Brazil police take over favela quietly

2014-03-13 20:20
(Picture: AP)

(Picture: AP)

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Rio de Janeiro - Police raised Brazil's flag on Thursday over a crime-ridden shanty town in western Rio, the latest foray in a crackdown on crime ahead of this year's football World Cup.

A convoy of armoured vehicles, carrying some 270 military police, met no resistance after moving into the area before sunrise - although some residents had set up barricades of trash, piles of wood and, in one case, a sofa to slow their progress.

By afternoon, police said they had made nine arrests and confiscated a stash of guns and drugs.

Vila Kennedy, named after the former US president, has been the scene of violent clashes between opposing drug trafficking groups living on either side of the Avenida Brasil thoroughfare which bisects the shanty town.

Tensions had risen in recent weeks after one drug ringleader shifted his loyalties to another group, sparking several shoot-outs.

The slum - built in the mid 1960s and home to some 25 000 people - is also heavily impoverished, with little in the way of infrastructure or public services.

So, although many locals welcomed Thursday's police effort, others feared it was just a band-aid that will prove unable to stem their community's larger problems.

"The operation in Vila Kennedy has attained its objective," said Rio security affairs secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame, who explained that 250 police would be posted there permanently.

Colonel Paulo Henrique de Moraes, operations chief of the military police, added that the operation in Vila Kennedy was a first step before installing a police pacification unit (UPP).

Over the past six years, Rio authorities have set up 37 of these pacification units in favelas as part of efforts to crack down on violent crime in advance of the World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Backing up Thursday's 'invasion' force are another 350 officers whose job will be to prevent violence spilling over into neighbouring areas.

Kicking the can?

But some residents expressed doubts as to whether "pacification" could resolve the problems in the favelas, which include not just violence but also poverty and poor facilities.

"The thing is we lack so much - good links with central Rio, schools, medical facilities. You hear political promises. But in Brazil, people never keep their promises," mused taxi driver Antonio, born and bred in Vila Kennedy, who, like others interviewed, asked to be identified only by his first name.

Despite three years dodging gang warfare, Antonio said the street clashes had actually served a positive purpose: they prompted "wider public attention to our problems" and sparked a stronger government response.

"I just wonder if they're not kicking the can further along the road, further out of town," the man, in his late 30s, said.

At the local market, Ana and Joao, a couple running a stall selling sunglasses and cosmetics, were optimistic.

"We've been scared by gunshots at night several times. We think things will improve with the UPP," they ventured.

But off the street, pharmacist Cristina whispered: "I have more doubts than confidence. I wonder how long before we are no longer afraid at night."

The government plans to mount operations in two more favelas before the World Cup starts in June.

Despite Rio's efforts to clean up its image, recent weeks have seen violent crime re-emerge in some economically disadvantaged areas, with 16 police killed since January, three in "pacified" slums.

To date, more than 9 000 police officers have taken up position in 253 favelas.

As police proudly raised the Brazilian flag in Vila Kennedy, one officer urged residents to be patient.

"It's a long-term presence that is needed. It's about getting hold of the youngest and educating them. It's a process that needs to last at least several years," said the 21-year-old military policeman, who gave his name as Edson.

Read more on:    world cup 2014  |  brazil
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