of São Carlos, Fallet/Fogueteiro and Prazeres/Escondidinho are scheduled to receive, respectively, Rio’s 15th, 16th and 17th Police Pacifying Units (UPPs) by July. The special police program is expected to benefit more than 26 thousand people.
While authorities celebrate the operation’s success, Cariocas (natives of Rio de Janeiro city) remain divided over the pacification program.
“Thank God the occupation was peaceful and the community is now safe,” said Elisa Brandão, president of the Residents Association at Morro dos Prazeres. Some residents claimed there was no confrontation because traffickers fled the communities as early as one week before the police arrived.
“The safety of slum dwellers is a priority,” asserted Roberta F., a client associate at JPMorgan Chase. “But how do we expect to bring anyone to justice if we are giving criminals a 48-hours head start?”
For Carolina G., a lawyer in Rio de Janeiro, the situation is increasingly dangerous. “Traffickers are fleeing occupied or soon to be occupied territories and terrorizing residents of other, neglected, areas,” she stated. “I may represent the minority thinking, but I believe we are covering up the symptoms while ignoring the root causes of violence in our city.”
According to the Military Police Chief, Álvaro Garcia, the next step is a thorough search of all houses and corners of the occupied slums for hiding places, weapons and drugs. The measure is greeted with wariness by some Cariocas as evidence of security forces’ corrupt practices abound.
On February 11, the Federal Police launched Operation Guillotine to crack down on gangs formed by civil and military police officers accused of selling weapons to drug traffickers, controlling militias and clandestine games and leaking information of police operations. One group reportedly received up to $60 thousand a month to protect Antonio Bonfim Lopes, the leader of drug trafficking activities in Rocinha, Brazil’s largest and most notorious slum, investigators said.
“It is impossible to advance with the pacification ideal without dealing, simultaneously, with our rotten security forces,” states Carolina. “Otherwise this is a half-plan, doomed to failure.”
The investigation, initiated in September 2009, revealed that instead of arresting drug traffickers, the accused police officers often robbed them. At least nine military and civil police members were caught stealing from residents and drug traffickers of the Penha and Alemão Complexes, the territories pacified by security forces in November 2010.
Officers were caught on tape negotiating with drug traffickers the transfer of weapons and drugs to be left behind in Alemão. Among the 27 policemen currently under custody is the Civil Police’s former undersecretary, Carlos Antonio de Oliveira.